The distinction and honor of being the first Chinese-American to be inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame is a recognition that Yat K. Tow (1912-1990) would accept with humility and pride. It is a tribute that has inclusive symbolic value–a shared honor that must also recognize the Tow family that preceded him and the other Chinese-American families that have contributed to our state.
The Tow family made a deep impression on Rhode Island’s hospitality and culinary history through the success of three of their restaurants: the Port Arthur, the Ming Garden, and the Great House. These three establishments earned a record of distinction by serving the people of Rhode Island for over one hundred cumulative years.
Yat Tow overcame challenging circumstances to achieve success and establish deep roots in Rhode Island. He succeeded because he was able to combine his prescient outlook and a pragmatic approach to life to fulfill the opportunities afforded to him amid a changing time in America.
Yat was born in 1912, the momentous year that the Republic of China formally replaced the empire. He was raised in China by his grandmother after the death of his mother when he was only six months of age. Coming alone to America as a young boy, learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and growing up in an environment without any maternal influence inspired his acute sense of self-reliance and diligence.
In 1942, with the help of his father, Tow He Gong, Yat opened the China Clipper restaurant. In the mid-1950s, Yat and his wife, Lilly, redesigned the restaurant and the fabled Ming Garden was born. With business acumen, the duo tapped into the growing popularity of Polynesian-themed restaurants, and the Ming was the first in Rhode Island to gain such acclaim.
The Ming was more than just a wonderful eating place, it was THE MEETING PLACE. It was Yat’s charming, hospitable, congenial, and winning personality combined with his keen penchant for remembering names and faces that cultivated the friendships and the large following of a varied clientele. The Ming was just as popular with families as with the high-profiled leaders of the state. People came in to see the charismatic Yat as much as to enjoy his tasty and authentic cuisine.
Yat’s success in business allowed him to serve his community and his culture more effectively. He was the acknowledged leader in assisting the small but vibrant Rhode Island Chinese-American community with housing, employment, immigration, translation, and educational assistance. His public service included membership on the boards of International House, People’s Savings Bank, and Rhode Island Hospital. To honor Yat’s community involvement and his association with Brown University, his family established the Yat K. Tow Prize awarded each year through Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service to a student who has achieved distinction for community service and academic promise.
Yat Tow passed away in 1990 at the age of seventy-eight. While he is best remembered through the fond histories of his restaurants and the recognition bestowed upon him, this patriarch’s finest legacy endures through his family– his wife Lilly; his five children June, Gerry, Janyce, Leslie, and Christopher; six grandchildren; and three great grandchildren.
– W. Gerry Tow