What does America mean to you?

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Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955 with East Clairemont in the distance.

by Bill Swank

Kay Chau and Tek Heng were neighbors in Cambodia. Kay arrived in San Diego as a refugee in 1979. Tek went to Seattle. Through their families, they got together, married and, in 1986, opened TK (Tek-Kay) Donuts in the north end of the Clairemont Village Shopping Center by Iroquois Avenue.

Tek said, “We came to America to work; we came for freedom. The communists killed innocent people in Cambodia. There is more freedom here.”

He explained how Cambodians became Southern California’s donut makers. “A man name Ngoy came to Orange County in 1975 and worked for Winchell’s. He learned to make donuts and opened his own donut store. Other Cambodians learned this was a good job. We try the best to hold our job.”

Kay Chau Heng
Kay Chau Heng 

A nephew, Sam Lee, was seated near the back of the business. He added, “I am Cambodian. I work in a donut shop in Old Town.” His ambition is to someday open his own shop and work long hours.

Seven days a week, Tek and Kay labor from 1am until 1pm. There is a steady stream of loyal customers every day. Ed Freedman has been coming to TK for over 20 years. “They make the best donuts in town,” he said.

Brittney Hovsepian and her children, Michael (8) and Jade (7) were meeting friends, Shiloh Sarlin and daughter, Ava, for donuts and chocolate milk. Brittney and the Heng’s daughter, Janette, became friends at Bay Park Elementary. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl,” said Brittney.

Michael, Brittney and Jade Hovsepian at TK Donuts
Michael, Brittney and Jade Hovsepian at TK Donuts

Kay and Tek are very proud of daughter Janette. She graduated from the University of California, Irvine, married and is now employed as a social worker at Stanford Hospital in the Bay Area. Ed Freedman remembers when Janette was a small girl who could barely look over the display counter. Banter between the customers and owners is warm and friendly.

 

TK Donuts is “Cheers” without beer.

Zubin Kolan’s family owned two Parsi restaurants in Mumbai (Bombay), India. In 1999, he and his bride, Anaheeta, moved to Arizona where Zubin found a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken… and an Indian restaurant. KFC was from 10am to 4pm; the Indian restaurant from 5:30pm  to 10:30pm. He was off on Sundays.

The couple moved to San Diego in 2001. Zubin worked long hours in an Indian restaurant in UTC while Anaheeta attended law school. His dream was to save money and open his own restaurant.

He has fond memories of 2004 and the 4th of July when his parents and sister visited America for the first time. “We went to watch the fireworks by Anthony’s on the water,” he recalled. “My father said everything was very clean, very hygienic, big roads. He told everybody in India they should go to America.”

Later that same month, Zubin’s Bombay Coast restaurant opened at the Clairemont Square Shopping Center. There were no Indian restaurants in Clairemont at that time. “The first week was fantastic and it’s never let up,” said the engaging entrepreneur. “We love Clairemont.”

Zubin Kolan and son, Hoshedar, outside Bombay Coast restaurant
Zubin Kolan and son, Hoshedar, outside Bombay Coast restaurant

“I came to America for opportunity. I’m proud to be a citizen of the United States of America. America has given me everything: my home, my son, my name.”

Hoshedar Kolan is a soft-spoken, courteous 11 year old who becomes animated when he starts talking about action figures, Legos and the NBA. “I love basketball. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are my favorite players. I love the Cleveland Cavaliers.”

 

Zubin smiles. “My son is an all-American kid.”

An interesting note, Zubin is a practicing Zoroastrian, one of the world’s oldest religions. The Three Wisemen who brought gifts to Bethlehem were Zoroastrians. We celebrate Christmas on December 25th because of the Zoroastrians.

Yam Lee emigrated to the United States from the People’s Republic of China in 1978. “I came for freedom, a better life. It was very exciting. My sister brought me. I went to the San Diego Community College Skill Center and learned English and pipefitting. I worked for NASSCO from 7am until 3:30pm and then as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Mira Mesa from 5pm until 9:30pm. I saved my money and opened my own restaurant, Chinese Garden, at the Clairemont Quad. I also had another restaurant near the Sports Arena.”

“My wife, Sue, and other members of my family all worked at the restaurants. I’ve met so many good people in America. My children, Kathy, Richard and Frances, have all graduated from college. Richard is getting married and he bought a home in Clairemont. He could live in La Jolla, but he said he doesn’t want to live anywhere else but Claremont. My family loves Clairemont. We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Yam is an honorable man, well read, aware of current events and an excellent conversationalist with an open mind and a good sense of humor. The Lees are now retired. Yam volunteers at the Cabrillo National Monument. Yam and Sue took a trip around the world last year. It was a vacation neither could not have imagined in 1977.

Yam Lee holds Community College brochure
Yam Lee holds Community College brochure

In 2001, the San Diego Community College District published a brochure that featured 22 success stories from former students. One of those stories was about Yam Lee. His article concludes with this quote, “This is the best place in the world to live. My American dream came true.”

On the 4th of July, a large, extended family picnic will be held on the patio of the Lee home overlooking Mission Bay.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our nation, we realize that too often, our citizens take freedom and opportunity for granted. They don’t seem to understand that people who work hard and sacrifice tend to find success. Hopefully these stories about your neighbors will be an inspiration to you, your children and your grandchildren.

My father liked this observation from Abraham Lincoln: “Property is the fruit of labor… property is desirable… it is a positive good in the world… Let not him who is homeless pull down the house of another, but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

Happy 4th of July, Clairemont.

 

 

All photos by Bill Swank