Moorestown family honors its Chinese heritage in a modern setting

Lauren and Andrew Chen play Xiangqi (or Chinese chess) in the living room of their Moorestown home. Their parents, Teresa and Peter, are committed to preserving their Chinese heritage for their American-born children.

Teresa and Peter Chen’s home, set on a heavily treed lot on a quiet Moorestown street, has among its charms a sense of serenity and a gentle melding of cultures.

On a recent afternoon, Teresa had just finished creating the kind of dumplings that often appear on Chinese New Year tables.

“I really love cooking traditional holiday recipes,” she says.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Homemade dumplings in kitchen in the Moorestown home of Teresa and Peter Chen.

The Chens’ house has a mostly traditional exterior, but the interior gives a nod to the open, modern living concept that allows a flow from one space to another. Tradition blends artfully with the contemporary touches here. Chinese culture abounds.

“One of the challenges was making sure our children, as first-generation Americans, also embrace that heritage,” says Teresa, mother of Andrew, 17, and Lauren, 16.

Throughout the first floor are reminders of that heritage, such as a lovely painting of a fish, a symbol of welcome abundance. It was a gift from Teresa’s father.

A large watercolor from Taiwan symbolizes coming home to a safe harbor. Deeply touching are the calligraphy brushes created from the fine hair of each of the Chen children’s very first haircut.

Along with beautiful bowls and other vessels scattered through the rooms, a traditional bride and groom set of mini-dolls, often given as wedding gifts, coexist with stamp carvings that hark back centuries as symbols of power.

Teresa and Peter met in a calculus class at the University of California-Berkeley. One of Teresa’s friends was struggling in the class, and she volunteered to be an emissary to get the clearly gifted Peter to help the friend. That mission went well beyond a favor as the outgoing Teresa and the far more reserved Peter began a romance that led to marriage.

They came to the Philadelphia area for Peter’s medical training as an obstetrician/gynecologist. One of Peter’s colleagues recommended the Burlington County town as a place to settle.

“It had what was important to us, including excellent schools for our kids, and a community that felt just right,” Peter says. “We were lucky enough to find this house, which is close to the schools our children would attend and also to Moorestown’s Main Street.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
When Peter Chen proposed to paint the dining room a deep red, his wife, Teresa, was worried it would be too bold. But she has come to see the room as a centerpiece of their Moorestown home.

When they moved into the home in 2001, most rooms had plain white walls — safe but not exciting. Peter, credited with an innate color sense, took the lead in several rooms, including the centrally located dining room.

When he announced his choice of bold, deep-red walls, Teresa was panic-stricken. Today she acknowledges the room is a highlight of the house, with the color creating a sense of drama without overwhelming the warmth of the elegant furniture and accessories.

Despite Peter Chen’s long hours — along with his practice, he is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden —  the family manages time together. They’ve been involved in the Chinese School of South Jersey in Cherry Hill since the children were about 5.

Some of the English-Chinese textbooks used at the Chinese School of South Jersey, where Teresa and Peter Chen are both involved.

Because of the school, the Chinese language is now more easily preserved in some homes, says Peter, the school’s principal. And families with children adopted from China are eager to avail themselves of this social, cultural, and educational resource, he says.

Teresa, a computer-linked manager in her family’s condensed-milk business, serves as a substitute teacher and fund-raiser. An immigrant herself, she is eager to both immerse her children in this country so that they can be productive citizens but also to remind them of their roots.

The family also blends past, present, and future with the help of Teresa’s California parents, who now have a second home in Moorestown just a short walk from the Chens.

“It’s wonderful for both the children and my parents,” she says. “Now they can learn about their roots from people they love and people who lived those roots.”

“And that,” says Teresa, “is a very special gift.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / staff photographer
Teresa and Peter Chen with Andrew, 17, and Lauren, 16, in the living room. Both children are musical, so the piano is often in use.

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