Hard wok: How an outcast built Han Dynasty
"I finally realized that I've been [messing up] over and over and over and that the only blame I could blame is myself," Han Chiang says.
There is a Han behind Han Dynasty, which in 11 years has grown from a single Sichuan restaurant in Exton into a nine-location mini-empire in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania suburbs, and more recently in New York City.
It's Han Chiang.
Chiang, who turns 40 in December and is married to the first bus girl he hired at Exton (Jing Zhang), is neither a trained chef nor businessman.
In fact, he said, for the first 27 years of his life, he was a constant source of disappointment to his parents, Tao Pin and Lung Lung, who emigrated from Taiwan with Han's older sister, Cat, in 1992.
Then he had an epiphany.
We chatted last week at his Old City location, set up in a former brokerage house at 123 Chestnut St. Chiang is pretty much an open book, though he declined to talk about his sister, who with her husband owns DanDan restaurants in Center City and Wayne.
Tell me about your childhood.
Growing up in Taiwan, I was always an outcast. Always, I got beaten by the teacher almost every day. That's the system there. You're late, you didn't pass the test, talking in class. Always getting beaten up. I wasn't getting bullied, but I was bullying other kids. I was always the youngest one in my class and didn't do so well in school. I just hate reading. The school system in Taiwan — they want you to memorize everything. That's not a good system for me. I was just always below average in school and that's why my parents wanted to bring me here. They think this American school system would be much better for me.
When I got here, I went to a school called Octorara in Atglen [Chester County]. The first year was very hard. I was getting bullied by bigger classmates because I couldn't speak English. I was the only Asian kid in the whole school. I got suspended all the time and my parents sent me to a Christian school in the 10th grade.
I went to Drexel for electrical engineering, but I got kicked out three times, each time for six months. The fourth time, they just kicked me out.
Because I hate school.
Why did you enroll in college if you hated school?
Because in the Asian culture family, that's what I'm expected to do, because both my parents are college grads. In that era, it was very rare, because they were World War II refugees. Throughout my school years in Taiwan, I was the only kid with both parents that went to college, so education is expected from my parents.
My mom was very hard on me growing up. She expect me to always be working. I started when I was 7 years old in a factory. My mom always had some type of small business, and in Taiwan, you go to school six days a week. Sunday, I had to go help them at the store or something. I always loved working growing up. I worked at computer-training school, computer warehouse, and a law firm doing computers. Never in a million years I would think I would work in a restaurant business.
How did that happen?
I wanted to be like my mom. I want to be an entrepreneur, have my own business. By the time I got kicked out of school, I was just going down this downward spiral, depressed. Seeing all my friends, my family, everybody graduate college, getting a job, married, house, cars. I had nothing. I was still living at home with my mom, helping her with a flower shop.
There's one moment in my life when I completely changed my life around. My cousin was getting married. I grew up with him. He was like my brother. He was getting married to a beautiful wife. His family is very wealthy. He already had a house, he had cars, and at the time I was nobody. On his wedding day, I got this depression over me that I'm just a no-good son of a b-. That day, I finally realized that I've been [messing up] over and over and over, and that the only blame I could blame is myself. After that day, I started working super, super hard. I had to prove to myself that I can do something out of my life.
Then I started saving some money. Throughout the years, I would say, "Mom, give me some money. It's time for me to open a business." She's like, "You can't even graduate college. Once you graduate college, then we can talk about it." So, by the time I was 27, she really didn't know what to do with me anymore and she said, "All right, fine. What do you want to do?" I thought about it for a long time and I don't have any other skills. I don't know what to do, so I thought about opening a Chinese restaurant. I thought, I don't need any skills as long as I can work very, very hard.
Tell me about Exton, your first restaurant.
It was very hard because a lot of staff didn't really believe in me and when I told them to do things, they wouldn't really do it for me. I literally worked three years straight, 365 days a year, 10 hours a day, and I was living inside my restaurant half the time. When I opened at 108 Chestnut [in Old City], I lived in the basement for 10 months. I was obsessed with the business. There was nothing I was thinking about except my restaurants.
Why was your next restaurant in Royersford?
My mom did that. One day, she had a piece of paper and she's like, "Here, sign this. I just bought a restaurant in Royersford." I'm like, "Where the [heck] is Royersford? Mom, I want to go to Philadelphia." She's like, "If you don't sign it, I'll give [the restaurant] to your brother-in-law." I signed and opened Royersford.
It was a good training for me that even in Royersford, I could build a Chinese restaurant. When I first opened the East Village location five years ago, a customer walked in and he's like, "Oh, you guys are from Philly right?" I'm like, "Yeah." He's like, "What are you doing in New York?" I'm like, "Haven't you heard that if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere?" "You guys are from Philly, you'll never make it in New York." I'm like, "If I can make it in Royersford, I can make it anywhere."
How did you think of the name Han Dynasty?
In the beginning, I was thinking all these corny Chinese restaurant names like Panda and Great Wall, and then I was taking a shower one day and the name just hit me. I love history as well, so I started calling my friends and family, "I have a name for the restaurant — Han Dynasty." Everybody's like, "You don't really want to do that. You don't want to use your name. What if you fail?"
I was still debating using the name. Then I went to the internet and was trying to register handynasty dot com. It was taken. It was a porn site at the time. I'm like, "What?" Then I read the URL and I'm like [oh, my], this is "handy nasty," and at that moment I knew I had to name it Han Dynasty.
Do you have any hobbies?
Every night, I go home, I smoke a little pot and watch some movie and play some video games. It's my way of turning down a little bit, or I can't stop thinking about restaurants. … I still want to open 100 of them. Got to dream big. If you don't, how are you going to accomplish a lot of things?
Do you ever worry about being spread too thin?
Sometimes. When there's a problem, I always solve the problems. When one restaurant has a problem, it's fine, I can always solve it, but it's when multiple restaurants having problems, that's when I feel the pressure. I have a lot of hardworking guys who work for me. All of my managers, all of my partners, they all started working for me as a busboy, so they all have three things in common. Number one, they have to work hard. Number two is, I call it sacrifice. We've all hit rock bottom before and we use that to learn. Number three is, the person has to have a great heart. I think everything else can be taught.