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China native’s restaurants bring “home” to Iowa

BY BRITTANY TREVICK | JUNE 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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Jennifer Xie adjusted her velvet shawl over a sheer polka-dotted shirt as she poured milky-tan bubble tea.

Standing behind the wood bar of her Iowa City restaurant six months in the making, Xie’s come a long way from the girl who initially refused to be fingerprinted for her green card many years ago.

Then, in 1987, fresh off the plane from Quangzhou, China, and no knowledge of English, the now 47-year-old had just inherited property in the United States and was unsure of what to expect.

“The first day was scary,” she said.

But that fear subsided while her stubbornness and determination to succeed persisted. Now, Xie owns two restaurants and a market in the Iowa City area, but it took quite some time for her to get there.

The day she arrived in the United States was one to remember for Xie. In need of a green card, her fingerprints had to be taken. But in China, that only happens to criminals. So Xie placed her hands behind her back, refusing to move them for over an hour.

“I’m not going to jail,” she said she was thinking.

Eventually, she settled in Champaign, Ill. But after four years running her great-grandmother’s business, the city made plans to expand the highway where the market was located. She needed to leave.

That’s when she found an advertisement for an Asian market for sale in Coralville. Jumping at the chance, Xie moved her family to Iowa, bringing her husband — whom she met in Champaign — and daughter along. She eventually expanded to include a Chinese book shop, restaurant, media store, and gift shop.

But her struggle wasn’t over.

Two months after all the remodeling was completed, the market burned down because of old wiring.

“It was a terrible story,” she said about the incident.

But that didn’t stop Xie.

In February 2000, she opened Szechwan Village and owned it for five years. But in 2005, Xie said, her landlord wanted to almost double her rent.

“I felt like that was the end for me,” she said.

In 2006 she bought out the building for Jade Sisters and moved in there. Three years later, the space next door opened up — that became Bai Jia Asian Market.

Her entrepreneurship continued, and Xie opened Jade Sisters, 906 Second St., with her sister Mindy. Just six months ago, she opened Chili Yummy, 100 S. Linn St., in Iowa City.

Sitting in a booth at her newest establishment, Xie said she feels inspiration, and a certain degree of responsibility, for taking care of the Chinese student population that attends the UI.

“In the beginning, I’m thinking for Chinese students,” she said, moving her hands in a circular motion.

But Xie’s maternal tendencies extend beyond UI’s student population.

“She takes care of me,” Mindy Xie said, noting that her older sister is tough on the employees, but she cares about them, too.

Eri Luethje, who works at Jade Sisters, said he definitely feels included.

“She treats me like a family member,” he said.

Xie said she has had customers for as long as 20 years and that they are about half Chinese and half American.

Now settled in Iowa City, Xie said she has no intentions of leaving the place in which she’s experienced so much success.

“I want to stay there,” she said. “I love it.”


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