David Leong: A Prosperous Life {1920-2020}

Mr. David Leong, creator of Cashew Chicken Photo courtesy of leongsasiandiner.com.

In 2018 there were fifty four Chinese restaurants in Springfield, Missouri; each and every one of which owes its existence to one man: David Leong.[1]  I have blogged in the past about David Leong and his family’s restaurant Leong’s Asian Diner in Springfield, Missouri.  One week ago today Wing Yin “David” Leong passed away quietly at home, just days short of his 100th birthday.  I met Mr. Leong in December 2018 and that brief conversation left a lasting impression.

David Leong created Cashew Chicken.  If you live in Southwest Missouri, this is not news.  In fact, Mr. Leong’s influence on Chinese cuisine went much farther afield and deeper into the Ozarks.  In 2009, a New York Times  article explained: “In St. Louis and Kansas City, cashew chicken is served “Springfield style,” heralded with provincial categorization like Sichuan or Cantonese. In Springfield, however, cashew chicken accepts no categorization.”[2]  The article went on to say that in Springfield restaurants, from the one in the Bass Pro Shop to the Heritage Cafeteria, offered Cashew Chicken because of its popularity.  When the article was written, Springfield supported 70 Chinese restaurants.

David Leong in World War II

But David Leong’s story does not begin with a restaurant in Springfield.  Wing Yin Leong arrived in the United States in 1940, after making the heartbreaking decision to leave his wife and child in his home province of Guangzhou.  China was already in the midst of war and the United States had strict immigration restrictions for Chinese citizens.  Wing Yin’s father was living in America and encouraged his son to immigrate.  Shortly after arriving, Wing Yin Leong joined the U.S. Army as a cook.  Little did he know that he would be part of the U.S. invasion of Nazi-occupied France on Normandy Beach on D-Day.[3]  Because his given name was difficult for his commanding officer to pronounce, Wing Yin Leong became David Leong.[4]  In 1977, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.[5]

Mr. Leong moved to Springfield, Missouri in 1955 from Pensacola, FL without knowing where Missouri was located.[6]  With backing from a local doctor, Leong opened Lotus Garden on Glenstone Ave. across from the Cat and the Fiddle Restaurant, a Springfield landmark.  According to the 1956 Springfield City Directory, the restaurant was the first Asian restaurant in Springfield.[7]  The relationship and the restaurant didn’t work; Leong continued to work for others until he could open his own restaurant, Leong’s Tea House at 1036 W. Sunshine Street in 1963. He knew that Asian cuisine was new for many Americans and that he needed to tie familiar tastes into his dishes to gain local approval.  He discovered chicken fried steak was a regional favorite and from this he took the idea of frying small chicken pieces and serving them in a rich brown sauce made from chicken stock, oyster sauce and soy sauce, then topping it with green onions and cashew halves.  His recipe was an immediate hit.  Cashew Chicken created loyal customers for Leong’s Tea House, but David refused his family’s pleas to keep his recipe secret.  He regularly shared it with others who would compete with his restaurant.  Over the years he would see “Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken” not just on menus across Missouri, but around the globe, even in China.  You can buy a jar of the original here and try to re-create it yourself.

Mom Explains Why “Flat Michelle” is at Leong’s

After David’s wife passed away, he closed Leong’s Tea House in 1997.  David’s son Wing Yee opened Leong’s Asian Diner at 1540 W. Republic Road in December 2010.  David Leong would visit the restaurant almost every night, greeting customers and often sitting quietly alone in the dining room, where I met him two years ago.  Last year I celebrated my 50th birthday at Leong’s.  Well, my family did at least.  My husband and I came down with a rather wicked case of the flu so we stayed in Alabama while my extended family “celebrated” without me.  They took a “Flat Michelle” with them to the restaurant and from the photo you can see Mr. Leong was tickled with my Mom’s explanation of the “virtual” Michelle.  I’m sorry I missed that chance to see him again.  But the next time I am in Springfield, I will definitely eat his signature dish.

“Wing” means prosperous in Cantonese.  David Leong had a full and rich life, but it is those of us who have eaten his food, who prospered.  Wing Yin David Leong, thank you for sharing your gift with us!

 

 

[1] Steve Pokin. “Which Do We Have More of? Churches or Chinese Restaurants.” https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2018/02/09/pokin-around-whos-no-1-springfield-which-do-we-have-more/310688002/

[2] John T. Edge, “Missouri Chinese: Two Cultures Claim This Chicken” The New York Times, 10 Mar 2009.

[3] Steve Pokin. “The life of David Leong: From an arranged marriage in China to a place called Missouri.” The Springfield News-Leader, 16 May 2018.

[4] Ettie Berneking. “How David Leong Invented Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken.” Feast Magazine. 2 March 2015.

[5] Ancestry.com. Northern District, Illinois, Naturalization Index, 1926-1979 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2017.

[6] Steve Pokin. “The life of David Leong: From an arranged marriage in China to a place called Missouri.” Springfield News-Leader. 16 May 2018.

[7] Polk’s Springfield, Missouri, City Directory, 1956. St. Louis, MO: R.L. Polk & Co., 1956, 309. Accessed online at Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [online database]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

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