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How Resilience (And A Viral TikTok) Saved A Vegan Taiwanese Restaurant

Carol Tsang is chef-owner of Green Green Trees, Your Vegan Kitchen in West Covina, California. The vegan Taiwanese restaurant was originally slated to open in 2015, but Tsang’s husband, Charles, became paralyzed that year after a failed spine surgery, and she put the restaurant on hold to become his caretaker until he died in 2020. Charles’ last wish was that Carol open her restaurant, which features a wide variety of comfort foods like soups, bento boxes, and noodles—all made with vegan ingredients. Her children, Quan and Quannie Tsang, coordinate the restaurant’s marketing.

CAROL TSANG: My parents and grandparents had a restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan. So maybe it comes naturally. My father was very kind. If a customer had no money, my father would say, okay, I’ll give it to you for free.

Before I married, I swore I didn’t want to work in a restaurant again. But when I married, my mother-in-law saw that I could cook. She bought a restaurant for me in Taipei, so I didn’t have a choice. After the restaurant had been open for two years, it made more money, but I wanted to leave. My husband Charles said, “Would you mind going to America?” And so in 1989 I followed him to the United States.

When Charles and I started dating, he told me that his dream was to go to America. I said, “Maybe I can support you to go to America. Maybe your dream will come true.” For three years I never bought any clothes or shoes, even though my shoes were broken. I saved up $30,000 to support Charles so he could go to school and get his engineering degree.

QUAN TSANG: Once he finished his degree, my dad got a job offer to work for Ford in Michigan. I think at the time his annual salary was probably under $30,000. It was tough making ends meet. My mom made takeout family meals and stuff. We ended up having to deliver those ourselves. Michigan weather is absolutely terrible, and my mom’s not a very good driver in the first place. You add some snow to that and it’s absolutely terrifying. We’d drive in her big old Buick and slide across roads and hope we don’t hit anything and make those deliveries. She did that for a year or two before we bought a house in Novi, Michigan, and also opened a restaurant there called China Crown.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

Because of how cold the weather is in Michigan, my mom’s asthma really affected her. We needed to do something because as the restaurant was getting busier, my mom’s health was deteriorating. So we made the decision as a family to move to California so we wouldn’t have to deal with cold weather.

We needed to find a way to make money again. My mom opened a restaurant in Fountain Valley, but the location was not very good, so it closed. She tried again in Irvine, this time opening up a smaller place that was part of a food court. It was pretty busy during lunch, but when it came time for dinner there wasn’t much business. So we went back to our old ways of delivering food to local homes. By that time I was able to drive, so I did a lot of deliveries for my mom. After school, I’d go to the restaurant and pick up a bunch of deliveries and finish up around dinnertime.

CAROL: But by 2002, I was still sick. I ended up in the hospital due to my asthma. I said, “My kids are so little, my husband is so handsome, I cannot die early.” I prayed to God, Jesus, and Buddha. “Please, if you rescue my life, in the future I will do more to help people.”

Later, I saw this article about changing your diet to become vegan. It said that if 20 percent of the world population switched to a vegetarian diet, it would be better and safer for the planet. So I became a vegetarian, and it reminded me of my promise to help people. After six months of eating a vegetarian diet, I felt very good and had more energy. I still initially had milk and eggs, but eventually I went fully vegan too.

I later asked my husband if I could go promote vegetarianism in China, and he said yes. I opened a restaurant in Shanghai hoping to help people switch to a vegetarian diet. But my husband missed me—he called me every day for three years. Eventually, Charles found a new job in Shanghai, and a few years after that, I came back to LA to begin working on opening a vegan restaurant here.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

QUAN: My dad’s health wasn’t too great when he went to China, and in Chinese business culture, you often end up eating and drinking a lot. He was always away on business trips, so my mom couldn’t make him any vegan meals.

CAROL: When he stayed home and I cooked him vegan food, he didn’t have any physical problems. Still, we argued about it because he didn’t want to give up meat. He said, “Please don’t try to control me.” I didn’t want to argue anymore, so I let it go. After a year, his health problems came back again. It was very serious.

QUAN: One of the worst health problems was a pinched nerve that was inhibiting his ability to walk. The doctors found it was a pretty bad bone spur in his cervical spine. My dad decided to get surgery in China to fix it, but after he got out of surgery he started losing feeling in his legs and hands. We called an emergency transport to get him out of China and back to Taiwan, but by the time I escorted my dad there, they said it was too late to reverse the damage. They told us to prepare for long-term care.

For three years, I cared for him in Taiwan while my mom worked in China to earn money to pay for his care. When we initially were building out the place that would eventually become Green Green Trees, a contractor took advantage of the fact that my mother was often in China. He scammed her out of $100,000. Everyone was so busy trying to make ends meet that it was hard for us to survive.

So my father did the most courageous thing he could have done. He said, “I have been a burden to the family long enough, so I think it’s time for you guys to let me go.” He stopped eating and drinking.

CAROL: This time was so difficult on everyone. I was thinking of giving up on starting Green Green Trees and focusing on Charles’ care. I offered to sell the restaurant so that I could take care of Charles every day, but he said, “You need to open the restaurant. You’ve wanted this. I’m not going to hold you back from it.”

QUAN: He eventually passed in 2020. He had life insurance and wanted mom to use it as seed money for the restaurant. He said, “Even though I’m leaving, this is my last gift to you.”

CAROL: When I opened the restaurant in 2021, so many people thought I was stupid—so many stores and restaurants have closed, why did I want to open a restaurant? I said, “I don’t know, I just follow God and Buddha.” Even with the money my husband left me, it was still not enough because we had spent so much money on his care and for the construction of the restaurant.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

QUAN: After she first opened, she had a few regulars, but there weren’t as many new customers coming to try out the food.

QUANNIE TSANG: When I was at UCLA, I met Phillip Vu. Our dads passed away around the same time, and I didn’t really know any other people that had experienced that, so we bonded a lot.

After graduation, he decided to pursue the TikTok influencer life, and last year he contacted me with his friend Eli, saying that they really wanted to help out my mom because they knew what our family had been through. Their video went viral, and our Instagram following grew. A lot of the vegan community now understands who we are. It’s really great to see all the support. We’ve gotten over a thousand reviews on Google, and Yelp even tried to shut us down because of “suspicious activity” from of all the new reviews.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

QUAN: I knew that the response to their video would be big, because I looked at some of their previous TikToks, and they were pretty good. Once you see everything that actually went into bringing this restaurant to fruition, it’s hard to not support it, especially when it’s vegan and trying to help the planet.

After Quannie told me about it, I was worried that Mom wouldn’t be able to handle the huge influx of business once this went viral—she holds down the fort pretty much on her own. But she handled it all. The business basically tripled overnight, so my mom had to cook the equivalent of three or four chefs. She set new records at the restaurant—one day she made 300 meals.

Like with anything that’s viral, we got tons of attention that first week. We got customers from all over the place. People drove down from San Francisco, San Diego. They even came from New York and Chicago. People came from everywhere to try out the restaurant, and they really enjoyed it. Since then, it’s become much more steady. The customer base has definitely increased. The restaurant is in a much better position, survival-wise, after the TikTok.

Photo: Eugene Lee.

It’s still been hard because a lot of people aren’t going back to restaurants. It’s extremely hard to hire people. My mom’s stuff is really fairly priced, given that it’s organic and non-GMO—just the cost of the goods we use is extremely high. So for us to try to pay more competitive wages to bring more people on—we wouldn’t be able to survive that. But my mom’s been able to keep doing it on her own, despite the huge spike in business. We’re extremely grateful for Phillip’s video and everything that he’s done for us. It’s great that my mom’s vision and dream can grow.