MAKING THE CUT: Tsue Chong Company, founded in 1917, employs about 30 in the Chinatown-International District. Here, workers are cutting dry noodles. Photos by Hayley Young.
Inside the Tsue Chong Company factory, a thin layer of flour coats every surface and a heavenly cookie scent fills the air. Ribbons of dough stack up hypnotically on machines that stretch the length of the room and transform raw ingredients into 17 kinds of noodles and one special cookie.
Local schoolchildren often visit “the fortune cookie factory” on field trips, though the cookies are only a small part of Tsue Chong’s production repertoire. Noodles — all based on an original recipe of flour, salt, water and eggs — are the big business. Ratios get tweaked, sizes vary and noodles are sold fresh, dried, steamed or boiled — all starting from the same four simple ingredients as they did a century ago.
The process today is a bit more mechanized. And the factory sits around the corner from a previous long-standing location (now housing the company’s retail business). The original noodle recipe remains the same, as does the family operating what owner Tim Louie calls “a recession-proof business.”
In 1898, Louie’s great-grandfather, Gar Hip Louie, an immigrant from Taishan, China, noticed that while Seattle had plenty of general laborers like himself, nobody was making noodles. For seven years, he made noodles by hand, wrapped them in newspaper and sold them to local restaurants and shops. Gar Hip Louie officially founded Tsue Chong Company in 1917 in a small storefront on South Jackson Street. In 1924, his son, Fat Yuen Louie, took over and moved the operation to Eighth Avenue South and South King Street.
Tim Louie, Fat Yuen’s grandson, tells the story of his family’s business from his office, just a few feet off the floor where machines crank out 10,000 pounds of noodle products each day in a three-story, 38,000-square-foot building at Eighth Avenue South and South Weller Street — a vestige of the neighborhood’s once-thriving food manufacturing industry.
Tsue Chong isn’t the only noodle or fortune cookie company in the Puget Sound region. The former Golden Pheasant Foods, now a part of Passport Food Group, still operates in Kent. And Wan Hua Foods, founded in 1992, operates a noodle plant just outside Chinatown on Sixth Avenue South.
Tim Louie says neither competitor has the range of products Tsue Chong provides.
A FAMILY AFFAIR: Owner Tim Louie, top left, keeps Tsue Chong Company running with assistance from his cousin Brian, center, and his father, Henry. Above, large sheets of won ton wrappers are trimmed to size before packaging.
On the first floor at one end of the factory, lofted mixers churn the ingredients to the texture of Play-Doh, dropping the dough into compound rollers that begin the flattening process. A series of sheeters rolls the dough thin as it makes its way down a row of machines before being cut to size. The resulting dumpling wrappers, fresh noodles and spring-roll squares are loaded onto carts for packaging.
Upstairs on the third floor, some of Tsue Chong’s staff of about 30 prepares the more labor-intensive products, steaming rice-flour noodles, cooking ramen noodles and cutting dried noodles with a marvelous old wood-and-metal contraption built by Fat Yuen Louie.
The second floor is for storage. Newly arrived ingredients await their noodle destiny, while packaged noodles wait to be shipped out to Tsue Chong’s many customers. From the smallest local restaurant to giant food operations like Sysco and Food Services of America, Louie brags about all his clients. He tries to eat a meal at as many of his restaurant customers as he can.
“I never let my kids knock chop suey restaurants,” he says of Chinese-American establishments that have fallen out of favor with some purists. “That is how we got our start — places in Boise, Spokane, around the Northwest.”
Louie grew up in a multigenerational home with his grandparents, Fat Yuen and his wife, Eng Shee, while spending time with them in the family noodle factory. Recently, Tsue Chong’s longest-employed worker, George Nishikawa, retired — he’d been there since the 1960s and he remembered Tim running around the factory in diapers. Tim’s grandparents retired in the 1950s, when Tim was in kindergarten, so his father, Henry Louie, quit his job at Boeing to run the factory with his brother Kenneth.
COMPLETE PACKAGE: Mallets break curved ends that result when noodles hang on rods to dry. Hong Kong-style steamed noodles, left, and won ton wrappers are among Tsue Chong's 17 products.
By the time he was in high school, Tim was involved in the business, negotiating to get his driver’s license early so he could make deliveries. At that point, it was just a job. He headed to the University of Washington to become an engineer, working summers at the noodle factory. After two years, however, he realized the family’s business was quite viable, so he switched his major to business and after graduation in 1984 returned to the factory full time. He helped the company make the transition to its current location.
“All of our workers live here or nearby,” Louie says of Tsue Chong’s presence in the neighborhood. “We like being in the Chinese community.”
But he knows Seattle is changing and manufacturing businesses are being pushed out. The new line for the First Hill streetcar blocks the area where the company used to park its trucks.
Louie is philosophical. “Big-city growth,” he observes, “means big-city challenges.” But he admits Tsue Chong will likely need to relocate to SoDo, South Seattle or even outside the city in the next 10 years.
The realization frustrates the guy whose wife jokes they can’t eat in Chinatown because too many people know Tim and stop to chat with him. This rich community, where his employees live and eat and work, has hosted Tsue Chong for a century, and Tim Louie remains hopeful he can find a way to stay, even as the neighborhood changes around him.
Welcome to the Fold
IN 1917, WHEN Gar Hip Louie started making noodles, the fortune cookie — now a symbol of Chinese food in America — had yet to be invented. But by the mid-’50s, Eng Shee Louie and her son Kenneth noticed the growing popularity of fortune cookies and saw an opportunity for the noodle factory to branch out. The factory still uses Eng Shee’s recipe (pastry flour, cane sugar, vanilla, whole eggs, water and coconut oil) but has moved on from folding each cookie by hand to doing it by machine. Once the dough is ready, each cookie takes a four-minute journey through the machine, which presses out a flat circle, inserts one of 500 fortunes printed on slips of paper, then folds it before spitting it back out. Eng Shee Louie could fold 13 cookies per minute by hand. Today, the machine makes more than 10 times that in a minute, or about 8,000 an hour. It also makes fewer mistakes, which means Tsue Chong Company keeps running out of the “rejected fortune cookie” shards sold in the retail shop next door. By the time the fancy machines came in, the bags of rejects were so popular that Tsue Chong had to keep making them. Today, one of the older machines runs solely to make the broken pieces sold as rejects. — N.T.
A version of this story appeared in the January issue of Seattle magazine.