The legacy of longtime Atlanta restaurateur Betty Hsu

Betty Hsu holds her Malaysian Yellow Curry Chicken at the Chinese New Year party at Sweet Auburn BBQ in February.
Betty Hsu holds her Malaysian Yellow Curry Chicken at the Chinese New Year party at Sweet Auburn BBQ in February.

If you could invite anyone to dinner, whom would you choose?

I’d pick Betty Hsu. Unfortunately, I’ll never get the chance.

Betty Pik Ling Hsu, 70, passed away May 29, after having been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer less than two weeks earlier. I regret not having met her. She was my kind of woman.

"My mother was one of the strongest, hardest working, vivacious, and selfless persons I know," her son, Ron Hsu, wrote on Instagram after she died.

She certainly instilled a strong work ethic in her three adult children — Howard, Anita and Ron — who followed their mother's footsteps with careers in the restaurant industry. The siblings are partners at newly opened fine-dining establishment Lazy Betty, with Ron as the executive chef there. It's the latest dining concept for Howard and Anita, who operate Sweet Auburn Barbecue, but they have been in the biz since graduating from the University of Georgia and opening Gezzo's West Coast Burritos in Henry Country.

The Hsu siblings sat around a patio table at Lazy Betty, whose tongue-in-cheek name pays homage to the Hsu matriarch and her formidable character. I wanted to learn about their mother’s career path, and how the Malaysian woman came to reside in Georgia, where she and her husband, George Hsu, operated numerous Chinese restaurants from 1980 to 2008.

A photo of Betty Hsu in her early 20s. She immigrated from Malaysia to the U.S. in the early 1970s. CONTRIBUTED BY HOWARD HSU
A photo of Betty Hsu in her early 20s. She immigrated from Malaysia to the U.S. in the early 1970s. CONTRIBUTED BY HOWARD HSU

Despite a childhood in Julau, a poor village in Malaysia, Betty and her brother were the first in their family to attend college, thanks in large part to a mother who valued education. She studied in Taiwan, and at Lincoln University, an ocean away in Oakland, California.

When her visa expired, young Betty returned to Malaysia. It was there, in 1974, that she married George Hsu, whom she had known in high school. But, America is where opportunity lay, so the young couple returned to the States and settled in San Francisco. Soon after, baby Howard was born. Five years later, in 1980, Anita came along.

That was the same year that an opportunity arose for George to run a restaurant in Georgia. The couple seized it. George left to set things up at Imperial Garden in Stone Mountain, while Betty stayed behind with their young son and infant daughter, until George gave the green light to pack things up and move the family across the country to a place where they knew barely a soul.

“I don’t know how my mom and dad did it,” Ron said of the gutsy move.

“If you were given an opportunity, you just take advantage of it,” Anita said of her immigrant parents’ mindset.

Betty and George Hsu turned a black and white family photo into an advertisement that declared Hunan Village one of the world’s best Chinese restaurants. The ad circulated in publications and even on a billboard along I-75. CONTRIBUTED BY RON HSU
Betty and George Hsu turned a black and white family photo into an advertisement that declared Hunan Village one of the world’s best Chinese restaurants. The ad circulated in publications and even on a billboard along I-75. CONTRIBUTED BY RON HSU

The couple later opened their own Chinese restaurant, Hunan Village, in Stockbridge. It was the first Chinese restaurant in Henry County, and the first of several Hunan Village locations, scattered among the cities of Griffin, McDonough, Ellenwood and Locust Grove. Each was numbered, except that there was no Hunan Village 4 or 6, because those are inauspicious numbers in Chinese culture. The Mandarin pronunciation of the word four is similar to that which means “death,” and, in Cantonese, the number six sounds a lot like a word that means “to deplete” or “decline.” Bad juju. Betty would have none of it.

Betty experimented with one of the Hunan Villages, the Hsu siblings recalled, turning it into a Mexican-Chinese restaurant for a while.

“She tried it all,” Anita said. That included opening a Chinese chicken wing shop in East Atlanta when East Atlanta was sketchy, without its hipster vibe of today. “You gotta have gut” is a Betty mantra that her kids heard often.

Another gutsy move: turning a black and white Hsu family photo into an advertisement that declared Hunan Village “One of the World’s Best Chinese Restaurants.” It was one of the world’s best Chinese restaurants because Betty said so. Not only did the ad circulate in community papers, it made its way into the pages of Woodward Academy publications, and even onto a billboard along I-75.

In a recent photo, Betty Hsu poses after having colored her hair hot pink. A visit to the High Museum of Art to see Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” inspired Hsu’s eccentric side, and reignited her love of art. She painted more than 100 pieces for an art exhibit, but was too ill to attend the show. CONTRIBUTED BY HOWARD HSU
In a recent photo, Betty Hsu poses after having colored her hair hot pink. A visit to the High Museum of Art to see Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” inspired Hsu’s eccentric side, and reignited her love of art. She painted more than 100 pieces for an art exhibit, but was too ill to attend the show. CONTRIBUTED BY HOWARD HSU

Oh, Betty! You’re a hoot. Tell me, after you sold the restaurants and started working part-time in the deli at Target, what prompted you to use Fruity Pebbles instead of roe as a garnish for sushi rolls? Anita tells me you loved to experiment with food, that you never followed a recipe — but putting sugar cereal on a roll? You were doing global mashups long before that became cool.

And, I hear you could make pot stickers with your eyes closed. Anita and Ron recall making those dumplings with you at the restaurant, day after day, for hours. “Americans love dumplings!” you would tell them.

Anita really is going to miss your Malaysian yellow curry chicken. You had quite a way with the broth. And, the kids know to wait until the end to add coconut milk.

Ron finds its humorous that you liked Waffle House steak and eggs, your favorite dish from that diner — better than the ones he has on the Lazy Betty chef’s tasting menu, in homage to you.

Your kids admire your generosity. You sponsored so many family members and other foreigners, to provide them with a fresh start in the U.S. Of course, it meant that Ron had to give up his bed, sometimes for months at a time. Turning Howard’s closet into a bedroom — now, that’s resourceful thinking.

You and I share a love of language. You spoke five Chinese dialects — and learned English as an adult. Even the Henry County police respected your language skills. Do you remember back in 2000, when they came to Hunan Village, asking for your help as a translator during that bizarre jewel heist? You talked to the frightened wife of a Hong Kong jeweler, whose husband was shot when some men forced their car off the highway and stole it, along with nearly $2 million worth of jewelry.

Betty Hsu (far left) at the March, 2018, wedding of her eldest son, Howard, and his bride, Melissa Mitchell Hsu, in the Florida Keys. Betty Hsu, who passed away in late May, is survived by husband George, three children and three grandchildren. CONTRIBUTED BY HOWARD HSU
Betty Hsu (far left) at the March, 2018, wedding of her eldest son, Howard, and his bride, Melissa Mitchell Hsu, in the Florida Keys. Betty Hsu, who passed away in late May, is survived by husband George, three children and three grandchildren. CONTRIBUTED BY HOWARD HSU

The story even made The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

You were in the middle of dinner rush, but you even accompanied the police to the hospital, to translate the wounded husband’s account of the incident.

“I’m busy that night, but I like to help, you know?” you told the reporter.

You were never too busy to lend a hand, were you?

And after you retired, you were a presence at your kids’ restaurants. “She loved to be involved in her way,” Howard said.

You certainly parented until your final breath. You could have passed away May 28, on Anita’s birthday. Instead, you waited an hour; Anita’s birthday will remain her special day. And, it isn’t forgotten by those who understand Chinese beliefs that you slipped away during the quiet hours of the night, rather than during a mealtime. “It signifies she was leaving the bounty for us,” Anita said.

Betty, I wish I could have dined with you. There is much wisdom you could share through the stories of your life. Luckily, your children are here to retell them.

Oh, and if they decide to open another Hunan Village, it will be Hunan Village 8 — the luckiest number of all.

> Read and sign the onine guestbook for Betty Hsu

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