It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance in order to establish oneself in their community, let alone planting a seed of success in some other. Similar is the thriving story of Monica Liu who has been given the title ‘Don of Tangra.’
Monica is courage and determination personified. Her willpower is so strong that no setback is strong enough to hold her from soaring high and raising her flag of success in an entirely different community. Her story has not been an easy one. She has faced struggle far more than many of us can imagine but her determination was unfaltering and courage, one can only dream of.
She has lived the life of refugee in her own country and was deprived of the basic rights for a long period of time. Her connection with India started when her father, Leong Tonseng, came to India from China when he was merely 14-year-old in search of work.
“The financial condition of my grandparents was not good and they were old and ailing,” recalls Monica. “As a teenager, my father had heard a lot about employment opportunities in India, so he decided to come to Kolkata where his distant uncle lived.”
In 1940s, he earned Rs 50 per month and used to send back whatever he could save. He got married to Wong Mei Yong in 1950 in China and both of them returned to Kolkata where Monica was born in 1953. “My father’s salary from the shoe shop was not enough to run a family,” remembers Monica.”
“My mother breast-fed me for a long time to save money. The aim back then was to save as much money as we could.”
Everything was going at its pace when a jolt came to shake their foundation. Her father lost his job because of an argument with the boss. This was a catastrophe for their family, which was already struggling for survival. They decided to move to Kalimpong the same year where they opened an eatery with the little fund they had saved.
“It was a very small rented shop where we sold thukpa and some Chinese curries.” It was not sufficient to take care of their needs but it somehow kept them afloat. They had just begun to stabilize when another news shook them. There was on-going tension at Indo-China border, so they had to move again from Kalimpong leaving behind all the little recognition they had accumulated.
“Our eatery business was dependent on people who came from Tibet to shop for everyday household items as they were cheaper here, but now the border was closed and our business collapsed.”
All these occurrences were devastating enough to shake their confidence, which it did for a period, but somehow failed to make them give up. In the meantime, a family friend rented out his plot to them where they started again with full zeal. This continued till 1962, by that time Monica already had four siblings.
“My school in Shillong was 8 km away and my father would give me four annas to cover one-way travel expenses for me and my sister,” she says. “While returning, we walked. I realised the value of money back then – something I will never forget.”
But as if life had not quenched it’s thirst yet, it threw another upheaval in their lives. In 1962, a war broke out and it was the most difficult phase of their lives.
It was a cold November day when the sound of boots woke us in the early hours. Soldiers asked them to pack whatever they could and were taken to Jaipur where there were already 20,000 refugees in Deoli city in Tonk district. This was a nightmare as several people died because of poor resources.
In 1968, when Monica was merely 15, she had already stayed in the camp for more than six years. She took a bold step and wrote to the home minister not fearing the consequences. She was tired of living the life of bird in a cage. Luckily, her letter had a moving impact on the government and they decided to free the captives after visiting and meeting them. After being released they moved back to Shillong where a friend rented them 300 square feet room to live for Rs 125 per month.
“My mother took a loan of Rs 200 from a friend and began to sell thukpa outside two schools. Life began to gather momentum once again,” remembers Monica.
In 1971 Monica married Liukuo Chao who was in leather business in Kolkata. She had a child that year and two more by 1976 so she began selling chemicals of leather to support the family expenses.
“I earned around Rs 50 on every transaction which was enough to buy ration for my house,” she says.
In the meantime, her brother got married and started his own salon, this inspired Monica and she took a loan of Rs 2,00,000 from a friend and started her own salon. It was doing well but she had to quit as her children were growing up. But, by this time the entrepreneur in her had already taken birth.
In 1991, she started her own restaurant, but on a larger scale than her parents. She opened Kim-Ling, her first restaurant in 1991 by taking loan from friends and family. “I did not have land or property then so couldn’t take a loan from a bank,” she said
Her staff was her family. “My mother, brother, sister, husband, daughter and I did all the work,” she says. Soon she started earning Rs 1,500 per day which mushroomed over the years.
Today, Monica is known as the ‘Don of Tangra’, and not just because of the success of her restaurants. “Some goons of the locality began to harass us when my restaurant opened,” she says.
In 1993, her second restaurant Mandarin was opened for which she took a loan of Rs 20 lakh. Beijing, in Tangra opened in 1998 with an investment of Rs 50 lakhs. Eight years later came Tung Fong in Park Street, then fifth restaurant opened with the name Mandarin which is in Lake View. “They wanted free food but I was in no mood to oblige. I fought with them and even beat them up. They ran away and never came back.”
Today, she employs 250 people and her restaurants are raging success. She was given women entrepreneur award of the year in 2003 by Calcutta Club.
Her word of advice for those who are starting out is “If you know how to work hard and struggle,” she says, “You can achieve anything in life.”