The Commercial Appeal Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
September 30, 1999
By: Jody Callahan (Commercial Appeal)
Edition: Final
Section: Neighbors
Page: EM1

Place yourself in this position.Then ask yourself how you would’ve handled it. Or if you could’ve handled it.She’s been in America only six years, is still grasping the language, is still divining the culture, has yet to learn how to drive a car. Her husband dies. He leaves two boys, a mountain of debts, a business to be run. How would you have reacted? Be honest: it would’ve been easy to just quit. Declare bankruptcy. Take the two boys and go home. But then, you wouldn’t have been E-Ling Ballew. Many of you might recognize her name, know her as one of the city’s leading suppliers of wedding gowns and bridal apparel, with stores in East Memphis, Cordova and Hickory Hill. But there’s another story there.

It begins in 1974. E-Ling was working on a degree in French from a university in Taiwan. She was also working as an intern for a trading company there.Then she met Leonard Ballew.”He was a friend of the owner and he helped with some English correspondence,” E-Ling said.Leonard was smitten. He cajoled, pleaded, pestered, but E-Ling wouldn’t date him.”He was older and divorced and, back then, an interracial marriage was a no,” she said.Finally, Leonard started to reach her, worked his way into her graces. But the going was slow.”He started asking me out for a date, but I wouldn’t let him hold my hand or anything,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was dating a foreigner.”In some places, that last statement might seem, well, wrong. But in Taiwan, at that time, it was a common response.”It was a family revolution when I just told (my father) I was dating this American,” E-Ling said. “My father was so upset with me, he practically did not talk to me or look at me for two years. My father said I disgraced the family.”Despite that, Leonard eventually came to be accepted, and, in 1977, the couple married.Three years later, Leonard, who worked in the textile industry, moved to Memphis, where his brother Michael lived, to establish an import business for designer jeans and sportswear.In 1981, E-Ling, all of 26 years old, arrived to join him.This is where her story gets difficult. Her sole English training was through high school. She couldn’t drive. She could find few elements of her native culture anywhere in Memphis.”When I was dropped off in Memphis, it was a total culture shock. I’d never heard of Memphis, until people told me it was the Elvis town,” she said. “I was very lonely.”

In 1984, Leonard had left the import business, taking over a small clothing shop in Parkway Village that a client offered to retire his debt. The tiny Memphis Clothing Outlet primarily sold sportswear. Originally, Leonard just planned to sell everything and keep the money. But something else happened.”Leonard came home one day and said he brought me some dresses, 13 lavender chiffon dresses,” E-Ling said. “I said, `Leonard, that is really ugly. Who is going to wear that dress?’ Two weeks later, somebody came into that shop and bought six of them (for a wedding).”In the cartoons, a light bulb would’ve gone off above Leonard’s head.”He said, `That’s not a bad deal. One customer, you can sell multiple units.'”So, two months later, Leonard rented a nearby shop and opened the Bridal and Formal Discount Center, a lower-cost place for wedding apparel.

Three years later, Leonard was vomiting. His mood had changed and he was staying home from work, something that never happened before.”Every morning, I could hear him nauseating. I thought he was smoking too much, and he had headaches,” she said. “I thought it was stress from the job.”It was a brain tumor. It was also skin cancer.Leonard died in 1987, leaving behind sons Aaron, 9, and Jimmy, 4. E-Ling was 32, had $80 in the bank and was suddenly responsible for tens of thousands of dollars of debt.”He didn’t have any life insurance. He never thought he’d die or get sick,” E-Ling said, nearly crying at the memory. “I was (just) a housewife, like he wanted me to be.”E-Ling had one day to grieve.”The shop was closed one day. I went (to the shop) the day after the funeral,” she said.It was time to work. But some, with good intentions, told her to declare bankruptcy, to leave Memphis and return to Taiwan with the boys.She was insulted. “Here I am, 32 years old, have a college degree, not disabled, and everyone tells me to run away,” she said. “I said, `No.’

So, E-Ling immersed herself in bridal fashion. Studied, read, traveled. She made herself into an expert on the subject.”I was thrown into the bridal business. I didn’t have any kind of business knowledge,” she said. “I was trembling the first time I approached a customer.”Add to these 14-hour days the struggle of raising two young boys.”It’s just basically something that I could never imagine myself being able to duplicate,” said Aaron, now 21 and a junior in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt. “There’s just so much that she’s done. She never really had any help or backup, but somehow my brother and I always managed to have food on the table.”Somehow, she made it work. In 1990, she moved into a vacant space at 4864 Poplar, opening a bridal store simply called Ballew.From there, her business has grown to include two other shops: another Ballew at 8350 U.S. 64 near Cordova and Bride’s Choice at 3629 Hickory Hill.Combined, the three shops gross more than $1.25 million annually, said E-Ling, now 45. Her company handles apparel for more than 1,000 weddings a year.

So, what now? Her husband has been dead for 12 years. She’s raised her children, sent one of them off to college while the other is a junior at Germantown High. She’s established herself in the business world, being nominated for an Iris Award, given annually to women who have achieved business success.But, perhaps strangely, she has yet to remarry.She laughs.”Here we are, putting weddings together every day. I live and breathe beautiful brides,” she said, “and I’m single!”