By Audrey Edwards
Special to the Washington Post
Saturday, June 24, 2006
The amber glow of the wall lamps still dimly light the China Doll Gourmet Restaurant. Its front door remains unlocked. But there is no lunch crowd having its regular fill of stir-fried Chinese broccoli and Cantonese-style shredded chicken chow mein.
"Sorry, we're closed," Emma Lee, the restaurant's general manager, calls out to a couple that strolls in.
After almost five decades, the restaurant in the District's Chinatown closed Sunday. The Lee family sold the building in the 600 block of H Street NW to a developer, and everyone plans to retire.
With the closing, Chinatown lost an institution, and the family lost a place that over the years has been practically a home to them. Twelve-hour days were routine.
"If I don't come to work, I don't see my family," said Yennie Lee, 53, the assistant general manager and the youngest of five siblings.
The Lee family had run the China Doll since 1969.
Davis Lee came to the United States from Canton, China, when he was 13 to be with his father and uncle in Gary, Ind. Lee served in the military and was stationed in Jacksonville, Fla., during World War II.
Later he ran a wholesale grocery business, selling bean sprouts, before buying the China Doll.
He and his wife, Tom Lin Lee, had four daughters and one son.
Over the years, the family developed broad and deep ties to the community. Linda Lee, 66, who married Davis Lee's son, Toon Lee, ran the former Hunan Chinatown restaurant in a building she owned across the street from the China Doll. She leased that building two years ago to a Sun Trust Bank branch.
The family had a home at the corner of Sixth and H streets NW, where the Wah Luck House, which houses mostly Chinese immigrants, now stands. Emma Lee helps senior citizens who live there, and Linda Lee is a board member for the Washington Convention Center.
"The community here have become family," said Yennie Lee. "People in the neighborhood call me mom, and I have 'adopted' the entire neighborhood."
Tucked between the Lei Garden restaurant and the mayoral campaign headquarters of D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5), the restaurant was where Lee family members played out key moments of their lives.
It led to Yennie Lee meeting her future husband, Tom Vailikit, who worked as a host at the restaurant next door. She said he would come over every day to ask whether she wanted to buy the newspaper. They married in 1973 and were given a wedding banquet at the China Doll by her family.
The Lees said they were approached many times by developers eager to buy the China Doll's two-story building.
When an offer came late last year, they agreed to sell.
"Everybody was ready to retire, and we want to enjoy life while we're still healthy," said Emma Lee, 57. "It's more important than making a dollar. It's time to let go and enjoy the rest of our lives."
Linda Lee said the building is expected to be part of a retail, office and condominium project. The family declined to name the buyer.
Nowadays, the only bustle at the China Doll involves packing and cleaning. A restaurant has purchased most of the equipment, but individuals walked in this week, buying a few items here and there.
Dishes were neatly stacked on the bar and tables, where customers used to sit, and cooking utensils and silverware were packed in boxes. Offers have been made for the industrial-size stoves.
A laughing Buddha statue still greeted those who entered -- but only one bag of disposable chopsticks remained; the rest had been given away as souvenirs.
And the only meals eaten in the China Doll until the family hands over the keys probably will be carryout: roast beef sandwiches and Cokes, one day this week.
Retirement plans for Emma Lee include playing piano and visiting a grandson in Arizona. And only now, with the restaurant sold, will she learn to cook.
"Someone else always cooked, or we would have carryout," she said. "Once in a while, I'd cook barbecue chicken and spaghetti -- because when you eat Chinese food all day, you don't want to go home and eat the same thing."
But this week, customers still wandered in, often to chat one last time and say goodbye.
Some, such as Officer Rodney E. Miller of the Asian Liaison Unit of the D.C. police, had come to the China Doll every day, until he went on a diet.
"It wasn't just about coming here to eat," he said. "Sometimes they'd share food that they cooked for themselves. And people will never have this again. It's only memories, but something you can't take away."