Even as a little girl, Mai Lan had a dream of owning a shop and restaurant. With the recent opening of Laughing Dragon Asian Market in addition to her eatery at Odd Fellows Hall, her childhood daydreams are now a full day’s work.
“I want to tell people to follow their dreams – it can happen,” she said with a big smile and a laugh.
It’s that spirit that inspired her father to give her the nickname Laughing Dragon. The name has been so precious to her that she named her store Laughing Dragon to honor her father.
It’s perfect because the store is truly a mirror of Mai Lan’s personality – fun, interesting and full of life. The Laughing Dragon has everything from Chinese barbecue seasoning and Thai tea mix to guava candy and children’s sandals.
“He would be proud of me,” said Mai Lan, recalling her father, who passed away years ago.
The Laughing Dragon officially opened two weeks ago in the Our House Building in Eastsound. She opened in usual Mai Lan fashion with a huge smile, two huge cakes, lots of treats and tea.
“I love people, I want them to come share in my dream,” she said.
She added she could not have opened without the support and help of many islanders. She attributes most of that support to Bob and Josephine Eagan, who she believes are responsible to helping her childhood fantasies become a career.
Mai Lan grew up in Saigon, Vietnam. She was the fourth child in a family of 18 kids.
Her father was an architect and her aunt and uncle ran a gift shop.
“It’s in my blood,” she said.
Her mother taught her to cook, but it was her cousin who truly changed her life. Before she left Saigon in 1970 her cousin gave her a long list of recipes, including secret instructions for the Vietnamese soup Pho. For over two years she forgot about those pages. Then one day she put on her coat and found those old instructions and she started cooking.
Just two years ago she created Mai Lan’s eatery in Odd Fellows Hall and started a stand at the Farmers’ Market. Recreating these traditional foods from Vietnam helped Mai Lan stay connected to her homeland. Making a physical connection with her birth land was a more difficult task.
It took 24 years after leaving Vietnam for Mai Lan to make the trip. She wanted to thank her cousin, but by that time, like many in her family, he had died. The war had ravaged the city she knew as a girl and had taken her loved ones as well. Mai Lan doesn’t like talking in depth about the past. Those stories involve the endless sorrow of war and the vast ocean that separates father from daughter. She prefers to live life through her father’s eyes as the eternal Laughing Dragon.
“You give love, that’s how your survive,” she said.