85 years old and at ‘em: Inside the early mornings, and bonds, that make Jeng Chi special


This story is part of Asian American Bustle, an occasional series publishing during Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

On most mornings, while Richardson’s Chinatown lays dormant, Jeng Chi’s kitchen rings with the clangs of metal pans and the squeaks from the gears of a decades-old dough roller.

Why This Story Matters
Asian American Bustle is The Dallas Morning News’ community-based reporting effort examining the development, culture and future of Asian American enclaves in North Texas. Over a few months, two reporters, two photographers and an editor spent several days in the communities’ gathering spaces to meet the public and hear their stories.

The wheels of the cart Yuan Hai “Papa” Teng uses to move ingredients rattle against the kitchen floor tiles as the 85-year-old moves from station to station, prepping different items.

Francisco Teng, who acted as an interpreter for a conversation with The Dallas Morning News, said his father comes to the restaurant several times a week — sometimes as early as 1 a.m. — to prepare the kitchen. The work isn’t easy, but Papa Teng says he feels more alive when he’s working at the restaurant.

“When I’m at home, I feel tired and sleepy. When I’m here working, I feel like I can carry a 50-pound bag of flour,” he said in Chinese.

Yuan Hai Teng, co-founder of Jeng Chi restaurant, prepares dough to make buns at his...
Yuan Hai Teng, co-founder of Jeng Chi restaurant, prepares dough to make buns at his restaurant, Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Richardson’s Chinatown.(Chitose Suzuki / Staff Photographer)

Francisco is the second Teng in the family to own Jeng Chi, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants of Richardson’s Chinatown — among the longest-running Asian American enclaves in North Texas. He and his wife, Janelle, own and manage the restaurant. Papa and Francisco’s mother, Mei “Mama” Teng, are technically retired, but still loveworking at the business. In total, nine members of Francisco’s family, including his wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and nephew, work at the restaurant.

Much has changed since the restaurant opened in May 1990.

“This thing, all the good, the bad, the ugly; it’s a lot of work, there’s screaming and arguing,” Francisco said. “But there’s also this human connection. It becomes this groove that makes the place come alive.”

Francisco said he, his mother and one of his brothers moved to Richardson in 1985. His father, oldest brother and younger sister were in Brazil, where his family owned and operated a candy factory — also named Jeng Chi.

Teng’s family moved to an apartment complex near the intersection of U.S. Highway 75 and Spring Valley Road, and his mother got a job about a mile away at a Chinese grocery store near West Polk Street.

To make extra cash, his mother convinced the owner of the store to allow her to sell pork and vegetable bao during the weekends, Francisco said. He recalled how he used to help his mother make the steamed buns on Fridays after coming home from school. The duo would package the bao in plastic bags.

Jeng Chi restaurant co-founder Mei Teng, makes pork steamed dumplings at her restaurant,...
Jeng Chi restaurant co-founder Mei Teng, makes pork steamed dumplings at her restaurant, Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Richardson. (Chitose Suzuki / Staff Photographer)

“I mean back in the day, I thought it was just natural. It was exciting in a way. We all worked hard to come up with something, because we were very poor at that moment,” Francisco said.

His father and the rest of his siblings came to the U.S. in 1989, Francisco said.

The history of Chinese-owned restaurants in North Texas dates back to before the 1960s, but in the late ‘80s, Richardson was becoming a popular destination for a wave of immigrants from Taiwan.

According to a January 1986 clip from The News, there were “not even 600″ people who identified themselves as “Chinese” living in Richardson in 1980. The report examined the rapid growth of the community in the mid-1980s, when some estimated that nearly 10,000 people of Chinese descent lived in Richardson.

In 1990, Mama Tengopened the family’s first restaurant location, which seated four tables in a 1,000-square-foot space.Francisco described it as a time when Richardson’s Chinatown was just starting to take shape.

Nearly all of Jeng Chi’s initial patrons were Chinese-speaking, Francisco said. It was popular for its dough-based menu items and Taiwanese-style dishes.

“It was very simple, humble beginnings, nothing extravagant,” Francisco said. “There was a need for a small, Asian-owned, mom-and-pop restaurant.”

Taking over the family restaurant was a “conscious” decision, Francisco said, but it wasn’t always part of the plan. In the early 2000s, he studied graphic design at the University of North Texas, where he met mentors who helped him land a job at a well-known fashion company, Teng said.

“It was very quiet, there wasn’t this connection between people. I missed the closeness, I missed the churning that happens,” he said.

In 2003, he quit his job in graphic design. After about a year of working part time, Teng said he made the decision to return to the family business.

By then, the modest restaurant at Richardson’s Chinatown had added to its menu to better serve a growing customer base. It had expanded to 3,000 square feet and 25 tables.

“Even when they grew, they didn’t really change their ways… we had maybe a 20% American clientele,” he said. “It had all of the pros of a mom-and-pop and all the cons of a mom-and-pop.”

Jeng Chi restaurant co-founders Yuan Hai Teng and his wife Mei Teng talk at their...
Jeng Chi restaurant co-founders Yuan Hai Teng and his wife Mei Teng talk at their restaurant, Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Richardson. (Chitose Suzuki / Staff Photographer)

The food was good, Francisco said. The environment, however, was not welcoming to business meetings or larger family gatherings. At the turn of the century, Richardson’s Chinatown was growing, and with it, the number of restaurants in the city serving Chinese cuisine. Jeng Chi was still just a “hole in the wall,” Francisco said.

He started working as a pastry chef at the restaurant and went to Taiwan to hone his craft. In addition to helming Jeng Chi’s pastry business, he started sprucing up its interior.

“You need the young blood to come in sometimes — you need to bring new energy,” Francisco said.

In 2013, the business moved to its current 8,300-square-foot space. Francisco implemented a point-of-sale system, added a bar and tried to make the restaurant more welcoming for a family-dining experience. The world around Jeng Chi also started to change.

Richardson’s Chinatown was becoming “more of a central” attraction and not just a gathering place for people of Asian descent, Francisco said. As more of the Chinese-speaking immigrant community moved to areas like Collin County, the restaurant took on a more diverse consumer base.

No matter how big the restaurant has gotten, Francisco said its managers try to preserve some of the good parts of a mom-and-pop shop.

“We still do lunch together,” he said. ”The chefs cook food, and all the employees sit together and eat together. It’s a memory of people being close.”

As someone who married into the family, Janelle Teng has had an up-close look at Francisco’s relationship with Jeng Chi.

“My in-laws, they trust me… and it’s a huge compliment to have these two individuals trust me to guide the business to its success,” Janelle said.

The restaurant has filled a hole in Janelle’s life. Her relatives live in northwestern Iowa and she does not see them often. As a Teng working at Jeng Chi, she seldom feels that void.

“I’m really lucky in that when I married into the family, I really married the family,” Janelle said.

The restaurant has helped the older members of the Jeng Chi family, too.

Mama Teng, 76, said the restaurant is where she can have the feeling of community. For her husband, the restaurant is a place that can keep his mind busy, Mama Teng said.

It was difficult for the couple to make friends in their younger years — they were consumed with keeping the restaurant afloat. Now that they’re retired, some of Mama Teng’s best friends are longtime customers. Rather than watching Korean dramas all day from her couch, Mama Teng says she prefers coming out to greet familiar faces.

“We are old, so spending every day in the house is no good at all for us. We don’t play mahjong, we don’t know how to dance, we don’t do anything,” Mama Teng said. “I have a lot of American and Chinese customers. They always look for me, and if I’m here, they always come inside and talk to me.”

Francisco says he’s thankful for the chance to spend time with his aging parents. He’s reminded of the days he’d watch Mama and Papa work at the candy factory in Brazil.

Francisco Teng, CEO and co-owner of Jeng Chi restaurant, from left, poses for a photo with...
Francisco Teng, CEO and co-owner of Jeng Chi restaurant, from left, poses for a photo with his family, his mother co-founder Mei Teng, his nephew Waiter Kai Teng, his father co-founder Yuan Hai Teng and his wife general manager and co-owner Janelle Teng at their restaurant, Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Richardson. (Chitose Suzuki / Staff Photographer)

“For a long time [I] have been able to work with my parents and have been able to solve problems with them. I get to see my parents go through things many people never will have a chance to see, and that’s precious,” Francisco said. “Most people don’t understand that but I do; that’s the part I enjoy.”

The family has survived health scares, sibling feuds, the pandemic economy and made tremendous sacrifices. Through it all, the Tengs have been able to keep Jeng Chi together.

Maybe, it’s the other way around.

Staff researcher Jennifer Brancato contributed to this article.

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