Elaine Chin on maintaining the family business — and the family garden

‘You can grow something beautiful with very little, just community and commitment’

Reporting and writing by Dani Jauk 

Every year when I visit the annual spring plant exchange at Chin’s Place on West Market Street, I enjoy seeing the large restaurant parking lot filled with little and large pots, tiny cups with and without neat labels, pans, trays and greens in all sizes and shapes. There’s loud chatter across the lot, people aged one month to 80+, talking God, the world and gardening. 

In the middle of it all a woman with a huge smile offering bags and gardening advice who has become an Akron icon: Elaine Chin.

Chin’s Place is a magnet in Akron, and not only for the delicious and original Cantonese take-out food. Co-owner Elaine Chin has helped her father grow a luscious flower and vegetable garden for decades, and she grows community and nurtures the neighborhood with her kindness. 

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Elaine and her parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1980, when she was 7 years old. She remembers the wonder of her first snow that year. Elaine’s parents were already the third generation of Chins to live and work in the U.S. Yet each set of parents moved back to China, so their children always were “new immigrants,” Elaine points out. 

The family started from scratch in Akron with $200 Elaine’s mother had gotten for selling her jewelry. The parents worked in restaurants to care for Elaine and her three brothers. Saving every penny, Elaine’s father built the first Chin’s takeout restaurant on Copley Road in 1988 with his own hands from pieces of wood. 

The family “pulled together” and persisted through Anti-Asian racism of that time. Elaine shares how her grandfather came to the children’s defense: “I remember one day my grandfather walked us to school with a broom because kids would throw snowballs at us and yell at us. I am happy Akron is more diversified now. It was crazy as a child.” 

Elaine has developed a huge heart and compassion for people less fortunate. Elaine is the kind of person who will go out in the garden and pick you a bouquet to go with your lunch if you have a bad day, because she is invested in “little things people could do,” she says. “That’s how we can change the world. You want to believe in the goodness of the world. You have to notice the small joys in life. And you want to be a small joy in someone else’s life.” 

In Elaine’s cosmos every individual is like a flower: “Each person has their own individual beauty in their own color shade and shines in their own season.” 

In 2000 Chin’s moved to its current location on West Market Street, where they have cooked their original Cantonese dishes from Monday to Saturday since. All dishes are made from scratch after original recipes. Elaine’s brother is the chef and was sent back to China to be trained in original techniques. 

“Chinese cooking is really secretive,” says Elaine, “they don’t share recipes because it stays within a clan or a village. It’s a secret art.” 

The family honors this tradition and the old-world recipes for their menu and herbal tonics for the family are not written down anywhere. The Chins carry them in their heads and hearts and learn them by observation. 

“We still trim our own meat. We still roll our own egg rolls. We still cut the cabbage. Some restaurants will buy buckets of duck sauce. We still make it by hand where we grind the ginger and all the spices. My brother still grinds his own ‘five spice,’ and that makes our food a little bit different,” Elaine says.

Elaine has a college education and dreams of traveling, but her life has always been the business. Her parents were never fluent in English. Elaine was their voice from a young age, doing paperwork and business dealings from the time she was 14. 

Chin’s in Akron is more than a restaurant. It has become an urban respite and a symbol of neighborly loving kindness. Behind the parking lot, an ornamental Chinese portal opens into a luscious and colorful flower and food oasis. Long Chinese beans hang down onto yellow raspberries to meet pink peonies and chives. 

“In China, we were farmers. We’ve grown peanuts and I played in the shade of sugar cane. You had to take care of yourself. There’s no extras under communism, so you want to grow fruit trees and food. It was automatic for my parents to change an empty space into a garden,” explains Elaine. 

In his later years, Mr. Chin spent six hours in the garden every day, Elaine says. He manicured every inch and continued to share vegetables and flowers freely. Few neighbors ever heard him speak, yet many saw his earthy hands reach them a bag of produce with a shy smile.

Elaine took her father’s garden a step further and started her annual neighborhood plant exchange about 10 years ago. The plant sale usually takes place around Mother’s Day as a way to connect with neighbors and friends and as a way to beautify the community in a holistic way. 

“You can grow something beautiful with very little; just community and commitment,” Elaine says. “It’s very therapeutic for a lot of people with challenges in their life. And gardening is — I think it’s a beautiful thing because it transforms your yard, but then you are also nurturing something within you. That is amazing.” 

Elaine is blossoming when she shares how now everybody in the neighborhood is helping with the plant exchange. In some years, 200 people in a day have traded plants and phone numbers in Chin’s lot.

“The beautiful people in this world make the pain and suffering bearable when you are down. Spring is around the corner and rebirth comes around again,” Elaine says. “The gardens give me so much joy and the beauty of the flowers are each unique. I love the anticipation of blooms during garden season.  It brings me so much joy… I see lost souls taking a respite in the gardens and just hiding in the back to leave the sounds of the city. This year, I am going to try to make it beautiful, and like the way my dad had it.”

Dani Jauk is an exiled Austrian and Akron lover, assistant professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Akron, proud mama of Amani (7) and a coffee fiend. She digs gender diversity and equality, social justice and gardens, sometimes literally.

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