Remembering his youth in China, China Garden owner Mike Pan said in 1990, about 2% of families in China had refrigerators and running water.
Comparing China to America, he said: “It was a big difference then, but now it is similar. Now we get refrigerators and TVs from China.”
When he was a teenager, in 1993, Pan said, he made the trip from China to America. He came alone for a visit, but liked it so much he decided to stay.
By 1999, he found his way to Madison, looking for work, he said.
“When I came to America, I worked for different restaurants, all Chinese,” he said. He was a cook, waiter, and bus boy.
While in Madison, he met Mei Guo. Her family owned a small restaurant, it’s now closed, Pan said. The couple was married in 2000.
The couple next looked for a small town in which to live, a nice place, where one could raise a family, Pan said. They arrived in Milton and opened China Garden, 30 Merchant Row, on July 14, 2003, he said.
That, Pan said, is how he and his family found the place that would, for them, come to mean community. For Pan, community means family, he said. For his son, a senior at Milton High School, Milton is his hometown.
For 17 years, Pan said, Milton, and his restaurant, provided him with “a regular life.”
“You just do the same thing every week and every day,” Pan said.
The couple worked many hours and the restaurant became like a second home, he said. He pointed to a piano in the corner of the dining room. His son used to take piano lessons, he doesn’t anymore, and he did his homework in the dining area, Pan said.
Over the years, Pan said, the business grew a little, but mostly, it stayed the same.
“This is a small town so the population hasn’t changed much,” he said.
The family bought the building in the mid-2000s, he said.
In Milton, he said: “It’s nice, you can know a lot of people; if you stay for many years, you feel like family to the community.”
And then came COVID. Pan said: “This is a scary moment.”
Like other businesses, Pan closed his doors on March 18, and stayed closed, he said, until May 18.
“We were doing nothing. When we came back, it was takeout. We installed a window for safety and people could call in and pick up their order. It has been this way since May,” Pan said.
In March, the Chinese food supply company that he uses in Chicago also shut down.
“All our food comes from there. There are not many Chinese food supply places in Wisconsin, so we go to Chicago,” Pan said, adding the company reopened mid-May.
While Pan and his wife were not working, they worried, Pan said.
“We didn’t know what would happen. We went to the grocery store and there was no toilet paper, and we said: ‘What’s going on here?’” It was like the China he remembered from his youth, he said.
There was uncertainty, Pan said, “So I was closed and we just stayed home to wait and see.”
While they waited, Pan looked on Facebook.
“I saw people at the church were providing a free meal. When I saw it, I feel like I need to do something for the community, I’ve been here for so many years, I wanted to give back to the community,” Pan said.
So just before they reopened, the family prepared about 60 plates of orange chicken with rice and vegetables and donated it to the Milton United Methodist Church.
It was rewarding, Pan said.
While China Garden has a small dining room, Pan said: “Now the dining room is closed and we just do takeout.”
“Ninety percent of our business is takeout and 10 percent was dining.” Closing the dining area didn’t really affect his business, Pan said.
Since reopening, Pan said most of his customers have come back.
When he began wearing the mask and taking other precautions some of his customers asked why, he said.
“I live with my parents at my house and they are in their 80s. I didn’t want to put my family in danger,” he said.
He has noticed the mask controversy on Facebook, he said, but he feels that wearing the mask is not just for himself, but for the safety of others.
“In the community, you have older people and we need to be careful,” he said.
While the mask took some getting used to, he said, it is worth it to help protect others.
“I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t want to wear it, and with the plastic wall over there (he pointed toward his kitchen), I don’t feel comfortable because my kitchen is very hot, sometimes 95 degrees. I work in there every day, but you have to do something for safety,” he said.
“With the precautions we have taken, I feel safe. Our customers wear masks and most make phone orders and come in and they don’t stay here more than a minute.”
About COVID, he said, “people can defeat it together.”
China Garden is open for takeout between 11 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. every weekday but Monday when the restaurant is closed. On Saturdays and Sundays, the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
A menu can be found right outside the door.