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At Duluth's Chinese Dragon, owner keeps restaurant afloat despite worker shortage

The downtown restaurant is open every day of the week and on every major holiday besides Christmas Day and Thanksgiving. Owner Fong “Jenny” Tang is usually the host, server and cook.

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Fong Tang finishes up an order of Szechuan tofu out of the Chinese Dragon kitchen in Duluth on Nov. 8, 2021. Peyton Haug / Duluth News Tribune
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It’s just around 11 p.m., and Fong “Jenny” Tang scaled the steep roads of Duluth in her Honda SUV. Feeling stale from a long night of closing up at her restaurant, Chinese Dragon, she was eager to get home and rest. The roads were quieter than usual for a fall night, which allowed her the space to fix her gaze on the waxing moon. Sometimes, she doesn’t mind being a night owl — nighttime is often the only time she can be still.

The night became a little too still. Bang!

Tang came to a screeching, involuntary stop as her SUV hurled into a car parked in the middle of the road. Airbags deployed and the front bumper completely caved into the grill of her car. All the 66-year-old could think about was how she was going to get back to work in the morning. Potential injuries? An afterthought.

She found her way to the restaurant the next day via the city bus. She has been taking the bus to and from work since the incident a few weeks ago. When asked if she visited the hospital, she laughed and said: “No time. No money.”

Looking back, Tang finds humor in the situation.

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“Of course, I hit the car on the way home from work, and not on the way to work,” she said. If she would’ve hit the car on the way into the shop, then perhaps she finally could have gotten some daytime hours to herself.

“Who am I kidding? I still would have probably come in,” she added.

Based on what the regulars at Chinese Dragon have to say about Tang’s work schedule, she wasn’t joking.

“Fong is one of the only people I know that would’ve come into work the next day after being in a car accident,” Tony Tarnowski said.

Not only is Tang the owner of the business, but she is also the host, the server, the cook and everything in between. With some help from her eldest of two daughters, Melisa Tang, she practically runs the entire restaurant on her own. In addition, Chinese Dragon, located downtown at 108 E. Superior St., remains open every day of the week and on every major holiday besides Christmas Day and Thanksgiving.

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The small, plastic kitchen stool found behind the checkout counter where Fong Tang takes her short breaks in between orders at the Chinese Dragon in Duluth on Nov. 8, 2021. Peyton Haug / Duluth News Tribune

The current labor shortage, both nationally and locally in Duluth, is partially responsible for Tang's rigorous schedule. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, she hasn’t been able to hire any employees. A combination of what she describes as her “unapproachable” demeanor and the high burnout rate in the service industry are what she believes are responsible for the lack of staff.

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According to a survey conducted in 2017 by a networking service, the Alternative Board, the phenomenon of small-business owners working overtime is becoming common. It concluded 84% of business owners are working over 40 hours per week, and one in every 10 feels “continuously overwhelmed by their responsibilities.”

“I can be unapproachable because I can’t speak English fluently,” she said.

Though she says this with a smile and a shrug, she also shared that at times, people become frustrated with her on the phone and just hang up. She said she often wonders how much business she has missed out on due to those being “impatient” with her accent.

Tang’s first languages are Mandarin and Cantonese. She was born in China in 1955 and lived there until she was 26, when she decided to move to the U.S. after visiting her brother, who was residing in San Francisco. Shortly after, in 1985, she moved to Duluth to help her other brother start his restaurant, which was Chinese Garden at the time. Though she is able to speak conversational English, she never had the time to learn how to read and write the language.

Tang had a busy year in 1985. Not only was she helping out her brother, whose business was later bought out and torn down for parking, and building the foundations of her own business, she also gave birth to her eldest daughter, Melisa.

Tang’s daughters are largely responsible for her unwavering work ethic. Anna Tang, the youngest of the two, is in her residency at the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Medicine — tuition that Tang does everything in her power to fund.

In addition to Tang’s daughters, people like Tony Tarnowski and his partner, Liza Tarnowski, are part of the reason why Tang will still always find her way to work in the morning. The two actually had their first date at Chinese Dragon more than 35 years ago.

“We kept inching towards each other in our geography lecture at UMD,” Liza Tarnowski recalled. “Moving one seat closer to each other every day there was class.”

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“Yep. Until finally, I worked up the courage to ask Liza to dinner at Chinese Dragon. It was quite new at this point, and there wasn’t as diverse cuisine in Duluth at the time, so I thought it would impress her,” Tony added.

Since then, the couple has been returning to the restaurant multiple times a week. When they arrive, it’s almost like they’re still two college students who are visiting their mom at home. Grabbing the newspaper Tang leaves out every day, Liza Tarnowski will pour herself a cup of coffee in the back. Meanwhile, Tony Tarnowski chats with Tang in the kitchen and then makes himself comfortable in the scarlet-red window booth where they sit every time.

The relaxed, informal ambiance of the restaurant is something rare to find in the increasingly modernized Duluth area. The online reviews use descriptions like “circa tired 1963” and “down-home” to describe the elements of the shop, like the ivory-white wallpaper has sketches of farm animals and the deep, velvet-red chairs and curtains. As confirmed by Tang’s eldest daughter, Melisa, the interior design has not been updated since the restaurant opened in the mid-1980s.

And according to Tang, the restaurant won’t be changing soon.

Because of online ordering platforms like DoorDash, the restaurant was able to stay afloat during the pandemic. On weekends, her busiest time, Tang will spend over 12 hours at the restaurant to keep up with the online, takeout and in-house orders. But despite her reluctant humor, it seems like she wouldn’t trade her lifestyle for anything.

Upon being asked about retirement and the future of Chinese Dragon, she referred to a decade-old, debunked rumors about an extension of a hotel that was allegedly going to lead to the demolition of the historic building:

“That is when I will retire, when they tear the building down,” she said.

This story was updated at 8:17 a.m. Dec. 20 to correct the spelling of Melisa Tang's name. The story was originally posted at noon Dec. 15. The News Tribune regrets the error.

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