Joe Lung, whose family operated popular Austin eateries over the course of three generations, died of complications from a stroke at Hospice Austin’s Christopher House on Wednesday. He was 77.
From 1897 to 1990, the Lung family owned Austin restaurants, cafes and diners, including Lung’s Chinese Kitchen on Red River Street. Joe Lung sold off the last of the family sandwich shops, appropriately named Joe’s, in 1990.
In 1997, he, like his father before him, suffered a heart attack. So he slowed down. During his later years, his sunny smile and ready tales welcomed visitors to the Capitol Gift Shop in the Capitol Extension.
“At church, he greeted everybody at the door,” his wife, Diane Lung, said Thursday. “He’d arrive an hour early to make the coffee. He also loved going to his grandchildren’s activities — concerts, recitals, sports — loved every kind of family gathering.”
Joe Lung was a gentle, spellbinding storyteller, and some of his history was recorded in a 2014 profile in the American-Statesman.
His grandfather came to America in 1876 to help build the railroads; he was 12, and 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.
In the 1960s, Joe Lung took over the family business and added a series of casual sandwich shops called Joe’s.
His aunt, Inez Lung, was the subject of several family anecdotes. She graduated from the University of Texas 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,” Joe Lung told the Statesman in 2014. “She got out of China in 1945 with the 3rd 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 grew up on Canterbury Street when much of East Austin and South Austin retained a rural feel. He was educated at Metz Elementary School, Allan Junior School and Austin High School, where he ran a little wild with his drag racing friends. Lung attended Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) 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 told the Statesman. “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!’”
Lung is survived by his wife, Diane, and two sons, Mike and Mark, as well as four grandchildren.
Visitation will be at Cook-Walden on North Lamar Boulevard, 3-5 p.m., July 1. Funeral service at Triumphant Love Lutheran Church on Great Hills Trails, 10 a.m., July 2.