Sing Wong Restaurant

Sing Wong Restaurant, Portsmouth, VA. Photograph by Sara Wood.

I walked into Sing Wong Restaurant last spring to collect oral histories documenting yock-a-mein in Tidewater Virginia, and when I ordered a box of pork yock from Patsy Wong, she barely let her pen touch the order pad before she lifted it back up again.

“You eat yock?”

I had never had yock, not even its cousin ya-ka-mein in New Orleans.

“I guess I’ll start today!” My voice nervously rose two octaves.

I started to expect the “you eat yock?” question.

At another Chinese take-out restaurant in Portsmouth, I watched as the cook looked down at my order ticket, then peeked around the corner at me, as if to confirm that yes, a white woman was ordering chicken yock.

This is probably because yock is a dish in Tidewater that’s sold mostly in black neighborhoods. I asked several people why, and there are a few theories. Many pointed to the idea that when the Chinese immigrated to Tidewater, they had better success opening their businesses in African American neighborhoods.

It brought to mind the stories of Chinese immigrants opening grocery stores in the Mississippi Delta.

Patsy and Haymond Wong. Photograph by Sara Wood.

Patsy Wong and her husband, Haymond, took over Sing Wong after Haymond’s parents retired. Haymond’s grandfather Sing, the restaurant’s namesake, opened it in 1965. Sing served sandwiches, hamburgers, and hot dogs—things he knew most Americans liked.

But as fast food restaurants started popping up, in order to stay competitive, Sing changed the menu to the traditional Chinese dishes he knew from his home in the Canton region of China.

Patsy and Haymond continue to serve the dishes on their menu today. And one of the most popular is yock (spelled “yaket mein” on their menu).

From the kitchen, Haymond prepared the noodles and pork. Patsy ladled ketchup over the top, and added raw diced white onions. She brought the box out front to the window to ask how I would like it prepared. I had absolutely no clue.

She guided me through her suggested pours of soy sauce (a lot) and apple cider vinegar (just a quick, light pour).

She trusted me to sprinkle on cayenne pepper by myself, but when I got nervous (confused) and tried twisting the top off the shaker, she quickly took it from my hands and shook it lightly twice. She saved me from hurting myself badly.

Patsy pours soy sauce generously over a box of pork yock. Photograph by Sara Wood.

To hear more about the Wongs and their restaurant, head to Patsy’s interview, which is part of the full Tidewater Virginia Yock oral history project.