South Hill's Oldest Ethnic Restaurant
by Carl Vest
The House of Kee is a well known restaurant and night club on South Hill. It has the distinction of being the Hill’s oldest ethnic eating place. Established in 1982 it has been at the same location on Meridian Avenue for 30 years. Peter Kee and his wife Shirley were the initial proprietors and the business is still family owned and operated. Formerly they had operated a successful Chinese themed restaurant in downtown Puyallup named the Sea Dragon. It opened in the mid-1970s on east Main Street. The relocation to South Hill came after Peter did a survey of his customers and found that about 60 percent of them were coming from the Hill. He decided to go where his customers were.
Peter Kee does not fit the profile of the Euro-centric settlers that originally came to South Hill. He emigrated from the west, not the east. He was born in China in 1934, on a farm, in the Province of Shandong, near the city of Yantai. He left his birth area directly after World War II when China became engulfed in a civil war that caused his family to become uprooted. They moved first to the City of Shanghai. When that location proved unsatisfactory they relocated to the British Colony of Hong Kong.
It was in Hong Kong that Peter met his wife and from her he started learning English. He initiated his business education by selling food from a push cart, door-to-door, earning a 10 percent commission. Working in a convenience store for a while furthered his experiences, as did a period as a taxi driver. Being an automobile mechanic appealed to him and he studied for it, but that profession didn’t work out. Peter learned to cook when he became friends with a man who owned a restaurant.
Peter started his own business as the result of an unfortunate experience. He had signed on as a crewmember on a ship going to Singapore. At the end of the voyage the owner couldn’t pay the crew so the group confiscated the vessel and sold it for their wages. Using his settlement Peter leased a Chinese/American themed restaurant and bar in Hong Kong named the Rainbow then another one called the Crazy Horse. Later he acquired his own place, the Sea Dragon. Understanding that Hong Kong would eventually be returned to Chinese control Peter again elected to move. He selected Canada, and arrived in Vancouver, Canada, with his family, in 1974.
Unable to afford the cost of starting a company in Canada, Peter found work in Portland, Oregon, as the manager of a Chinese restaurant. While there he searched areas between Portland and Vancouver for a suitable site to start his own eating place. He picked Puyallup. Property was available and at the right location.
Peter is very proud of the contribution that he and his family have made to the community of South Hill. They have provided a good product for everyone and stable employment for a large group of people.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.