Coming Clean: 5 questions with Mike Wong of Oriential Wok

This November will mark 40 years since Mike Wong opened the Oriental Wok restaurant that would soon become a household name and source of many fond memories for Greater Cincinnati families.

“We only called it Oriental Wok when we were recommending it to someone,” says patron Kelly Danner via the “Share Your Oriental Wok Story” thread on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “We called it Wong’s because it’s not just a restaurant, but truly a family restaurant.”

In another post celebrating the July 4th holiday, Wong himself says, "When my own country didn't give me a chance, America did. I will always be grateful."

Patriotism and community pride are two characteristics that Wong is well known for, according to his daughter Suzanna Wong, who manages the restaurant’s community relations.

“He really is doing this for the right reasons. He loves his country and his community and wants to make it better,” she says. “We get former restaurant employees all the time who have gone on to become doctors and lawyers. Now they send their kids to work here because they want them to benefit from Mr. Wong’s famous work ethic.”

Recently, Mr. Wong reflected with Soapbox on the friends he’s made in 40 years in the Tristate and his hopes for the future of Oriental Wok.

1. What's your next big move?
You’re asking an old man! My next big move is trying to slow down just a little. I’ve spent my whole life working to build my business. It’s been 40 years since we opened Oriental Wok, unbelievable! So, my next big move is actually pretty hard for me because I enjoy my work so much. I’d like to do more traveling with my wife, Helen. I’m proud that my daughters and sons-in-law chose to join the restaurant business. It’s a tough business but it’s been good to me and my family. It’s rewarding to see a second generation’s ideas and even my grandkids are working in the business. I planted a tree so my kids and grandkids can enjoy the fruit!

2. What's been your luckiest break?
When the U.S. ambassador signed my visa to come to America, I was so excited to finally get a chance to see the greatest country in the world! Two weeks later, I left Hong Kong and headed for Honolulu on Waikiki beach. Three weeks later, I was at the Golden Gate and then Vegas. And finally, Cincinnati. It was the beginning of a new adventure and opportunity for me. The people were so kind. That’s why I knew I had to bring my family here. My U.S. visa changed my whole life.

3. What's been your biggest setback?
In the beginning, I would say language, especially English slang and learning American cultural customs. My first job was cooking in a Chinese kitchen here, but I worked in the front of the house and took any chance I could to interact with guests to learn English. Luckily, my new American friends were helpful and taught me about American culture. They even showed me how to cook Thanksgiving dinner and celebrate July 4th! I’m still throwing a big party every Independence Day because it’s an important day for me. I am very proud to be an American citizen.

4. Why is Cincinnati the right city?
Fifty years ago, there were very few Chinese immigrants here. My American neighbors were very welcoming. They showed me American hospitality and culture. They called our two daughters “China dolls.” I was excited to try Western food. My new American neighbors taught me how to make hamburgers, hot dogs and even Caesar salad. In turn, we taught them how to cook fried rice and egg rolls. In a smaller city like Cincinnati, I was able to get to know my new community faster.

5. Give a shout out to three other locals doing good things.
- Jim Elkus at Bolero Fine Menswear on Vine Street. His selection of men’s clothing is one of a kind. His customer service is top notch. Every day, people compliment my shirts and jackets and they are all from Jim’s shop. He keeps me looking good!

- CAM Asian Market in Evendale. When I came to Cincinnati 50 years ago, it was very hard to find Chinese produce and products. Now, you can find authentic Asian foods and snacks right here in Evendale. The manager, Tiger, will help you find what you need. In fact, he carries our own Oriental Wok gourmet sauces at his store.

- Jean Robert de Cavel brings French culture to this great city. He works hard and cooks French food for everyone to enjoy. We are from opposite sides of the world but find friendship right here in Cincinnati.

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Read more articles by Hannah Purnell.

Hannah Purnell is a lifelong Northern Kentuckian who writes extensively about regional issues related to arts and culture, politics and economic development.