I don’t know how many kilometres I put on the Nikes on Saturday #87 but I left the hotel at 10:00 a.m. and I didn’t stop for more than a few minutes until 6:30 p.m. when I stumbled upon my hotel, quite by accident. I had planned to go wherever my feet took me until about 7:00 and then rely on a tuk tuk to get me back to the hotel. As it turned out, I made one giant loop without even knowing it.
While I had collected a few interesting story ideas along the way, I suspected the best story of Saturday #87 would play itself out later that night at a local restaurant called Tyson Kitchen. I noticed the popular looking restaurant when I arrived in Vientiane on Monday.
At the very least, a visit to Tyson Kitchen would give me a chance to post this photo. For about 12 years I lived with an old black cat named Tyson. I adopted the former stray when a big hearted neighbour paid for his reconstructive jaw surgery after an unfortunate run-in with the King Streetcar. When it came to naming a very large, very tough, very black, and incrediblly thick-headed cat with a high-pitched voice (his vocal chords had been damaged in the accident) I knew that he was most definitely a “Tyson” (as in Mike Tyson).
Less than a month before I was scheduled to leave Canada – after having lined up a new home for the old boy – I came home from work one night to find him unable to get off the sofa. I put him in a laundry basket and rushed him across town to an after hours clinic. The prognosis wasn’t good. Kidney failure. He passed away within a few hours. These days I tend to notice black cats and references to the name Tyson, so something told me that a visit to ‘Tyson Kitchen’ should be part of my Saturday.
Within a minute of being seated near the kitchen, the young guy manning the pizza oven struck up a conversation. He introduced himself as Tyson. Although clearly of Asian heritage, he spoke perfect English with absolutely no discernible accent to my ear. That’s pretty rare in Laos so I asked where he was from.
“Well, I was born in Thailand, but my family moved to Manitoba, Canada when I was a baby. Now I divide my time between Vancouver and Laos.”
Okay, there’s definitely a story here, I said.
Tyson had a steady stream of pizza orders to tend to so he introduced me to his father who was visiting from Vancouver. Xay Ly (pronounced “Sigh Lee”) sat down at my table and needed only minimal prodding before he told me the story of his life. I think it’s worth repeating.
Xay was born Laos in the 1950s, near the border with Vietnam. When American forces started bombing the border region in 1963, the teenager fled to the jungle. Like thousands of others, he survived by growing crops, sleeping in a camouflaged trench, and being careful not to light fires during the day for fear the B52 pilots would see the smoke. Life was tough in the jungle but at least he survived – unlike 58,200 US troops and between 800,000 and 3-million Asian civilians. Xay remained in the jungle until the end of the war in 1975.
With the war finally over, Xay and his fiancé Vandy moved to the east side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, on the east side of the Lao / Communist border. By October 1977 the couple had married and were living in Savannakhet, Laos when they had their first child. Three weeks after Vandy gave birth to a baby girl, Xay arranged for a boat captain to take them on a 3:00 a.m. crossing to the Thai said of the Mekong River.
Things didn’t exactly go as planned. Xay was immediately jailed and didn’t see his wife or newborn daughter for seven days. When he was released they were sent to a refugee camp at Nong Khai, Thailand. Two years later they were still living in the refugee camp when their first son was born. They named him Ty (pronounced “Tee”). Surviving in the jungle of Laos was tough but caring for two babies in a refugee camp was no holiday either. Thankfully things took a dramatic turn for the better on the morning of Sunday, September 2, 1979. Xay remembers it like it was yesterday. An official called out his name and informed him that he had been accepted for resettlement in a country called Canada.
Within a few days the family of four found themselves in Montreal where they spent three nights at an army base. On the fourth day they flew to Winnipeg. On the fifth day they met their sponsors from the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee). By the end of the week they were living in the small farming community of Morweena, Manitoba. Xay told me that Morweena is located in the RM of Bifrost, near the larger community of Arborg, about 140 km north of Winnipeg.
Neither Xay or Vandy spoke a word of English when they arrived in Canada. At first they thought Manitoba was cold. It was the second week of September. It was about to get a whole lot colder!
The family of four were provided with a house trailer on a Mennonite farm. There was no running water and no indoor bathroom, even in the dead of winter. It wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t a war zone. There were no unexploded land mines or cluster bombs. Their sponsors and neighbours in the farming community were very nice. And most importantly, they knew their kids were safe in Morweena and had a bright future in Canada.
On his first day in Morweena, Xay was handed a hammer and nails and put to work building trusses in a carpentry shop. He befriended his boss, a man by the name of Harold Reimer. Despite being 5′-2″ and not much more than 110 lbs, Xay was soon moved to a more physically demanding job with Reimer Building Movers.
Tyson later told me a favourite family story of the time Xay and a crew from Reimer Building Movers were hauling a large house through Winnipeg. It had two large gables that were taller than the overhead traffic signals that lined the route. Being the smallest and nimblest guy on the crew, Xay was dispatched to the roof of the building to physically swing the traffic signals out of the way when the house approached. After the first of the two gables cleared the overhead wires and the hanging traffic signals, Harold yelled for Xay to climb down and move to the second gable which was about to pass under the same obstacles. Xay didn’t think this was a particularly efficient way to achieve the stated goal so he simply bear-hugged the traffic signal which was some 30 or 40 feet in the air. After a minute or so the house had inched forward and Xay was able to let himself down onto the second gable. Harold shook his head but had to admit that Xay’s plan had saved them from starting and stopping the whole procession.
Then there was the day that Xay was visiting his boss’ wife, Marlene, who was in the hospital with a newborn baby. Marlene was trying to come up with a name for her baby when Xay said, “While you’re at it, come up with some Canadian names for my kids. He had already changed the spelling of their last name from Ly to Lee (so Canadians would be able to pronounce it correctly) and he knew that his son’s name was confusing to Canadians as well. After all, “Ty” was actually pronounced “Tee”. It was Marlene Reimer who decided that little Ty would be renamed Tyson, while his siblings would be Jenny and John. When it came time to pick a name for her own baby boy, Marlene Reimer stuck with the “J” theme and named him James. Yes, that James Reimer; the one from Arborg, Manitoba who didn’t play organized hockey until the age of 13 when he was “discovered” at a Mennonite hockey tournament in Steinbach, Manitoba.
A few years later Xay moved his young family to Winnipeg where he took an indoor job at a styrofoam factory. While Xay worked days at the plant, Vandy stayed home and watched Days of Our Lives. I’m kidding. Actually, she babysat five kids in addition to her own three. When Xay came home from work, Vandy would head out for her own four-hour shift doing janitorial work. She made $4 an hour.
The Lees scrimped and saved and soon they bought a house on one of the worst streets in Winnipeg’s hardscrabble North End, right beside the CNR Railway tracks. The house shook every time a train passed, which was often. Xay worked days at the plant and spent his nights looking after the kids. In his spare time he renovated the house. He sold it after one year, pocketing a $22,000 profit.
Next he bought a vacant lot from the City of Winnipeg for $8000. It wasn’t exactly a choice piece of land but he built a home on it and sold it a year later for $82,000. Over the next seven years he built five more homes, and the family lived in each one during construction. When not working on the houses, he moved furniture with a truck he had purchased for his burgeoning construction business. As he started to take on larger projects, he’d hire tradesmen on the condition they hire him back as an assistant. It wasn’t long before he’d learned enough that he didn’t require many tradesmen.
By 1988 the Lees were mortgage-free and looking for more opportunity than appeared to be available in Winnipeg. They settled on Abbotsford, BC. It didn’t hurt that winters in the Lower Mainland were a little more to Xay’s liking. After all, he was accustomed to steamy 40C jungle weather and not the bone-dry -25C temperatures that paralyzed Manitoba that winter. After building a few successful single family and multi-unit projects in Abbotsford, Xay loaded up the truck and moved the family to Surrey and eventually Vancouver. Along the way he built another 100 homes and rental units, some of which he still owns.
Early in 2014 Xay was vacationing in Laos when he noticed a building near the popular Night Market. Although it was leased, he felt that it was underutilized. It wasn’t Robson Street, that’s for sure, but it was one of the best streets in Vientiane, near a major tourist attraction and dozens of hotels, guesthouses and hostels. Pizza, he said. This place should be a casual pizza restaurant with a big wood burning pizza oven. He bought it the next day. As it was still leased to a tenant for another year, he had some time to figure out the details.
This is where Tyson re-enters the story. He had tried his hand at a number of jobs in the Lower Mainland, most recently with the Planning Department at the City of Langley, BC. Dad called him on New Year’s Eve and asked if he was ready to start his own business. In Laos. He was, he said. After all, he had always wanted to run his own restaurant.
“There’s just one issue,” said his dad. “You gotta have some skin in the game.” So Tyson took a relatively high paying job as a labourer in Northern Alberta. The cash cow lasted six months until the price of oil plummeted and layoff notices went out by the thousands. He then took a job in Vancouver where he socked away something just as valuable as oil patch cash – first hand experience working in a gourmet pizza restaurant.
When I visited on Saturday #87 the Lees were celebrating the restaurant’s eighth birthday. Eight days, that is. The couple seated to my right were making their third visit to the restaurant. To my left was a group of eight women who work for an NGO. It was their second or third visit as well. When they left, a group of 10 local kids took their place at the long table. Most of them had been to Tyson Kitchen at least once. When a German couple who were seated behind me heard the conversation, they admitted that they had been in for lunch just five hours earlier.
If repeat business is a gauge of success, Tyson clearly has a hit on his hands. I hope that when he expands to North America and takes on Domino’s, Little Caesar’s and the godawful Canadian chain Pizza Pizza, I’ll be able to say that I ate at his original location on his 8th night in business. It might sound far-fetched right now but I wouldn’t bet against the hard-working Lees.
Xay (white shirt) doing what he does best – schmoozing customers Epilogue: I left Tyson Kitchen around midnight and an hour later I noticed a Toronto Star tweet announcing that James Reimer had just been traded by the Toronto Maple Leafs to the San Jose Sharks. It was pretty surreal as we were talking about him at the very time he would have received the news.