Susan “Susie” Fong, who with her husband, Paul, brought a slice of Polynesia to North Riverside at their Tiki-inspired Chinese restaurant Chef Shangri-La, died Aug. 19, 2019 at the age of 80.
Following a heart attack in 2010, said her daughter, Dr. Lisa Abrams, doctors issued a bleak prognosis for Ms. Fong. She battled ahead, defying that verdict, continuing to maintain a presence at “The Chef” as much as possible.
“She’s like a miracle,” Abrams said of her mother’s tenacity. “So many times I said, ‘How can she make it?'”
Born on Aug. 20, 1938, in Guangdong, China (then known as Canton), Ms. Fong’s family suffered separation during the Communist Revolution and in 1958, at the age of 20, she married Ken Yee, a Chinese immigrant and Milwaukee resident, who came back to China to find a bride.
Yee and his young wife operated the Oregon Inn, a restaurant that served Cantonese cuisine. Ms. Fong learned the restaurant business and also sent money to relatives in China to support them and eventually help more than a dozen family members immigrate to the U.S. over time.
According to Abrams, Ms. Fong was a loyal Democrat because of President John F. Kennedy, whose immigration policies allowed thousands, including members of Ms. Fong’s family, to flee Communist China and settle in the United States.
Most of Ms. Fong’s relatives settled in the Chicago area and learned the ropes of the restaurant business from her.
Ms. Fong divorced her first husband in 1963 and married Paul Fong in 1972. They moved to Chicago, where the family ran the Cantonese Chef in Chinatown, though not without a struggle over ownership.
Ms. Abrams said that Ms. Fong and her husband battled to retain ownership of the successful Chinatown restaurant, but decided instead to strike out on their own. In 1976, they bought property at the corner of 26th Street and Desplaines Avenue in North Riverside and opened Chef Shangri-La.
The restaurant enjoyed a loyal following, with customers coming to The Chef for its Cantonese cuisine and tropical drinks like the Dr. Fong, served in Tiki-glasses and adorned with paper umbrellas.
Following Ms. Fong’s heart attack, the couple’s youngest daughter, Betty Hlavka, and her husband, Duane, moved from Los Angeles to Chicago to take over the operation of the restaurant in 2011.
During their five-year tenure, the restaurant experienced something of a renaissance, updating the menu and hosting special “exotica” events and a short-lived annual Fong Fest, featuring live music.
Paul Fong died in 2012 and the following year Ms. Fong filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court for control of the business. In 2016, a judge ruled in Ms. Fong’s favor, though six months later the lawsuit was dismissed by agreement, and she resumed operation of Chef Shangri-La, hiring someone else to manage the restaurant.
Betty Hlavka, in an emailed statement through Abrams, described her mother as “a strong-minded wife and an extremely tough-loving mother. Her laugh was contagious, her smile lit up the room.”
“Mom sacrificed her entire life for her family and loved ones, she did everything she could to ensure the success of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Hlavka added. “We are thankful for her love. We will do everything we can to continue her legacy.”
Abrams’ husband, Irv, took over operations of Chef Shangri-La in July, said Abrams, and the family will continue to operate the restaurant going forward.
“We made a promise to her to get it back on its feet like it used to be,” said Abrams. “We’re adding more entertainment, changing the menu a bit and doing more promotions to get us back there.”
Ms. Fong is survived by her children, Lisa (Irv) Abrams, Albert (Gwen) Yee, Lois (David) Lee, Roger (Emily Poirier Fong) Fong and Betty (Duane) Hlavka; her grandchildren, Bruce (Johanna)Abrams, Brittany Abrams, Aaron Abrams, Justin (Jennifer) Abrams, Korina Yee, Geneva Yee, Jessica Yee, Michelle Lee, Lauren Lee, Evan Fong, Asher Fong, Kai Fong and Remi Fong; and her great-grandchildren, Carter Abrams, Jackson Abrams and Jayden Abrams.
Visitation is on Saturday, Aug. 31 from 3 to 8 p.m. at Dalcamo Funeral Home, 470 W. 26th St. in Chicago. A funeral service will be held at the funeral home on Sunday, Sept. 1 at 9 a.m., followed by interment at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Stickney.