It's a town of exactly 27,500 souls located at the end of an outmoded bridge that's fast becoming the basis of the biggest controversy between two mighty nations since the War of 1812. Many Western New Yorkers -- if they think of Fort Erie at all -- connect it with decadence. Table dancing, for instance, or gambling in the form of bingo or horse racing or, most recently, slot machines.
Those, however, are the Western New Yorkers who don't live to eat.
For those who love good food, this border town is a culinary destination. On Niagara Boulevard -- back door facing the river, front door facing the hot pink awnings of Maxine's girlie emporium -- sits Ming Teh, a Chinese restaurant so well-known that out-of-towners have been known to step off a plane in Buffalo and ask for directions to it.
"A world-class restaurant," actor Robert Duvall once said of Ming Teh.
Though local residents know that Ming Teh is the one restaurant that always appears on the lists of the area's best dining, most don't know the family behind the restaurant and their tale of hard work and sacrifice.
Siu Kui Cheung and his wife, Julie, have devoted their lives to the place for 22 years. Even from the very beginning, it took enormous energy.
Residents of Fort Erie must have been fascinated when the slender young man, who came to Canada from Hong Kong, began to affix his own handmade decorative ceramic tiles to the outside walls of a former diner. But when they heard the place was going to be yet another Chinese restaurant, they must have asked themselves, "What else is new?"
The town already had nine Chinese restaurants. It still does.
When Ming Teh's doors opened in April 1977, however, they discovered that this restaurant was different. For one thing, unlike most Chinese restaurants at the time, it wasn't painted bright red, and there was a paucity of dragons. Instead, the owner's own murals and scrolls served as decor.
Siu Kui Cheung is an accomplished artist. In fact, his remarkable oil paintings with an almost 15th century attention to detail were displayed at a show in Paris this year to fine reviews. An exhibition of his paintings will open soon in the Fort Erie Library.
Cheung also is a photographer and philosopher. No wonder his friend Gino Spironnello, of Fort Erie, calls him "a true Renaissance man."
The food at Ming Teh also was different from the beginning. There weren't any Pu Pu platters, for instance -- those big platefuls of doughy egg rolls and sticky spare ribs that were considered the height of Asian sophistication in the late '70s.
While the hand-decorated menus sported some familiar dishes, most were in what was then called Mandarin style. Ming Teh's fried dumplings and Peking duck quickly became legendary. The restaurant showed people that there could be variety to Chinese food.
"I wanted the restaurant to be authentic," Cheung said at the time. "I became interested in food because it expresses Chinese culture and background. Chinese food emphasizes contrast: crisp and soft, hot and cold, yin and yang.
"The lily bud contrasts with the pepper. Carrots are good for the eyes and skin, fungus (mushrooms) is for the eyes and ears. Meat is yang; vegetables are yin. There's contrast there, too."
It wasn't long before Ming Teh began to attract a large professional clientele from Buffalo who loved dishes like the Deep Fried Fish in Ginger Vinegar Sauce, the Sake Wine Soup with Shrimp,
Pork, Fungus, Snow Peas and Red Dates and Stir Fried Broccoli and Cashew Nuts.
But when it opened, Cheung wasn't doing much cooking. The reason was simple: He didn't know how to cook.
This is a man who learned on the job.
Born in what was then Canton, China, to an affluent family, Cheung had taken art classes in Paris and Hong Kong and was painting a mural in another Fort Erie restaurant when he decided to open a restaurant of his own.
"My cook wouldn't let me cook," he laughs now. "I was working in my own restaurant and paying money to the chef until I knew what I was doing."
Now Cheung does almost all the food preparation, though when the restaurant is at its busiest, there are six or seven people working in the kitchen.
Most Chinese food is cooked to order over enormous flames. At Ming Teh, they reach almost to the carefully painted blue and white bird design that forms the border between the ceiling and the walls.
Both the kitchen and the restaurant are larger than they used to be. There's a handsome studio next door where Cheung paints and shows his art.
"My life is cooking and painting," he says. The two fields are quite compatible, he points out.
"In many ways, painting and cooking have the same requirements. Taste is like color, you know."
Once open seven days for both lunch and dinner, Ming Teh is now closed on Monday and for two months in the winter, reopening on Valentine's Day. For those two months, Cheung travels. He has taken painting lessons in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy; he has traveled to see his family in China several times.
During those times, Julie Cheung keeps the home fires burning. She is the administrator of the restaurant and the hostess. In this family restaurant, she seems to know every visiting child by name.
"People know Julie better than they know me," Cheung says. "I'm in the kitchen while she makes the customers feel comfortable."
Married 25 years, the couple met on the 9 a.m. train to Hong Kong from Shatin, a suburb. Cheung was working at a bank in the city; Julie was attending teachers college there. "I wanted to be a teacher. It was a Christian-run school," she explains.
"I noticed her right away," Cheung grins, "because she was carrying a Bible. She was walking up and down the tracks and reading it."
In addition to running the restaurant, Julie Cheung spends a lot of time on the Peace Bridge chauffeuring children. The Cheungs are the parents of two daughters, both born in Fort Erie, both educated in Buffalo.
Joan Yin, 17, is a graduate of Nichols School and is now attending University College in Toronto. Shoan Yin, 11, is a student at Nardin Academy. She likes to help out at the restaurant from time to time.
"I don't like waiting on tables as much as I like administration," Shoan Yin explains. She's a whiz at the computer, her proud parents say.
Though Cheung calls them "the first generation of the family that isn't Chinese," this is a strictly bicultural household. The girls speak Cantonese at home. Their father says he spends time each day teaching them the "Chinese way that goes back 3,000 years."
And what is that Chinese way, exactly?
"Studying, working and serving parents," Cheung says.
He might be describing his own life, in fact. But he'd be the first to admit that it also doesn't hurt to appreciate beauty. Or to enjoy something wonderful to eat on the side.