By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
The lowercase letters displayed underneath the restaurant’s name read “perry ko’s restaurant.”
It’s Perry Ko’s legacy that customers of his South China restaurant, located in the Newport Hills district of Bellevue, come to honor. While there, they can also order garlic chicken wings and tomato beef chow mein, the two most popular main dishes, to make their overall experience even better.
His sons, Sid and Dan Ko, are the current co-owners of South China. They proudly continue their father’s tradition of being a staunch supporter of the Asian American community and proving that social entrepreneurship is good for everyone.
It all began with their father’s close friendship with a Nisei (a second generation Japanese American).
“His best friend would always come over and help him however he could, and I think through that connection, [many from] the Japanese community were coming up to the restaurant that first year (1979),” said Dan, 56.
In appreciation of his best friend’s help, Perry Ko’s first community event was an anniversary celebration and benefit dinner for the Seattle Keiro nursing home, held in 1981.
“It was a way to honor his friend and to thank the community. And, for us, we’ve been able to see the loyalty, too, from the Japanese community. We’ve been in business for 31 years,” Dan said. “When he did that one for the Japanese community, he had said if the Chinese community had had a nursing home, he would have done a dinner for them, too.”
“It just grew from there. Every year, we started getting bigger,” added Sid, 57. “Dan and I continued it with Kin On, the Chinese nursing home.”
Getting bigger involved adding summer gatherings, where guests dressed up and performed as their favorite singers — Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Diana Ross, just to name a few. “There were those guys dressed up as the Pips. I remember that one. And Tom Cruise, in ‘Risky Business,’ yeah, I did that,” Dan said, laughing.
The Ko brothers have also supported the Wing Luke Asian Museum and the Asian Cultural Center. They sponsored a total of 16 golf tournaments before moving their restaurant from Seattle to Bellevue.
Dan acknowledges the Asian American community’s unique response and admits, “That’s the thing that makes the dinners so successful. It’s just not us. We’re just blessed to have a place, and I think we put in our heart to do something with it. The community steps up and supports it with volunteers. … Businessmen in their suits, they’ll just show up, throw aprons on, and help bus tables.”
Their first food service jobs were in Chinese restaurants in Seattle’s International District: Sid — age 13 — at Four Seas and Dan — age 14 — at Art Louie’s. When they graduated from college, they decided to pursue different careers.
In 1977, their father wanted to start another business after selling his Cathay Palace restaurant in Bellevue. Two years later, he bought South China, a restaurant opened by Hing Lee and located in Seattle’s Beacon Hill.
Dan was working full-time as a commercial loan officer at Seafirst Bank in 1979. When their father was diagnosed with cancer in 1982, he said, “That’s when I had to make the choice. He wasn’t well enough to run the restaurant, and it was an opportunity for us to be able to support our mom.” Perry Ko died two years later.
“I guess it’s the way we were raised — to take care of family first — and that was the priority.”
Sid, who worked as Bonney-Watson Funeral Home’s managing director for the six years prior, said, “I think it was a hard choice for him. He was taking off from his career, so he had to make a sacrifice.”
Jean Geong, a South China waitress for more than 30 years, comes to work on her days off to “help cut American broccoli, cauliflower, and celery, take the food out, or clean the tables” for the Ko’s benefit dinners. She said about the Kos, “Every year, they get an increase in the number [of people attending]. The dinner for the Seattle Keiro nursing home got over 1,500. For Kin On, it’s over 1,000 tickets sold every year.”
Dan says his Christian faith guides him as he continues to help those in need in his community.
“We’re a part of this community,” Sid emphasized. “He [his father, Perry] just planted the seeds of giving back to the community in some small way. We just wanted to do something, but we didn’t know how it was going to grow and what would happen.” (end)
South China is located at 5606 119th Ave. S.E., Suite A, in Bellevue. The restaurant’s phone number is 425-643-5085.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.