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AAPI Heritage Month: From Hong Kong to the Hostess City, local family reflects on legacy of success

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*(Yao Family)
Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 12:50 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - More than 50 years ago, a young woman arrived in Savannah from Hong Kong to study at what was then Armstrong State College.

Now, that woman owns three of Savannah’s most popular breakfast spots and her family has made a legacy in the Hostess City.

“It was 1969. I came over here to Armstrong for college. Just on my own,” Agnes Yao said.

More than half a century ago, Yao immigrated to the United States for an education, and a chance to build a better life. She was a bit culture-shocked.

“Hong Kong is even more crowded and busier than Manhattan. I said, oh my God, where am I?’ I just saw big trees with mosses,” she said.

After just a couple of years in Savannah, she met her husband. His family was Chinese immigrants who ran several businesses in the area.

The Yaos had three daughters in the 70s while building their own businesses.

“I have three girls all together, every four years, all brought up here, went to St. James, then St. Vincent’s, and all three went to Marquette University in Wisconsin.”

Melissa Yao Hille, the oldest, reflects on her childhood in this tight knit community.

“I grew up here, my friends are my friends, went to school with same kids through kindergarten, and high school, a lot of our kids now in school together.”

The Yaos opened Sunrise Café in 1987. The first location was on Hodgson Memorial Drive. The five of them did it all.

“Haul all three to the restaurant at 5 a.m. Have to be open at 6 a.m. Have to cook grits and bacon, to get ready to open. Three kids come with me, then when it’s time, Melissa would walk out to Abercorn to take a bus to St. Vincent’s.”

Decades later, they have three successful restaurants, all of them an important part of who Melissa is today. She now has her own advertising agency, and a new restaurant on Broughton Street, inspired by her family’s love of bubble tea and poke bowls.

“One day we were eating dinner, I mentioned it to mom, and she said why didn’t you talk about this earlier, then we did research and we opened.”

With so much success, nothing makes Agnes and Melissa prouder than their family.

“I’m prouder than my three girls. This is a gift from God.”

“My parents started it and they really built the legacy and I’m just excited to continue it and that’s the best part.”

Wednesday night is a big night for the Yao family as the second generation graduates from St. James.

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