Joe Lung’s grandfather came to America in 1876 to help build the railroads. He was 12.
He and his brother moved to Austin in the 1880s after laying tracks northeast of the city. The family opened a grocery store on Congress Avenue; in 1897, they launched a cafe at the corner of East Sixth and San Jacinto streets. In 1918, the American-style cafe moved to 507 San Jacinto St. It didn’t close until 1948.
The family, which included Joe’s father, Sam Lung, also operated Lung’s Chinese Kitchen at Red River and 12th streets. For decades, it was pretty much all that Austinites knew about locally served Asian food.
It closed in 1974, a victim of urban renewal. The spot currently serves a surface parking lot.
In the 1960s, Lung, now 74, took over the family business and added a series of casual sandwich shops called Joe’s. By 1990, he had sold them off. In 1997, he, like his father before him, suffered a heart attack. Wisely, he slowed down.
Today, you can find him welcoming visitors with a sunny smile at the Capitol Giftshop in the Capitol Extension. With a little advance notice, he’ll sit down in the Capitol Grill — not to be confused with the Capital Grille steakhouse on West Fourth Street — to weave warm tales about his family and his feats in Old Austin.
“We lived at 1605 Canterbury St. in a two-story house with wonderful trees and soil,” Lung recalls. “When I was a kid back in the ’40s, we had chickens in the backyard. Heck, everyone had chickens. Our family had a little farm, too, on East Riverside Drive, where all those apartments are now. My sister and I would go out there with my aunt, ride over the Congress Avenue Bridge, turn left on Riverside, past the old Tower bowling alley. When you got past where Interstate 35 is now, it was all country.”
Five generations here
Joe Lung’s grandfather was also named Joe. That, of course, was not his name back in Hoi Ping, China (modern-day Kaiping).
The family name was Zhou (or Chou), which, in Chinese culture, comes first, as in the name of the late Premier Zhou Enlai. When Zhou Lung arrived in California, “Zhou” became “Joe.”
When Joe’s grandfather died, in 1926, Sam Lung, who had attended Swante Palm School on East Avenue, dropped out of the University of Texas to take over the family business.
“His customers were country people who came into town to sell their wares at the old City Market at Seventh Street and East Avenue,” his son says. “It wasn’t a Chinese restaurant — a plain old American cafe with fried fish, chicken fried steak, steak dinner.”
Sam Lung’s sister, Inez Lung, graduated from UT with a master’s degree in English and spent more than 30 years in China as a missionary. During World War II, she lived behind Japanese lines.
“No one knew if she was dead or alive,” Lung says. “She got out of China in 1945 with the Third Marine Division on the Burma Road. She came home to Texas, stayed six months, then went back to China.”
In 1948, Inez Lung escaped the Chinese Communists by fleeing to Hong Kong, where she taught at a girl’s school. She returned to the States in 1958 and lived in Austin, dying at age 104. She gave speeches all over the U.S. about her life.
Joe Lung’s mother was Lorene Dismuke Lung, a nurse who grew up in Knob Springs, east of Elgin. She reared two other children, Sandra and Meiling. The latter lives in Austin and is married to retired UT physics professor Wendell Horton Jr.
Diane Freytag Lung, Joe’s wife, works for Critical Power Solutions, which provides electrical assistance to businesses. The Smithville native grew up in Austin and graduated from St. Mary’s Academy when it was housed at the E.H. Perry Estate.
Diane and Joe have two sons, Mike, 48, and Mark, 43, as well as four grandchildren.
Tales of Old Austin
Joe Lung attended Metz Elementary School, located three blocks from Zavala Elementary where, at the time, Mexican-American children in the neighborhood were directed. He moved on to Allan Junior High downtown when the famed Gordon Bailey was principal.
“He had a great way of disciplining,” Lung says with a mischievous look. “He made you bend over to hit you with a paddle. First, he’d give you a light bulb, and ask after the paddling: ‘Did you see the light?’ He’d swat again if they said no. One day, he had me in his office, but I had already heard the story. So when I bent over, I said: ‘Did you see that? It already lit up!’ Bailey says: ‘OK, get out of here.’”
Lung went to Austin High School at the old campus on 12th Street, when the city had only one other public high school, L.C. Anderson, which was for African-Americans.
“One day, the school bus from Hornsby Bend came in, bringing in all the country kids,” he says with a laugh. “The bus was honking and driving around the block over and over. We find out later that, coming in from the country, the kids told the driver that something was wrong. He got out, then they commandeered bus, circling Austin High. That’s the kind of trouble we got into.”
Lung admits to raising a little hell himself.
“I had my own car,” he says. “We’d meet Saturday nights at the Holiday House on Barton Springs Road. Then, from there to Platt Lane out east. It was a straight road, which we marked off in quarters for drag racing.”
Lung attended Southwest Texas State University but graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., in 1962. He joined the National Security Agency as a German specialist.
“They couldn’t believe it: A Chinese guy speaking German,” he says. “My uncle told me that when World War I started there was a big German beer hall on West Sixth Street where the old post office used to be. He remembers being there on a Saturday when a uniformed Army officer came in and told people: ‘The German language will not be spoken here!’”
What does he think of Austin these days?
“The 11th largest city in the country? That just blows my mind,” he says. “It’s good and it’s bad. I’m glad we are some kind of super deal. At the same time, there are things going on I just don’t like.”
More Austin history
For 25 years, Michael Barnes has written about Austin’s culture and history. Among his recent stories have been reports on ancestral Austin families, local desegregation and life on East Avenue. To sample more than 100 of his history stories, go to mystatesman.com/austin-history.