Full disclosure, everyone. I practice a vegan diet. I often forego mentioning it because of puzzled faces and questions that follow. “Are you allergic to meat and dairy? Is your family vegan, too? Don’t you miss eating meat?” (The answers are ‘no.’) In the East Texas landscape of Tex-Mex and barbecue, finding a quick bite for lunch can be challenging.
Enter China Star Express in Westwood shopping center on the Loop and Highway 31. A couple of times a week, I leave my job at Literacy Council of Tyler and head there, on my way to tutoring French or meeting with someone for the Loop. I have become endeared to this small, local eatery. I chat with the cooks and servers, all of whom know my usual order. I enjoy a few minutes of free Wi-Fi on my laptop between bites.
I arrived at China Star yesterday evening, off my usual schedule. The chairs and tables were stacked, but a few customers getting takeout lined up along the buffet. The owner, Vincent Zheng, is a tall man, quick to smile, and always moving. He paused from ringing up customers, calling to cooks and massaging his hands with sanitizer to speak to me. Here is his story in his own words.
“I am Vincent Zheng, owner of China Star Express. I moved to Tyler in 2006 from Shreveport, La. I didn’t want to be around the casinos, so I moved here. I started China Star in 2013. Before it was a restaurant, the space was a video store.
I have four employees. I have to think about them. I have told them, ‘if you want to go home, I understand.’ I would rather be home myself, but I am concerned about my employees.
Everyone is scared and staying at home [because of coronavirus]. Business has dropped a lot since Tuesday. With no dining, there isn’t much business. There are several schools in the area — Jones Elementary and Boshears Center, Peete Elementary and John Tyler High School. With school out, I have lost a lot of customers. I can continue on like this for maybe four or five weeks. I hope I won’t have to shut down. I hope that people can come back in April. My big concern is whether we can cover everything. We are running a business. I can say I tried. I tried my best. I have two school-age sons.
Our family customers are usually the same people. During lunch time, we normally have teachers and other workers. For dinner, there are mostly families, parents coming in after a long day at work who want to pick up something to eat for them and their kids.
My family is here. My wife’s family is still in China. They call her every day, checking in. ‘Is everybody okay, is everybody safe?’ And they ask, ‘Why not copy China? Why not lock it all down?’ If they want to lock down the city, I’m okay with that. It’s for everyone’s safety.”
Here, I looked at Vincent and interjected. “Americans don’t like to be told what to do.” Vincent chuckled and nodded.
“That’s called freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of everything. In China, they have done a good job. I say ‘well done.'”
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