David Leong, inventor of Springfield’s cashew chicken, passes away

David Leong
David Leong(KY3)
Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 9:54 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2020 at 4:04 PM CDT
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The man credited with inventing Springfield-style cashew chicken has died.

David Leong was 99-years-old. He passed away Monday night. Leong would have turned 100 on August 18.

He escaped China for American Citizenship after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He enlisted into the U.S. Army in 1942. Leong served as a cook in the 4th Wing that stormed Omaha Beach. His Army buddies always told him they were the best fed outfit in Europe. They encouraged him to open his own restaurant. Southwest Missouri Congressman Billy Long later honored him with new medals from the war after Leong never received them.

He moved to Springfield in the 1950s. He opened Leong’s Teahouse in Springfield in 1963. And the rest is history. The Teahouse stayed opened until 1997. He later opened Leong’s near Republic Road and Kansas Expressway.

Leong is survived by four sons, two daughters and several grandchildren.

“David Leong was a community icon,” said Springfield Mayor Ken McClure. “I don’t think anyone has had a more direct impact in terms of what Springfield is known for.”

And yes, believe it or not, cashew chicken is one of Springfield’s best-known exports.

“I was in New York once and they had it on the menu,” McClure laughed as he recalled a visit to a restaurant in the Big Apple.

”One time we were in Beijing, China,” said Leong’s youngest child, Wing Wah Leong, in recalling a trip with his father to David’s homeland. “And there’s a sign that says,‘Springfield USA-style cashew chicken.‘ I stopped there and asked my dad if he wanted to try it. He said, ‘No, I already know what it tastes like.‘”

Wing Wah explained that during his time in the army his father was moved from cooking for enlisted men to cooking for the officers and that after the war the soldiers he served with would come to eat at his restaurant.

“His military buddies would come and visit him and introduce their wives to my dad and say, ‘This is the guy I was telling you about honey. If he was a woman, I would have married him for his cooking,‘” Wing Wah said with a laugh.

After the war, Leong was a chef in Pensacola, Florida when a doctor from Springfield tried one of Leong’s meals and convinced him to move to the Ozarks. Once he arrived in Springfield and noticed customers weren’t embracing his Asian food, Leong combined a Chinese oyster-based sauce with fried chicken and created a dish that was so popular that other restaurants quickly copied it.

Leong never tried to stop the copy cats.

“When a customer would come in and tell us, ‘Hey, a competitor down the street just opened cashew chicken but it’s horrible’ my dad would go down there and teach ‘em how to make it,” Wing Wah recalled. “That’s what my dad credits his long life to. He’s been nice to people.”

Leong will be remembered for that kindness that saw him give away food and money to the homeless for decades. In fact, while trying to give a man five dollars in 2018 the man mugged Leong and stole his wallet.

“It didn’t sour him but it made him a little more fearful,” Wing Wah said.

That was an unfortunate incident for a man who had spent much of his life trying to make Springfield a better place and promote diversity.

“We were basically the first Chinese family living in Springfield,” Wing Wah said. “Were we accepted at the beginning in 1955? No. But you win people over with your cooking.”

“Clearly he and his family were pioneers,” McClure added. “It was a precursor of good things to come particularly with the Vietnamese following the Vietnam War and the influx of Asians coming as a direct result of that war. David Leong and his family helped pave way the way for that. We’re a better community because of the cultural diversity we have. They were a key part of that.”

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