“We’re down to four people at the film table,” our dinner companions commented. Each Chinese New Year we have a dinner date with Joe and Sally Hou (owners of Szechuan 132) and a room full of their closest friends. As Joe likes to remind us, the occasions are about surrounding yourself with family and friends. He and Sally shut down the restaurant for the evening and put on a dinner party with a vast buffet. It has been one of the most lovely and enjoyable annual events of my adult life.
2018 is the Year of the Dog, which Jock is excited about, because the year of his birth was also a dog year. According to Joe’s speech, the Year of the Dog is a year of hard work and loyalty. Each year he picks two to three people to honor who he feels reflect the given year’s values. This year he recognized one of the founders of the Mason Inlet Preservation Group (MIPG), which represents property owners on Figure Eight Island and the North End of Wrightsville Beach who pay for dredging and maintaining of Mason Inlet. The inlet steadily has been trying to move south for much of my lifetime, and by my late teens, was so successful that Shell Island Resort was surrounded by sandbags that looked like giant worms from “Dune” (a Dino De Laurentiis project, by the way). MIPG pays for the inlet’s relocation back to the north and the protected bird-nesting area located there.
Very few times in my life have I ever seen Joe in such a high emotional state, where he got excited and choked up at the same time, as he did introducing his next topic for the evening. Joe described a day he was asked to bring food out to Olsen Park, and the first time he saw The Miracle League of Wilmington’s Miracle Field. Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau describes the Miracle Field as “[a] playing field with a special rubberized surface that can be used for baseball, softball, soccer, kickball, bocce ball and volleyball. There are bleachers, a field house and playground. The facility is designed to provide a safe area for people with disabilities to play and compete.”
Brimming with joy and excitement, Joe described watching children and adults previously relegated to the stands play ball together. “I touched everything!” he described, “running my hands on the rubber playing surface, equipment, and coming away amazed at the brilliance of the idea and beauty of its execution.
“So how do you know Joe?” people tend to ask each other in the buffet line or when seated at a table of new friends. Those who haven’t met Joe are missing out; he has never met a stranger and has truly found his calling with Szechuan 132. He hosts at his restaurant always with a joke and smile for everyone who walks through the door. There are people who radiate love and joy in their fellow human beings; Joe Hou is one. At some of the most confusing and upsetting times in my life, Joe has offered me a hand of compassion and a warm smile, with no strings or expectations attached. That’s a rare gift to give people.
“Jock and Joe are brothers who have been separated,” I usually respond.
It’s a claim Jock has been making for years, with guy-like humor about their height difference. Jock is almost 6-feet and 6-inches tall when he doesn’t slouch. Joe is about 2 inches taller than me. But that’s not a joke I have heard him make about any other man in our lives. Joe truly holds a special place in his heart, and that’s the only way he knows how to tell him.
Usually, at some point in the evening, Jock stands up and talks about how he was in shock when he came here with Dino to open the studio in the early 1980s. The only Asian food available in town then was in the oddly shaped building on Market Street that has since become a youth club and church. They served spam and noodles on the menu. That was a highlight. The rest was just, as Jock puts it, “unspeakable.” Coming from Toronto, where every imaginable global culinary experience was available, it was definite confirmation he had moved to a backwater.
“Frankly, if I couldn’t get decent Chinese food, I was leaving,” he says almost every year. “Then Joe arrived.”
Szechuan 132 opened in University Landing in 1988. Though Joe brought an extensive background in the restaurant industry and a menu blending traditional Chinese food with flavors and spices of his childhood in India, what we really got was our own George Bailey. We just didn’t know it at the time.
“When we work late, we have something called ‘second meal,’” one of our film companions explained to the new arrivals at the table. Joe would bring a vast spread to the studio for “second meal,” and all the film people in town quickly became fans of the food and him.
When we first started attending Chinese New Year, so many film people were there, the table sort of spread across the back of the restaurant. But, with the exodus of over 4,000 well-paying professional jobs to Georgia—there were four of us this year. Sitting there, I realized Jock retired from film, and though I’m not a filmmaker or technician, I used to sell and rent books to the industry. Aside from us, there were only two actual crew members—a concrete illustration of what has happened to our local film industry.
How many small businesses are trying to find a way to keep staff and meet payroll now we have lost film? I just keep wondering over and over again. Joe’s restaurant, the book store, the antique stores, the seamstresses who can do alterations of drapes quickly … it feels like at every turn there is another small business impacted by the loss of film.
The Hous raised a family here, sent off their kids to college, and became entrenched pillars of our community. From the quiet acts of kindness to helping newcomers get settled and visiting dignitaries learn about our area, the Hous are everywhere. As Jock tells anyone who will listen, when Suzanna—the mother of his children—was sick and losing her battle with cancer, more nights than he could count, a hot meal for his family would show up at the door. On weekends Joe and his kids would take Jock’s kids to play, and give Jock a chance to catch up on the assortment of tasks that get pushed aside in the middle of caregiving and parenting. A few years ago, Thalian Hall hosted a traveling Chinese opera, and Joe was instrumental in getting funding to bring them here, and providing hospitality and translation services for the performers and crew.
It is typical Joe uses Chinese New Year to shine a light on others. But what he’s really doing is sharing his love of people who make his life so special—and quietly teaching us a lesson about what makes our lives together worthwhile.