Article and photo by Gina Myers
"Things have a way of surprising us. You find yourself wanting things you never thought you'd want," Tina Saycosie explains as she stands in the kitchen of Pasong's Cafe.
Her sister, Nonnie Saycosie Blondin adds, "I used to be embarrassed by the restaurant when I was younger. I had just wanted a normal, American life. But now I am proud of the restaurant and proud of who I am."
This year Pasong's Cafe will turn twenty-three, but the sisters reflect on a bigger anniversary: On October 30th, they will celebrate their thirtieth year in the United States.
The story of how Pasong's Cafe came to be is a complicated one. Tina and Nonnie's mother, Pasong Saycosie-King had lived a life of privilege in Laos as a general's daughter until the collapse of communism following the Vietnam War, which caused the family to flee. Tina, who was four at the time, remembers leaving home with only a bag of sticky rice and crossing the Mekong River with other refugees. Nonnie was born in a refugee camp in Thailand just a few months before the family was sponsored by a church to come to the United States.
"We were supposed to go to Kansas City, but we wound up in Saginaw," Nonnie explains. When the pastor who had originally sponsored them fell ill, his son brought them to Saginaw. Tina and Nonnie's father had been a custodian in Pasong's father's house and as such was quite handy, so he was able to find a job after arriving in Saginaw. However, he passed away after only two years in the United States, and Pasong found herself alone with a family to support, which also included her husband's brothers. Although she had expressed an early interest in cooking, Pasong had not been allowed to cook because as a general's daughter she was not expected to work. There were seven people living in a two bedroom duplex when Pasong began experimenting with food, and it wasn't long before she was selling egg rolls out of the house.
Tina and Nonnie went to work at early ages, taking orders over the phone and at school. With some embarrassment, Nonnie recalls being able to leave class on Thursday afternoons at Plainfield Elementary to take orders that her mother would then fill on Fridays. The other kids would tease, "Your mom's the egg roll lady."
After about five years of selling egg rolls out of her kitchen, Pasong went into business with a partner and opened Pasong's Chinese Express at the corner of Court and State streets. However, the partnership did not last and the business closed. When Millie of Millie's Cafe decided to retire from her counter in the Health Department Building, Pasong's Cafe was realized. Pasong's Cafe occupied that space in the Health Department Building for ten years before moving to its current location at 114 N. Michigan in 1997.
Tina says, "The cafe has always been a labor of love." When Pasong first went into business, she was twenty-nine years old, "but it was like she turned into a forty-five year old in that first year due to the stress and anxiety of running the business." Nonnie adds that she and Tina also grew in that first year, "It's like we went from being kids to being thirty years old."
The sisters both recall spending long days in the restaurant and how they used to dislike it even though they were able to come up with ways to entertain themselves. Neither Tina nor Nonnie had an interest in working there as it became something resented for the stress it caused their mother. Once old enough, Tina chose to pursue the arts and moved to Grand Rapids. Nonnie also remembers the racism she faced as a child and how she wanted to do things the American way, which meant to her going to college and getting an education.
It may have taken them awhile to come around, but now they both value the business. Tina's hero is her mother who persisted even though people discouraged her. After living away for five years, she decided to return to Saginaw and help out when hearing about her family's hardships.
"It's funny to reflect on now," Nonnie says. "I had wanted the American way, but this is the American way—to come here as a refugee, to open your own business, to support your family." Nonnie, who is now a mother herself, is happy to see her own children grow up in the restaurant environment too.
The restaurant has received a great deal of support over the years and has a lot of regular customers. "People prefer quality," says Nonnie, who describes their food as "good food made for you from the soul." They use all fresh ingredients and as many local and seasonal ingredients as possible. The meat is Amish and non-hormonal, and everything is prepared by hand. Because they pride themselves on being health conscious, they do not us MSG.
As Pasong is getting closer to retiring, the future of the business is uncertain. However, it is certain that Tina and Nonnie will carry on the tradition their mother has instilled in them. Tina is thankful for all the support they have received from the community and she hopes to be able to give back. "We want to be able to support our community, support artists whether visual, theatrical, or musical. We want to support the things we believe in." Recently, Pasong's has had live music by John Vasquez while patrons eat, and they have hosted a number of parties featuring live music. Tina also hopes to use the wall space in the restaurant to display the work of local visual artists.
Tina has always found the arts to be a grounding force in her life and wants to show her appreciation. Being located in Old Town, she says you can't help but be involved with artists. "You're surrounded by artists here. And food can be art. When you do everything you do with love, it is an art."
Pasong's Cafe is located at 114 N. Michigan in Old Town Saginaw. Business hours are Monday - Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. In addition to dining in, Pasong's also provides take-out, parties, and catering.
© Gina Myers, 2009