Rizhao city is located on the coast of Shan-dong province near Qingdao, home of the famous brewery. Shandong has produced many famous figures, some mythical like Wu Song who reportedly killed a tiger with a single blow, others more real though still larger than life like Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei’s chancellor during the fall of the Han dynasty, Confucius who’s synonymous with Chinese culture and also his prized pupil Mencius.
When Yuen-chwan Sheu was born in Rizhao, the count of souls tallied no where near its current 2.8 million inhabitants. Yuen-chwan was born the day after the Lunar New Year celebrating the year of the snake on February 9, 1929. At the time Rizhao was organized as a county. He was born into a different universe. His was a universe where his parents fully expected a restoration of the emperor. The new Republican government appeared to be just another anomaly among many in the thousands of years of dynastic rule. Luxury transportation in Rizhao in 1929 was a horse drawn carriage. From this beginning in this coastal rural county Yuen-chwan Sheu’s life would span two continents, three countries and four languages. Though he never mastered English, Yuen-chwan did master Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and a smattering of Russian. He would outlive the usefulness of a horse, learn to drive a car, come to love to watch John Wayne western movies on television, and contribute to an American life.
By 1940, it must have seemed as if the world was coming to an end in Rizhao. Eighteen years and still no restoration of the emperor in sight, and Japanese invaded China. Yuen-chwan’s father died from heartbreak, betrayed by a kinsman over an investment in the newly developing German influenced city of Qingdao. A few weeks thereafter, Yuen-chwan’s mother devotedly followed her husband, also dying from heartbreak while embracing her eleven year old son on her matrimonial bed.
One fateful day that Yuen-chwan missed school, Japanese bombers demolished his school. His paternal aunt who had taken charge of his care decided to send him to the relative safety of Korea. The Korean peninsula was solidly under the administration of Japanese as an imperial colony. He was to join his former warlord uncle, a younger brother of his father. His uncle had fled China many years prior to escape Chiang Kai-shek’s troops during that general’s Northern Expedition. Yuen-chwan’s uncle expected a battle, but that battle never materialized as Chiang
Kai-shek’s march into the northern provinces of China proved to be more show than substance, and the generalissimo instead brokered deals with local warlords along his pathway to Manchuria.
Yuen-chwan accustomed to spoiling as the only son of a prominent landowner did not last long in his authoritarian uncle’s military household. In his teenage years he set-off on his own.
Moment of Destiny
During the late 1940s, Yuen-chwan settled into a job at a prestigious Chinese restaurant at Seoul. Still a teenager, he was afforded greater responsibility beyond what was normal for his young years. Two things elected him for special treatment, his previous education (though he attended only the equivalent years of the 7th grade) prepared him better than his many Chinese compatriots in Korea, and his comparatively tall height of 5’11” made him seem more authoritative than his years would suggest.
Leading up to the Korean War, Yuen-chwan in his role as a manager and maitre d’ of the restaurant would broker meetings between the political and military elite of Korea. His position in the restaurant afforded him a birds eye view of developing history. Once war broke, he took to the road again. During the initial invasion Yuen-chwan made a moral decision that defined the rest of his life and how he would be regarded by anybody he came into contact with.
A number of Chinese refugees bribed South Korean soldiers to transport them in a military truck. As the makeshift caravan made it through the countryside, the soldiers became impatient with the slow time they were making burdened by their human cargo. The young soldiers stopped the transport in the middle of the countryside and ordered the Chinese cargo to unload.
Everybody complied except for Yuen-chwan. This young man just barely twenty-one years old stopped with one foot in the truck and one foot out, straddling a border between death and survival. He refused to move. There were others among the Chinese refugees who could speak Korean, but all were silent except for Yuen-chwan.
He admonished the soldiers saying that they had a moral obligation to escort the people to safety in some town or city. He declared that to leave them in the countryside with North Korean soldiers in pursuit was to condemn every man, woman and child to death. After a tense standoff, this unarmed man convinced the soldiers to reload the refugees. He won out by a force of moral conviction. This conviction would serve him in life and make it easy for him to make friends later in life. That Yuen-chwan did not share a language with a stranger never stopped him from making a new friend.
Yuen-chwan survived the Korean War, and restarted an almost Quixotic journey across Korea. Before leaving Korea, he had lived in every region except for Gangwon-do.
In 1959, he met and fell in love with So Yuk-lan. A bride normally out of the reach of a Chinese resident of Korea. She was born of a distinguished lineage affiliated with the Park clan tracking back to Hyeokgeose of Shilla. During the tumult of the Korean War, she was dislocated and never recovered the comfort of pre-war days. An aunt plotted to marry her off to an old man as a way to jettison a mouth from her dinner table. Yuen-chwan rescued her from this perilous fate and the two married without any of the bride’s family in attendance because the groom was Chinese.
In 1960, Kennedy’s ascendance to the presidency of the US inspired Yuen-chwan and he believed with Park Chung-hee’s parallel ascendancy to power in South Korea and the birth of his first child a daughter named Ying-li that all things were possible. When during the Park regime his economic and political situation became harder, Yuen-chwan prepared his family for an epic adventure to immigrate to the US sponsored by his kinsman Chuan-hsiu Sheu in Rochester, NY. Yuen-chwan moved his family from Gyeong-sang-do in the southeast of South Korea to Youngdeung-pu in Seoul and settle in with old time friends the Lius to await the issue of visas from the US Embassy. While in Seoul awaiting immigration to the US, a son Jia-hao was born.
Visas finally arrived after several years of waiting. In the spring of 1973, the Sheu family embarked on a plane flight destination Seattle, the family’s first port of entry in the US before continuing on to the final destination of Rochester, NY.
After only a year in Rochester, Yuen-chwan felt restless. The fewest days of sunlight of any US city of the lower 48 probably did not help. Yuen-chwan accepted the invitation of his kinsman Ching-fang Hsu and relocated his family to Seattle. Chuan-hsiu anxious to keep his relative in Rochester sent Yuen-chwan without his family on a plane to Seattle, hoping that the remainder of the family remaining in Rochester would entice Yuen-chwan to return to New York. However after a few months, the rest of the family undertook the trip in Greyhound buses across the width of America in a week-long journey before reuniting in Seattle.
The family moved to East Fir Street, in the HUD housing projects of Yesler Terrace. Later in the 1980s this would become the epicenter of the crack epidemic in Seattle. Early years in the projects weren’t unhappy, during their residence here Ying-li, now proudly bearing the English name of Eunice (provided her by Ching-fang’s son Ronald) finished Franklin High School four years after the famous jazz musician Kenny G. Jia-hao now Donald, also named by Ronald, attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary and later was bused to Seward Elementary as part of the Magnet program.
Many of the early years saw Yuen-chwan traveling to work in San Francisco and Tacoma, remitting money back to his family. One of his earliest jobs was at Greek diner on Pill Hill as a dishwasher, where he’d return just a few blocks down the street to pass away at Harborview Hospital so many years later on April 17, 2009.
After years of saving and scrimping Yuen-chwan purchased a restaurant property in West Seattle. Previously trust in business had served Yuen-chwan well. This trust was poorly served when a restaurant equipment supplier he relied on provided him unusable and unmarketable equipment. Without equipment to operate a restaurant, and since the equipment was inoperable there was no opportunity to remarket the equipment to recoup any of his money, Yuen-chwan could not open the restaurant. With savings spent, Yuen-chwan started all over again. Fortunately starting over was a habit easily revisited.
After one non-start, Yuen-chwan did not give-up and he purchased the Teapot Cafe on Capitol Hill on East John Street, across from Group Health. There he renamed the restaurant Tai Yuen, meaning heavenly garden. He personally painted the walls stained with thirty years of grime, and laid new carpet. Before the inauguration of the restaurant, a surprise arrived in 1977, Ying-mei, the third child was born to Yuen-chwan and Yuk-lan when the couple were aged 48 and 42 respectively. Later Ying-mei would take the initiative and rename herself Ammie.
Three years of success including many favorable reviews in local press allowed the family to move from the HUD projects to Seattle’s northend where Yuen-chwan purchased a home for $71,000 on 179th Street. Donald and Ammie enrolled in well regarded Shoreline schools and the family continued to prosper until Yuen-chwan was interrupted with early heart trouble.
With Yuen-chwan’s heart trouble came a decline in the family’s financial fortune, but his fine work as a father saw both Donald and Ammie finish college despite the family’s diminished prospects. Donald graduated from Columbia University with a BA in history and Ammie graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in sociology.
On Friday, April 17, 2009, Yuen-chwan passed away in the presence of his daugh-
ter Ammie and his son Donald, on Donald’s birthday.
ABOUT DON SHEU
An entrepreneur, Don merged his DotCom here2listen.com with a subsidiary of ValueOptions, one of the largest Managed Behavioral Health Organizations in the US.
He contributed towards building Riviera Pools in Arizona into one of the top 20 swimming pool companies in the world within 18 months.
Currently Don is authoring a executive coaching program called Heroship. This program exams a client’s biography for similarities to heroic narratives prevalent throughout world literature, and teaches clients to repeat those patterns for continued success in life and work. In homage to his father, he is currently writing a feature film script titled Arizona. The script includes a principal character written for Dr. Ken Jeong, of whom Don adores as a performer.
Don co-founded and leads two non-profits — Enviroyen and Money School. Enviroyen creates markets to account for carbon responsibility on a personal level and a social network that allows carbon users to compare personal habits and carbon footprints. Money School competes blow-by-blow with alternative finance companies on the street corners of poorly served communities. It provides a financial ecology sorely lacking for many Americans.
Though voted most likely to go to jail by his high school class, Don earned a G.E.D. in New York state, matriculated at Columbia University and earned a BA in history. Don advises anybody considering law school to first work as a legal assistant at a leading firm.