Laura Eng Sit was born in Chicago 21 years before before Chinese immigrants were granted the right to citizenship and the vote.
Her Chinese-born parents didn’t permit their kids to run around outside with the neighborhood children, preferring they go straight from school to Chinese tutoring. In many traditional families at that time, “Women stayed home and learned how to sew and knit,” said her sister Florence Lum.
And in an era when society often treated Asian women as exotic flowers, she was one of four Eng sisters who helped operate Hoe Sai Gai, an Art Deco jewel box of a restaurant on the block of Randolph that was demolished in the early 1960s to create the Daley Center. It drew American and Asian patrons, including many Chinese-American college students from throughout the Midwest who came in for a taste of home, relatives said.
In the 1940s, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of the Art Institute, where she became a skilled dress designer.
After raising her family, Mrs. Sit became a top saleswoman at the 28 Shop at Marshall Field’s. She memorized her customers’ dress sizes, including Mayor Jane Byrne’s, so she could put together flattering outfits for them.
Elegantly dressed and perfumed with the fragrance Red Door, “She was our Audrey Hepburn,” said her niece Pamela Chun.
Mrs. Sit was born on March 31, a day before April Fools’ Day, prompting her to joke, “God did not want me to be a fool!”
She died on May 3 at Waterford Estates in Hazel Crest. Mrs. Sit was 95.
Her father, Howard Joseph Eng, immigrated to the United States around 1911 from China’s Guangdong Province. He had a son, Harry, but his first wife died, relatives said. In 1919, Eng decided to return to China to seek a new wife, according to Florence Lum.
On the boat headed home, he met a man “going back to China to find a husband for his daughter,” Lum said. “And my father was going back to find a wife. They struck a deal on the ship.” Eng married his shipmate’s daughter, Fine Yeung Chew.
In 1920s Chicago, Mrs. Sit’s father found success as a restaurateur. His best-known eatery, the Golden Pumpkin at Madison and Pulaski, was billed as “the largest and most beautiful Chinese cafe in the world.”
Laura and her siblings played on the dance floor where drumming dynamo Gene Krupa held court. Krupa gained attention at the Golden Pumpkin while accompanying Thelma Terry and her Playboys, according to the 2014 Arcadia Publishing book, “Chicago in the Great Depression.”
At different times, her father also operated three other Madison Street restaurants, the Paradise Inn, the Tea Garden and the Chicken Shop.
The Engs raised their children at 3816 W. Jackson. Young Laura went to Delano grade school and Marshall High School.
When the Depression hit, her father lost the restaurants and started buying bulk tea. “He would send the sisters out to sell tea in Garfield Park and Maywood and Oak Park,” said Mrs. Sit’s son, Robert.
In the 1930s, with his last $300, he started Hoe Sai Gai, which translates into “prosperity,” Robert Sit said.
“People would stand in lines around the corner to get in,” Florence Lum said. Hollywood heavy Sydney Greenstreet, star of “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca,” came by to dine. He met Laura when she was hostessing and stayed in touch with letters about the plays and movies he was doing.
“She had a beautiful smile,” her sister said. “She could charm the men.”
After their father died in 1946, the four sisters and their half-brother Harry took on greater roles at the restaurant. Later, Mr. Eng’s wife sold her shares to her stepson, who continued to operate the eatery, Florence Lum said. He died in 1961.
Laura married architect Sam Chan Sit in 1946. They raised four children in Park Forest, where she eventually started selling sewing machines at a Marshall Field’s store.
Later, she joined the 28 Shop on State Street. People would fly in from around the country to consult with her on their wardrobes, relatives said. “She would memorize all these women’s sizes in her mind and what would make them look good. She would put together racks of clothes for them,” Robert Sit said.
“Being a sales associate in the 28 Shop has always been considered a great honor,” said Andrea Schwartz, vice president of media relations for Macy’s. “The responsibility to showcase the brand and finest luxury items to Chicago’s most notable residents and being able to ‘Give the lady what she wants’ is a privilege that Ms. Sit carried out every day.”
“She was a great saleswoman,’’ said her sister Florence Lum.
Mrs. Sit was a formidable negotiator, according to a eulogy written by her granddaughter Teresa Sit. “I remember needing a new bed and she told me to pick one that I liked and we sat down on it together,” she said. “My mother asked the salesman the price, and after hearing it, Grandma smiled coyly and said, ‘You can do better than that.’ He did.”
Mrs. Sit also is survived by her daughter, Theresa, and two more sons, James and Charles; two additional sisters, Mary and Olga; eight grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren. Her husband, another brother, Richard, and a grandchild, Veronica, died before her. At her services last weekend, many older patrons told her family, “I used to take my wife to Hoe Sai Gai.”