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William Wong, 88; restaurateur who built Kowloon in Saugus

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / August 10, 2011

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William Wong built the Kowloon Restaurant in Saugus one tiny paper parasol at a time. Over more than 60 years, he and his family turned a 24-seat Chinese restaurant into a landmark 1,200-seat Asian dining and entertainment complex where generations of customers sipped monkey mist cocktails amid giant carved tikis and an erupting volcano.

Mr. Wong, who lived in Boston and was known for his philanthropy, died Saturday in Massachusetts General Hospital after a long illness. He was 88.

“He’s our family hero,’’ said his son Donald H. of Saugus, who is a state representative. “My father always said we give back to the community because the community has given so much to us.’’

Born in Boston, Mr. Wong and his wife, Madeline, took over the Mandarin House, a former ice cream parlor on Route 1, in the 1950s and opened Kowloon in 1959, amid America’s love affair with the South Seas.

Mr. Wong designed Kowloon with ideas he gathered on a long honeymoon with his wife, including stops in Honolulu, San Francisco, and Miami, according to his family. He built a kitchen far bigger than the dining room, knowing he would one day expand.

In the restaurant’s early days, Mr. Wong cooked, and Madeline was a waitress and hostess. They were married 63 years and had six children.

“They came home one night, and I saw them dancing on the kitchen floor,’’ Donald said. “That was when Chubby Checker came up with the twist, and they showed me and my sister how to do it.’’

Madeline Wong also spent decades as a top life insurance representative for John Hancock, where in 1983 she was the first woman to earn membership in the company’s top sales club. Her husband helped launch her career in the 1950s by driving her to meet clients, according to the family.

Mr. Wong learned the restaurant business working for his parents, Goe Shing and Lem Ding, at the family’s Mai Fong restaurant near Symphony Hall in Boston.

As a boy, he studied at the Quincy School in Boston before he was sent to boarding school in Canton, China, at age 6.

He returned to Boston as a teenager and later attended the New England Aircraft School. But the restaurant business became his career. He and his father opened one of the first Japanese restaurants in Boston, creating a second-level spot called Sukiyaki above their location on Massachusetts Avenue.

Though accustomed to 16-hour workdays, Mr. Wong urged his own children to lead balanced lives.

“He would always say, ‘Don’t work too hard,’ ’’ said another son, Bob. “He knew work wasn’t everything. . . . He said, ‘Spend time with your family’; that was the key. He’s the best guy I’ve ever known.’’

Mr. Wong handed his children the reins to the Kowloon with patience and support, Bob said. A fourth generation now works at the complex, which employs 250 and has annual revenues of more than $8 million.

“He always encouraged us to do what we thought was best,’’ Bob said. “He didn’t criticize. We looked to him for guidance, and he was always positive.’’

Mr. Wong and his wife were inducted into the Massachusetts Hospitality Hall of Fame in 2001.

Mr. Wong funded scholarships in Saugus, Boston, and China. He was known for generous donations of food over the years and received an honorary doctorate in public service from Northeastern University in 1993. He also was a second-generation Shriner and past national president of the Wong Family Association.

Mr. Wong last visited Kowloon in July, using a wheelchair to pass under the 15-foot tiki carving guarding the door to the pagoda-shaped building. His early menu of Mandarin dishes is now a thick book of Chinese-Polynesian-Thai-Japanese cuisine.

“He took his normal spot at the little bar where the register is,’’ Bob said. “He got to see a lot of the employees, see some regular customers, and watch what was going on.’’

In addition to his wife and sons Donald and Bob, Mr. Wong leaves sons Stanley and Andrew of Saugus; daughters Linda and Elizabeth of Saugus; brothers Perry of Brookline and Douglas of Houston; sister Jenny of Baltimore; 15 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A service will be held at 10 a.m. today in Waterman and Sons Funeral Home on Commercial Street in Boston. Burial will be in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.