She moved to join him in New York when she was 14. She took bilingual classes, but struggled with the English language. Eventually, she worked in his restaurant. A cousin who owned a Chinese restaurant in Huntington told her father that Charleston lacked a Chinese restaurant, so he helped her open Main Kwong in its current location in 1993, nearly 20 years ago. Her sister Ling Cheng owns Main Tin restaurant in South Charleston.
"We're not fancy, but we're very clean and efficient," she said of her streamlined kitchen. "I think my father was very pleased that I went into the business, although it's a very stressful life."
She typically arrives at Main Kwong at about 9 a.m., and organizes deliveries, supervises food preparation and early deliveries. All the dishes are prepared to order, but not by her. She doesn't cook. The chaotic pace starts almost the moment the doors open at 11 a.m., as customer orders pour in, and continues through mid-afternoon. Dinner time brings a new wave of orders, deftly fielded by Kwok, who cleans up after the 10 or 11 p.m. closing. She's rarely home before midnight.
The restaurant is open seven days a week, and Kwok's smiling face is nearly always behind the counter. She's uneasy on the unusual occasions when she leaves for a daytime appointment.
"Something always happens when I'm gone," she said. "It's better just to be here."
A Buddhist, her only vacations are trips back to her homeland, where she spends her time in prayer.
Kwok's two sons, Geoffrey, 19, and Edward, 20, are away at college, but they spent most of the after-school hours of their youths in the restaurant. Kwok and her ex-husband divorced when the boys were young. Her mother lived with her and helped care for the boys.
"It was a very tough time," she said. "My parents and family supported me, or I could not have done it. Everything I did was for my boys."
Today, her oldest son studies accounting while Geoffrey's goal is medical school.
Kwok first entered the Taste of Charleston competition in 2002, where she took top honors and continued to do so every year since. Certificates of excellence from that competition and others line one wall of the restaurant. Humble about Main Kwong's documented popularity, Kwok said she is grateful for the community's support.
"The best way to show that were are thankful is to give the best service, make good food for good prices, and keep our customers happy," she said. "People are surprised that our food is not expensive."
Lunch specials, including rice and soup, all range between $5 and $6. Dinner entrees, with larger portions, are between $6 and $10, and combination platters are about $7.50.
Main Kwong, 1407 Washington St. E., is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Call 304-342-8899.
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.