In 1984, when Ya Ling Yen came to the United States from her home country of Taiwan, she had no idea that in five years she would own a Chinese restaurant in Durango.
Yen came to America to attend a master’s program at the University of Texas in Austin. She had studied political science as an undergraduate in Taiwan and had dreams of becoming a diplomat.
“Since I was growing up, I wanted to be in public service,” Yen said.
In 1987, Yen visited Durango on a fishing trip and worked that summer at May Palace. She liked it so much she came back the next summer. Then, in 1989, the owner called her and asked if she wanted to buy the restaurant.
Yen left her master’s program with one semester to go and moved to Durango on March 23, 1989, to run May Palace Restaurant. April 1 was her first day on the job.
“I figured it was a good day to start,” Yen said. “If it didn’t work, April Fools!”
Yen’s father owned a restaurant while she grew up in Taiwan, but having never studied business or owned her own restaurant, it was a significant leap. Additionally, like many other places in 1989, Durango’s businesses were male-dominated.
Her son, Dragon Cruz-Yen, said, “When she first came to this town specifically, she came as an outsider in every way possible.”
As a young woman and foreign-born business owner, Yen said she experienced challenges in Durango. But she never took them personally. Yen said when people don’t know you, they are going to test you to see how determined you are. She faced the challenge head-on.
“It was tough, but I’m tougher! Don’t be discouraged when people tell you you can’t do something, you have the obligation to show them you have the determination to succeed,” Yen said.
Citing her resolve to prove herself and her desire for the business to succeed, Yen worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day for the first 28 years.
“The Chinese, we are a determined people,” she said. She draws on a traditional Chinese teaching about patience to share her own personal philosophy: “If you try hard, try harder.”
Her work ethic has rubbed off on others, including her son as he grew up watching his mom in the restaurant. But above all, Cruz-Yen said he grew to appreciate and learn from the love his mom put into her work.
“When I got to work with her, I got to see someone who is really doing something they enjoy and love, which was an inspiration for me to go find something like that for myself,” said Cruz-Yen, who is in college.
Diplomatic work in the restaurantEven though she never become a diplomat, Yen sees the same principles in her work now as she would have used in diplomatic work.
Yen said, as a diplomat, one works to get two sides to understand each other. Although it is a smaller platform, she thinks her restaurant is also a place people can come together to better understand each other.
“You like the food, then we talk, then we are friends,” Yen said.
She believes the restaurant is able to make people understand each other one-on-one, which ultimately makes the world a better place.
“People can come to fill their bellies, but also their brains,” Yen said.
However, because of current COVID-19 health restrictions, May Palace is only open for takeout, which means the restaurant is selling about half the meals it usually does, and it limits the ability for people to connect in her restaurant. Her priority, however, is the safety of her customers and staff members.
Community valuesAt this point in her life, Yen has lived in Durango longer than she did in Taiwan, and she takes pride in being a member of the community.
“The restaurant is for local people,” she said. “Tourists are the cream on top, but I want the restaurant to be for local people because this is my home.”
One way she has tried to ensure May Palace stays a local favorite is by keeping prices low. In 33 years, she has raised prices by only $3.
“I joke that every 11 years, I raise prices by $1,” Yen said.
Part of the reason Yen unexpectedly settled in Durango was because it was a small town with friendly people.
“I picked Durango over a Ph.D., a big city and Taiwan,” Yen said.
And, even as Durango grows, Yen tries to keep alive the aspects of Durango she loves: small town charm and down-to-earth values.
“As long as I’m here, May Palace will be here. It will be comfortable, a place to enjoy a conversation, and hopefully people don’t mind I talk too much,” Yen says with a laugh.
Thinking about his mother’s lessons, Cruz-Yen says, “Have fun doing what you do, do something good and don’t make a big fuss.”