By Mark Patinkin
Rhode Island, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee knew, would soon be needing masks — hundreds of thousands.
This was early March, and masks were already scarce, with the whole country vying for them.
Then McKee, a Kennedy School of Government grad, saw mention in an online alumni forum that Taiwan might donate some.
Taiwan had stood out in its preparations for the coronavirus.
But McKee knew he couldn’t just call and ask. That’s not how it works there.
He would need someone local with connections.
He knew just who to approach.
Louis Yip and Sunny Ng are two of the state’s prominent Chinese-American businessmen. McKee had recruited them and others as ambassadors to bring foreign business to the state.
Now McKee asked: Could they help find 200,000 masks?
Yip, 71, is known for founding Pawtucket’s China Inn, one of the state’s most iconic restaurants until it was recently sold.
Ng, 68, also worked there, and the two have been development partners, most notably transforming side-by-side mills into thriving office and loft space on the Pawtucket-Central Falls line at Roosevelt Avenue.
Both came here in their 20s from a struggling fishing village in Hong Kong and they will tell you Pawtucket — and Central Falls — made their American dream come true.
So has Rhode Island.
They’d given back in many ways, including around $50,000 a year in college scholarships to Blackstone Valley high school students, and the same for medical-student exchanges between Brown University and China and Taiwan.
Both leapt at the idea of helping Rhode Island with masks in a time of crisis.
Yip knew Taiwanese officials from business trips he’d taken there and reached out.
But he was told mask demand had spiked, and they’d donated all they could.
Fine, said Yip — could he pay for them instead?
Days later he got the verdict. Even that wouldn’t work. With COVID-19 preparations intensifying, all Taiwanese masks were now needed for Taiwan.
This was around two weeks ago, and the state Health Department’s need for masks was desperate.
Next, Yip turned to an old fishing-village friend now in China who was well connected. “I told him I’m looking for 200,000 masks.”
Days later, the friend came through. He’d found 200,000 level-2 surgical masks.
But there was a problem.
Yip would have to buy them — possibly doable — but shipping by water would take a month.
And by air was prohibitively expensive.
It wouldn’t work.
I asked the two if they thought about giving up at that point.
“We don’t give up that easy,” said Louis Yip.
That attitude is what brought them their American success.
Yip’s parents ran a small grocery and Ng’s parents had food stands. Seeing a limited future, Yip decided to leave everything he knew, with dreams of an American journey.
Yip’s sister and brother-in-law had come before him, and now lived in Cambridge. He told them he wanted to open a restaurant.
They scouted locations and noted Pawtucket didn’t have Mandarin-Szechuan cooking.
Thus, in 1976, was born the legendary China Inn.
Then Yip reached out overseas to his old friend Sunny Ng. “Why don’t you come to America and see what we can do together.”
He worked at the China Inn, then opened dry cleaners and Chinese import gift shops. In time, the two founded the Tai-O development group, named after their fishing village.
They each raised three kids who are now lawyers and businesspeople.
They doubted that would have happened had they stayed in Hong Kong. Both feel they were given America’s promise in Pawtucket and Central Falls — if you work hard, you can embrace your dream.
That’s why they decided to be developers there, converting the two mills, one now with 170 apartments, the other with 400 office workers.
They even built a house of worship — the Chinese Christian Church of Rhode Island, also on Pawtucket’s Roosevelt Avenue. It draws 300 to Sunday services and 220 students to its Chinese culture school.
Louis Yip and Sunny Ng now brainstormed what other connections they could turn to for masks.
The two are plugged deeply into the state’s Chinese culture through the church and the Rhode Island Association of Chinese Americans — and just knowing countless folks.
They had an idea.
They called a friend, a Chinese-American doctor in East Greenwich who they knew had medical connections.
She put them in touch with a Chinese-American associate in California who sold dental equipment and had a mask factory in China.
Ng called and said he was looking for 200,000 masks to help his home state fight coronavirus.
The business owner said he could do it.
Ng asked if the man could donate them.
He was sorry — he couldn’t.
But he would sell them.
It would cost $110,000.
Others in Louis Yip and Sunny Ng’s position might have called Lieutenant Gov. McKee to see if the state could pay that bill.
But Yip and Ng wanted it to be a gift from their community.
They began to call around and soon raised the $110,000 from around 300 members of Rhode Island’s Chinese-American community.
Yip told me most have similar stories as immigrants who found opportunity here, and loved the idea of giving back.
“Rhode Island,” Yip said, “has given us a great life.”
The 200,000 masks were earmarked for the state Health Department to distribute.
But Yip and Ng had one other thing they wanted to do.
Pulling one other connection, Yip was put in touch with a smaller mask company in China. He was able to buy 8,000 more from them — 3,000 and 2,000 for his “home” cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls.
Ng told me he didn’t want to cannibalize the city masks from the 200,000 for the state.
He sent the other 3,000 to Cranston, because he’d worked with its Chinese-American mayor, Allan Fung.
The 200,000 masks arrived Monday on big pallets at Yip and Ng’s offices on Roosevelt Avenue.
The state Health Department sent a truck to get them around 2 p.m.
McKee came by too.
“Their generosity is unbelievable,” he told me. “And it’s not just now. It’s all the years I’ve known them.”
On Tuesday, I stopped by myself.
As I drove away afterward, I noticed 300 cherry trees along Roosevelt Avenue.
Louis Yip and Sunny Eng had worked with the cities to plant those, too.
The day’s warmth had brought out white blossoms, offering a promise of hope.
Those seeking to donate medical supplies can visit the Department of Health’s website: health.ri.gov/covid/howtohelp/index.php.