China Town

Try Harder; Each Time You Try Harder

Try Harder; Each Time You Try Harder
By Monette Benoit

Copyright by Monette Benoit, All Rights Reserved.

Sunday afternoon, I taxied to ‘Tong Sing’. I sprinted towards 615 Grant Avenue.
My sister-in-law owns a jewelry store in San Francisco’s China Town.

I darted around people selling sunglasses and picture frames on the sidewalk, launched into the store. I had looked forward to this moment for a long time. I viewed pearls of every color, rings, diamonds, bracelets, earrings, necklaces. The sign over the doorway: ‘SALE! 70% Off Everything!” I saw my sister-in-law, called her name. She ran into my arms. Wenny did not know I was in San Francisco; here I stood, arms out, waiting for her hug.

I had just spent days attending, sharing and exhibiting my products and services within Court Reporter Reference Books & CDs,, during the National Court Reporters Association midyear convention.

There, I laughed and listened to judicial and free-lance court reporters, captioners, CART providers, students and teachers.

Wenny was excited to see me. I followed her to the back private area; she poured hot jasmine tea for me. As people entered, Wenny ran to the front, “How are you? Everything 70% off!” I was seated next to a large statue with oranges and incense. Wenny was busy, showing customers leather coats, purses, luggage, gifts, jewelry, silks, merchandise.

I waited for a time, then quietly slipped to an area where I took a seat in front of a jewelry case. I listened to people speaking Chinese and English; many pointed to jewelry on shelves or deep within cases. Between customers, Wenny said to me, “I’ll make you a pearl necklace.” Wenny removed pearls from multiple ‘strings’ to design a necklace. When she was busy, I sat by the long pearl strings.

Wenny greeted each customer personally and answered the phone. She built the necklace, as I tease her with her teeth. She strung one pearl, tied a knot, used her teeth to tighten each knot, then added another pearl.

Wenny kept saying, “I’ll make a pearl necklace for when you speak, when you attend conventions.” She handed me a custom-made necklace and hugged me.

People continued to shop in her store and make purchases. I watched her in action. I had not known Wenny since she entered the Benoit family, my in-laws.

We gathered at formal family gatherings, but never had time to know each other. I knew she arrived in our country, working hard, earning everything she now has.

Wenny Hoang Bui left Vietnam in 1978. She traveled to Hong Kong, arriving in San Francisco, 1980. She’s worked seven days a week, three jobs each day, to open Tong Sing. When we met, this was her goal. She saved everything to open ‘Tong Sing Fine Jewelry’.

I watched, listened. Wenny answered my questions, sharing her world. As I touched jewelry, she’d giggle, “Go ahead; try it on.”

Soon, I was trying on rings, bracelets; it reminded me of visiting my granny’s as a child, playing with her jewelry.

When the store became busy, people looked at me asking ‘how much is that’ or ‘can I see that’? Raising my eyebrows to Wenny, she nodded.

Off I went behind the counters to begin selling jewelry in China Town.

I couldn’t open glass counters, remove velvet trays, confidently placing each on the counter. With shoulders back, chin up, I worked to assist customers. And what fun I had.

As soon as I placed trays on counters, customers would ask “So how much will you take?” I’d laugh, replying, “I don’t know, ask her; I’m just the sister-in-law.” Customers frowned and did ‘double-takes’ looking at my Vietnamese sister-in-law then me. Many questioned how I ‘really’ knew her – in my opinion, due to the obvious that I knew squat about working a jewelry counter.

One family asked how much ‘70% off’ was for a necklace. I pushed the calculator forward, teasing, “I don’t know; why don’t you figure it out?”

As I finished my first sale, I was ecstatic, yelling to Wenny, “I did it; I made my first sale!” I couldn’t work the cash register or wrap the jewelry. So I placed the necklace on the lady, handing Wenny the money.

The store seemed to ebb and flow with families, people, shopping, viewing, touching. Each time, Wenny ran to the front, “Hi, how are you? Everything 70% off!”

Wenny shared how she discounts 70%: She and two sisters each have a store; they bulk purchase. Wenny’s specialty is pearls: “Pearls always maintain value, always timeless.”

One customer asked to see a bracelet, requesting the price. As Wenny worked, the woman was testy (some might even say ‘rude’). I pursed my lips, listening as this customer worked to have the price greatly reduced.

Wenny smiled, respectfully answering questions, never showing impatience. The customer departed with a tart remark after a lengthy stay; I was offended for Wenny. Wenny smiled, never missed a beat. She ran to the back and poured another cup of hot tea for me.

Wenny opens her store each morning. It requires one hour to open, one hour to close — closing “when the last customer leaves” – seven days a week.

Three hours later, we sipped tea in the few moments the store was quiet. Again, Wenny darted to the door. I viewed the back of her high heels as she ran to greet customers. When they quickly departed, almost in a u-turn, I asked, “How do you do it? ‘Each time’ you run greeting ‘everyone’ with a smile. You greet everyone with such energy. ‘How’ do you do it?”

Wenny instantly smiled, replying: “Try harder. ‘Each’ time ‘you’ try harder!” Then she ran to the front of the store to greet the new arrivals.

I thought back to the NCRA, National Court Reporters Association, convention. Many of us were enthused to gather. I met handfuls of reporters who shared they were not realtiming, did not want to improve their skills and meant it. The first time, I laughed, sure this was a joke. Nope. They were serious.

I joked, “And let me guess, you’re against voice-writers, technology, and you have a tape when you work.” Though numbers were small, this stuck with me.

The moment Wenny beamed, sharing ‘try harder; each time you try harder’, I sighed.

That was exactly what I needed to hear that day. Sitting in China Town, embraced within another culture, I experienced ‘peace’.

When I asked Wenny what ‘Tong Sing’ means, she said it’s Chinese, translating: “Go up. You want to go up all the time; make more. Go up, big business.”

I helped Wenny close Tong Sing that evening, pack jewelry, cover jewelry cases. I left with a pearl necklace, earrings and two pearl necklaces for my mother. “You’re family; we only have one mother,” she kept saying.

The best gift: Wenny Hoang Bui, my sister-in-law, shared her love, culture, enthusiasm and work ethic. Now girlfriends, Wenny drove me back to The Argent Hotel. I leaped out of her car when she could not find the correct street, and we were circling the same streets.

I hugged her, grabbed my bag, sprinted up the street.
San Francisco, with crisp air, beautiful buildings, seemed different.
The city hadn’t changed, I had.

Entering the hotel, smiling court reporters approached, “Will you be at the national in Chicago? I can’t wait; see you then!”

I went to my room remembering: “Try harder. Each time you try harder.”

When I phoned ‘fact-checking’ this article, Wenny shared that she had just rented the sidewalk in front of her store to film a movie. Yes, ‘Tong Sing’.

Wenny can be reached seven days a week at 415-392-0838. With boundless energy, she ships jewelry all over the world. May we all “go up … all the time.” Happy New Years to each of you. Tong Sing.

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25 Apr 2007