Thomas Chui, Alice Chui, Joseph Chui, Fiona Yu, David Chui, Peter Lam, Anita Chui and Grace Lam meet at the Legends Seafood Restaurant in the Waikiki Trade Center, one of three family eateries.
The making of legends
The Chui siblings decided the best
way to keep their family fed
was to open a restaurant
For the Chui siblings, work and family go together like two chopsticks. You need both in order to put food in your mouth.
The seven brothers and sisters from Hong Kong operate the three Legend Chinese restaurants, a business endeavor launched as much to keep the tight-knit family together as for anything else.
"What other type of business lets you be with your family and give everybody a job -- and eat, too?" asked David Chui.
Each had pursued their own varied careers when they made the midlife decision to come together and launch their first restaurant in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza in 1989. Though none of them had any previous experience in the food business, they drew support from the ingrained familial bond "inherited" -- said David -- from their late father Chui Hing Kwok.
The patriarch was blessed with 10 children -- five boys and five girls -- but it was nearly too much of a good thing. The owner of a trading business, Chui often worked long hours away from his family in order to keep everyone fed.
The next generation has avoided that trap by stirring food and family together in the same pot. Though two sisters have remained in Hong Kong, the other eight siblings came to Hawaii (brother Richard died of a stroke last year) in stages beginning in 1978 and have remained tight.
Each of the siblings -- they now range in age from 50 to 66 -- dutifully fills a distinct role in the restaurants' operations, as does brother-in-law Peter Lam. No one -- and everyone -- is in charge.
"Harmony is the most important thing," said Thomas Chui. "Everything has to be agreed on or it doesn't work."
Adds his wife Alice: "We disagree sometimes, but never argue. It's a democracy."
Their togetherness has sustained the family through some ups and downs, not least of which was getting into a business none of them new.
"I learned by eating," said Thomas, who was in the travel and tour industry in Hong Kong, which meant frequent wining and dining. "And by hiring good chefs."
"We made some mistakes in the beginning but not too many. If too many, you go out of business."
Their newest restaurant opened in the Waikiki Trade Center in 2000, which turned out to be one of the worst possible times. Business was soon hit by 9/11, then the SARS epidemic, which curbed travel and scared off restaurant business, particularly among Chinese diners.
Last year, the family's biggest blow came: The death of youngest brother Richard. The mere mention of his name brings momentary silence and downcast eyes.
"We were so depressed. It was very hard," said David. "It helped that we are all together."
But in their business, life goes on. The restaurants were closed for half a day.
"Regardless of your personal problems, you still have to show customers your happy face, not a long face," Thomas said. "You have to keep the sadness inside your heart."
The family togetherness extends outside the restaurants. The siblings all live within a few minutes of each other in the Salt Lake area, like planets revolving around the real center of the Chui universe -- the home of their 90-year-old mother Tsai Kiu Chen, who joined her children here in 1990.
She still wields clout. A buddhist, it was her wish the children open the second restaurant in the chain, the Legend Vegetarian Restaurant.
"A lot of fish get eaten in our other restaurants, so she wanted us to offset that," said Thomas.
Tsai, who has 21 grandchildren ("more or less", said David), also makes the children adhere to a practice of weekly get-togethers at her home, after which they all rush back to the restaurants.
"The family and restaurants are one," said David. "Without the restaurants, how can we make the family happy? And without the family, who wants to do the restaurants?"