Robert Yee, whose Chinese restaurants on Monroe Street fed generations of area residents, died Thursday at Heartland Hospice. He was 86.
Family members believe he died of heart-related problems, his son, Damon, said. Mr. Yee, of West Toledo, had been in failing health since breaking both hips within two months in late 1999.
His restaurant, a Toledo institution since 1955, moved to Monroe Street and Harvest Lane in 1988. It closed in March, 2000.
“I had to close up the restaurant to take care of my father,” his son said.
Mr. Yee bought the former Ho Choy Restaurant on Monroe near Auburn Avenue in 1955, and Yee's Garden was his first foray into the restaurant business.
“He liked what he saw and bought it,” his son said. “We lived upstairs.”
Vivien Craig, a Yee's Garden waitress nearly from the start, said: “He kind of learned [the restaurant business] from the ground up.
“He just liked to work. [Mr. Yee and his wife, Sue] put in a lot of hours,” said Ms. Craig, known to her employers and customers as “Vicki.”
“He just took to it,” she said. “He came up with different dishes. He was quite creative. He was a pretty darn good cook. He liked being his own person.”
He saved his money, and, in 1960, Yee's Garden moved to Monroe near Secor Road.
“That's where the business really took off,” Ms. Craig said. “He was a self-made guy.”
The restaurant became a popular take-out spot for West Toledoans and suburbanites heading home from downtown. Families went for sit-down meals of egg foo young, almond chicken, and sweet-and-sour dishes.
“It was a family restaurant, where everybody knew everybody,” his son said. “All the customers really loved him.”
Born in China, Mr. Yee came to the United States as a boy. He returned to China in his late teens and married his wife when they both were 19. The couple had a daughter, but Mr. Yee returned to the United States to continue working.
He moved to Detroit eventually and did factory work during World War II. By war's end, he had saved enough to pay for his wife's and daughter's passage from China. He owned a laundry in Detroit for several years.
Mr. Yee was a member of the Yee Hong Association, a local Chinese fraternal organization. For many years, he closed the restaurant at night and went to the Yee Hong building on 10th Street downtown to play mah-jongg until “3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. Then he would get up and go to work. So he wasn't a typical father,” his son said. “He worked and he played. He was really independent. He had been independent his whole life.”
Surviving are his wife, Sue; daughters, May Woo and Mamie Arnold; son, Damon; eight grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.
Services will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Ansberg-West Mortuary, where the body will be after 2 p.m. Tuesday.
The family requests tributes to Heartland Hospice.
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