According to the Chinese calendar, Nancy Lee was born in the Year of the Monkey, specifically the Fire Monkey whose traits include strength and determination. Fire Monkeys are excellent at not only setting goals, but also in meeting them. Others enjoy being in the company of these outgoing people.
No wonder then that Nancy Lee’s Pig Heaven, the popular Upper East Side restaurant, has such a loyal following. People come for the consistently good Chinese food, but they also come to enjoy the restaurant’s warm, friendly atmosphere. Dine there any night of the week and you will find Nancy stopping at tables, greeting customers, asking about someone’s family. “I love people,” she says, settling in the bar area of the restaurant to talk. “I learn so much from my customers.”
Chinese New Year begins on January 23, and Nancy is preparing the restaurant’s celebration. Those lucky enough to nab a reservation will feast on a prix fix menu of lobster and filet mignon, and enjoy traditional dances performed by Nancy herself. As with everything she does, Nancy takes the dancing seriously, working on the choreography, costumes, music, and putting in many hours of rehearsal.
“This is the Year of the Dragon,” Nancy says, explaining that the dragon is considered the mightiest of the zodiac signs, akin to kings and emperors. “Everyone wants to have a child born in the Year of the Dragon,” she says. “There are 12 different animals, but the dragon is the strong sign, the kiss of success.”
Nancy was born in Taiwan, one of ten children—nine girls, one boy. Her father, Chen Fa Lee, was a strong influence. “My father always told me whatever a man can do, you can do,” she says. “I was always competing with men. I’m a woman and being a woman is wonderful. I never give up. That’s what I took from my parents.”
In elementary school, Nancy did gymnastics and also played volleyball, basketball, and ran track. She has not slowed down. Besides working out five or six days a week, she plays on a Taiwanese basketball team, the adult women grouped by age. This year the event was held in Taiwan and next year it will be in Indonesia.
In 1979, Nancy married Michael Tang and, the following year, came with him to the U.S. While Tang studied for a masters degree in computer science, Nancy tried to settle into her new life. “I was so lonely; I had no job. I was crying every day,” Nancy recalls. “I was 24 and wondered what I was going to do with my life. I had no idea. I didn’t even know how to count the money.”
Thanks to a Catholic school education in Taiwan, Nancy had learned English. “I could read and write, but you need to talk,” she says. And, with her husband in school, she needed to earn money, something she never worried about in Taiwan. Her father was a successful businessman, his factory turning out custom made men’s suits. “Each one of us had a nanny,” Nancy says, adding: “I never learned how to cook.” Nevertheless, she found a job working as a cashier and hostess in a Chinese restaurant called Szechuan East. Eventually she would become a partner and then take over the business.
Along the way, Nancy found other ways to earn money. When she found herself pregnant with her second child and, because her husband was a student, without insurance, she got a job selling insurance, one year becoming the number one salesperson in her New Jersey region. She also launched a real estate business.
When Nancy renovated Pig Heaven in 1999, she added her own name to the marquee. Because her father only had one son, Nancy promised him she would keep her maiden name with the restaurant.One table in the restaurant is taken up with pig figurines of all sizes and shapes. Except for the large wooden pig given to Nancy by her father, all the others have been gifts from customers.
Even though she doesn’t cook, Nancy knows good food. “I trust my chef and, in the meantime, I’m tasting all the food,” she says. “I’m not a physical cook, but I love to eat. I know all the spices and I get ideas when I travel.”
On a trip to Aruba, Nancy was impressed with places that held evening celebrations and festivals. “All the employees were dancing,” she says. “It was so much fun.” She began her restaurant’s Chinese New Year celebration 11 years ago. This year, the restaurant already has more than 500 reservations for the six-day event, running January 23 through January 28.
While Chinese New Year will be very busy, Nancy’s schedule is always hectic. Most days, she arrives at the restaurant by 5 p.m., staying after closing, 11:30 p.m. on weekdays, 1 a.m. on weekends. Friday and Saturday nights, Nancy has a three-piece band playing in the front room. “With the music, I can relax,” she says.
Nancy laughs when she talks about the early days with her children. Because of the long hours she put in at the restaurant, dinner was often take out, everything from Burger King, to pizza, to Chinese food from Pig Heaven. Her daughter, 27, and her son, 21, now realize what she has accomplished.
Nancy, however, is not finished. “I have not done enough,” she says. “During the difficult times, I run into the bathroom and I cry and then I come out and say, not everyone is like this. Most people are very nice. If there’s something wrong, I need to correct it. I don’t push anyone. Just myself.”
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Pig Heaven
Favorite Place to Shop: Fifth Avenue—One stop there I can get everything! Saves me so much time.
Favorite New York Sight: Skylights. New York’s Night is intoxicating.
Favorite New York Memory: Going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my father.
What You Love About New York: It’s a modern 21st Century City—a city that never stops.
What You Hate About New York: Nothing. I cannot get enough of New York!