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A Wok With Jesus

Times Staff Writer

The dining room lights are dimmed at the A&J; Restaurant, a tiny strip-mall eatery where a handful of Chinese kitchen workers relax at tables during the lull between the lunch and dinner rush.

The customers gone, the owner away running errands, the place is as quiet as a chapel. The only noise is the hum of the cooler chilling the green bottles of Tsingtao beer and slabs of brown tofu.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 21, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Chinese restaurant: A front-page article June 14 about a minister who tends to Chinese restaurant workers referred to the A&J; Restaurant in San Jose. The establishment’s name is ASJ Restaurant.

It’s time to pray with Esther Lou.

She breezes in saleswoman-friendly, a onetime Chinese restaurant owner turned religious crusader who knows her way around a professional kitchen and the exhausting lives endured by legions of low-paid food workers.

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Pulling up a chair, she zeroes in on chef De Bin Hong, a thin man in a dirty white shirt and pants, a gold chain around his neck. She asks about his health and family. Then it’s down to business: How is he coping with his gambling addiction?

Over time, Hong says, he has lost enough money “to buy two Mercedes.” He has left work to gamble all night, returning just in time for the next day’s shift.

In a flash, Lou’s Bible is out, her glasses discarded onto the Formica table. Along with volunteer Li Xun, she lays her hand on Hong’s shoulder. The three clamp their eyes shut.

“Please, God,” Lou whispers, “when the urge to gamble comes again to this poor man, protect him from himself.”

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At 56, the Taiwan-born Lou is a restaurant shepherd of sorts, an evangelist who brings the holy word directly to her disparate flock: the stir-fry cooks, dumpling-makers and dishwashers who toil in the greasy confines of Chinese kitchens.

Nationwide, more than 1 million immigrants work in 41,350 Chinese restaurants -- from mom-and-pop takeouts to mammoth buffet enterprises employing hundreds, according to the Fremont, Calif.-based Chinese Restaurant News.

Though many restaurants hire non-Asian workers, Lou’s ministry concentrates on the Chinese -- the people she knows best.

It’s a subculture hidden from most Americans. Speaking little or no English, many Chinese immigrants must settle for dispiriting kitchen work -- laboring 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Many, here illegally, have no access to labor unions or social service networks. They live in cramped restaurant-owned dormitories or in rented garages without cooking facilities, bathrooms or running water.

To cope with their harsh living conditions and mind-numbingly mundane work, many fall prey to gambling, drugs, alcohol and prostitution.

Among the worn wooden chopping boards and flashing meat cleavers, hissing deep-fryers and walk-in freezers, the desire for a higher calling is fierce.

“In every kitchen, there’s always the same tired old man hiding in the corner near the stove that is his life,” Lou said. “For all of these people, I want to serve as a bridge, not only to religion, but to a better life.”

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Lou started her local ministry in 1995, networking with Christian churches for volunteers and space to hold meetings. She has helped launch start-ups in cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston and even Lima, Peru.

In Southern California, the outreach is still small: About a dozen volunteers approach Chinese kitchen workers in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys and Orange County.

Her approach is simple: less Bible reading, more real talk. “We introduce these workers to God, let them know that Jesus loves them. That’s it.”

She has started dozens of restaurant worship teams and offers free English classes to attract potential converts. There are also late-night prayer sessions that begin at 10:30 p.m., after most restaurants close.

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Lou also hits the streets in places such as Oakland’s Chinatown, scouting out possible restaurant workers: people in dirty white kitchen uniforms, grease-caked shoes, carrying plastic takeout bags.

“Are you Chinese?” she asks. “I know your job is hard. Can we talk?”

Lou knows the pitfalls of the restaurant life. Years ago, after her husband became addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine, the couple lost their five Chinese restaurants.

Risking their livelihood and nearly their marriage, both eventually found God.

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Lou is inspired by the Taiwanese pot-sticker cook who toiled for her family for 30 years. When he died in 1998, Lou asked his two daughters to speak at the worker’s funeral. “They said they didn’t know much about him,” she said. “We knew him better than they did.”

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Esther Lou married into the restaurant business. In 1967, her husband’s family opened the King Tsin eatery in Berkeley. The couple later owned five locations.

After a long day, they blew off steam by partying with favorite customers. Eventually, Kang Lou got hooked on drugs. For 19 years, he kept his drug use secret from his wife. “I was very tricky,” says Lou, 62.

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While Esther Lou tried to help her husband kick his habit, the two briefly separated.

Through her struggles, she found religion. Visiting Finland in 1995, she saw the work of the Chinese Christian Herald Crusade Restaurant Mission and vowed to bring the idea back home.

After the couple’s last restaurant closed, Esther Lou attended seminary school in Walnut Creek and focused on her ministry work. Kang Lou got cleaned up and has often joined her campaign.

Yet not everyone has been so enthusiastic. Many congregants at her church in suburban Walnut Creek disagreed with reaching out to often illiterate restaurant laborers. But she wasn’t deterred.

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“She’s very aggressive -- if she sees something worth doing, she’ll just do it, even if she uses unconventional means,” said Richard Yu, pastor of the Contra Costa Gospel Church. “She’s stepped on toes along the way.”

She hit a status wall.

“In our culture, restaurant workers have a lower social place,” Yu said. “I’m sure deep down she was hurt that people rebuffed her. But she pushed that aside and moved on.”

Lou recruited volunteers from social service groups and the Christian Witness Theological Seminary in nearby Concord, from which she graduated in 2002.

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Still, many restaurant owners were suspicious. Some threw her pamphlets on the ground, assuming that she was there to steal recipe secrets or valuable employees, she said.

Betsy Liu once owned a Japanese restaurant staffed by Chinese workers. She rejected Lou, who then turned her attentions to the owner’s ailing father.

“She came to my home to pray,” Liu recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of pushy.’ My dad passed away eight months later. Thanks to Esther, he became a Christian before he died. I feel better about that.”

Liu now works for the cause.

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Not all Lou’s efforts end happily. She lent one man hundreds of dollars only to find he had swindled her.

She’s been stood up after driving late at night to pick up others for services. “One night I just broke down crying in my car,” she said. “I said, ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this?’ ”

Lou’s first challenge with many kitchen workers is to raise their self-esteem. In the often impersonal Chinese restaurant atmosphere, employees performing the most menial tasks are often treated with disrespect.

They’re often called by crude nicknames, or just “old man.”

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Lou has heard of a local prostitute whose clients are restaurant workers. Many do not want sex, Lou said, but are just looking to wield power over a stranger. “These men have become dehumanized, so they pay the prostitutes to do demeaning things -- like lick between their toes. They say, ‘I have money. I call the shots. You will do what I say.’ ”

People in the restaurant business acknowledge a regimen called going “from the pillow to the stove,” with no other life.

“Sadly, it’s true,” said Betty Xie, editor in chief of the Chinese Restaurant News. “Workers are lonely. They came from far away and don’t have family with them. With no English skills, they don’t have any choices.

“They’re trapped by the restaurant life. They see no hope.”

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The dim-sum servers at the Legendary Palace restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown clamor for Esther Lou’s attention.

She has offered them free English classes, and their carts bang together as they scramble for her business card.

Outside, Lou passes several Asian men in white smocks and hip boots, eating their lunch of rice and vegetables as they sit atop plastic crates along the sidewalk. Like a politician, she shakes hands, spreading the good word.

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Later, Lou joins three workers at a nearby restaurant as they methodically snap open bean pods for that night’s recipes.

Stepping gingerly across the slick kitchen floor, she joins hands to pray with them as half a dozen others look up from their labors.

Eyes shut, she asks that the stove will make good food and that customers will leave satisfied. When she finishes, the room erupts into applause.

Then Esther Lou makes her exit. There are more kitchen souls to save.

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