From war-survivor to the “Don of Chinatown,” how Monica Liu turned her life around through her restaurant business
Among the thousands of prisoners inside the fenced grounds of Rajasthan’s Deoli camp, a nine-year-old girl stood out. Monica Liu’s routine still retained few activities from her pre-confinement days: wake up, bathe her siblings, wash their clothes and feed them. Over the next five years that she spent in captivity — in not one but three prisons — the routine did not change much. Years later, infected by the urge to start something of her own, she finally broke free of the monotony. Today, Liu owns four successful Chinese restaurants across Kolkata — Kim Ling, Mandarin, Beijing and Tung Fong.
Born Leong Sue Yek (her Chinese birth name) in Kolkata to Chinese immigrant parents, Liu moved around a lot as a child. But long before she became a present-day restaurateur, Liu was an eight-year-old helping out her parents at their restaurant in Shillong. She aspired to become a nurse, and trained briefly. But she was married off, and moved to Kolkata soon after.
Over the next five years, after her three children were born, Liu recalls her urge to start something of her own to support her family, considering that her husband’s tannery business wasn’t doing very well either. In 1991, Liu finally rented out her beauty parlour for #2,500 after working for four years. By then, she had her eye on a house that would soon become Kim Ling. She bought the house from her aunt-in-law’s granddaughter.
It was still a rocky road to success, fighting off local goons and negotiating with police officers demanding to see their license often. Liu says that rather than fearing them, she befriended the police. Her courage cannot be appreciated enough, seeing how she dared to keep her restaurant open even during the curfew of the 1992 riots.
In 1993, she bought Mandarin from her cousin brother for about Rs.2 million. Over the next few years, she went on to launch three more restaurants. Despite constant financial help from her friends and parents, the biggest investment so far, she says, was made for starting Tung Fong in 2001. Later in 2013, Mandarin’s second outlet was unveiled on Lake View Road. From earning Rs.600-2,000 every day from each restaurant back in the day to about 250 staff working under her now — Liu has come a long way. Her restaurants can easily host 100-250 foodies now.
All her years of extreme poverty made her both gritty and enterprising. In this competitive industry, she continues to stay true to the original Chinese flavours. As for what’s next on her list, she would like to open more Beijing outlets and perhaps, move into other cities as well. Clearly, when nothing has defeated her spirits so far, it would take a lot more to beat the ‘Don of Chinatown’.