Mention the names Sintao and Eugene Heung to any adult who grew up in Nevada City, and most likely, you’ll get a smile.
The former owners of The Bonanza Market on Broad Street were honorary family to many.
Eugene, a butcher, was famous for giving out free hot dogs to children, and Sintao kept a watchful eye on the town’s young people as if they were her own.
“I told the kids, ‘If you steal candy, I’ll tell your parents,’” she said with a laugh. “I ran into a man recently who said, ‘Years ago you made me get a note from my mom to buy cigarettes.’ Whenever I would catch someone trying to take food, I would tell them, ‘You don’t have to steal — if you’re hungry, I will give you something.’ I learned English from my customers. When I started, I had never heard of an avocado. I learned a lot from our customers — things I couldn’t learn in a book.”
In 1972, the Heungs bought the Bonanza Market from Sintao’s Chinese-born parents and brother, who had run the store since the 1950s, yet they worked together for more than 30 years.
“During the first 10 years we took no vacations,” said Sintao. “When we were married for 10 years, it felt like 20 because we would spend all day and night together.”
In 2005, the Heungs sold the business but still own the building today. Yet tucked away at the bottom of the parking lot, across from the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, is the Bonanza Gift Shop, which the Heungs now consider their “hobby.”
The spacious shop is nothing less than a rich slice of San Francisco’s Chinatown, boasting tea sets, hand-painted fans, porcelain figurines, wind chimes, chop sticks, slippers, candles, toys, rice candies, coin purses, slippers, fortune cookies, Kung Fu shoes, dragons, vases, mahjong sets, abacuses, silk pin cushions, paper lanterns and much more.
“We have many fun gifts — very Chinese,” said Sintao. “There’s no need to hire anyone extra to mind the gift shop. Whenever we want to go somewhere, I just close the store. I don’t feel guilty — we deserve it. We worked hard for so many years.”
All those decades spent at the market paid off, she said, as she and Eugene take annual trips to spend time with classmates from their Hong Kong high school.
“Every year someone will host a reunion in a different place,” she said. “More than 300 of us get together in places like Vancouver, New York or Mexico. Every five years we go back to Hong Kong.”
The Heungs’ two daughters are now grown and working professionals in the field of education.
Sintao and Eugene say they learned their business sense from Sintao’s father, who stressed the importance of treating employees and customers with dignity.
“He told me to always make sure you pay the employees before you pay yourself,” she said. “And give them the days off they need. For the customers, we made sure we were open every day, like snow days — what if a baby needed something?”
Although the gift shop doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic, Sintao and Eugene still enjoy spending their days in the store and — just like Sintao’s father did before he passed away in 2003 — they sit and read the Chinese newspaper. Occasionally classes studying Chinese history will come in, and the Heungs will share their knowledge.
As for their 42-year marriage, Sintao said they never talk about work at home.
“But after all these years, we still have a lot to talk about,” she said, with a smile. “In fact, we stay up too late talking — sometimes about our younger years in Hong Kong. We went to high school together.”
“This town has been very good to us — the customers gave us a good life,” said Eugene. “The things that are most important to me are water, air and the people of Nevada City.”
To contact staff writer Cory Fisher email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4203.