Stephen William Rome of Provincetown and Truro, who loved China and whose mastery of the language made him a celebrity there, died unexpectedly on Aug. 22, 2021. He was 37. The cause is not yet known, said his mother, the artist Leslie Packard. “An autopsy is underway,” she said Monday. “We won’t know anything for six to eight weeks.”
Stephen was born in Boston on May 24, 1984. He grew up in Provincetown, attending elementary and middle school here before moving with his family to Sarasota, Fla., where he finished high school.
Soon after graduation, and still just 17 years old, Stephen accompanied his stepmother’s mother, who was ill, to her family village near Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province in northeastern China. He stayed a few months, returned home, and decided that China was where he wanted to be. He went back to Shenyang to study Chinese from 2002 to 2004 at Liaoning University, and he later said he learned the language easily.
“For some reason I couldn’t learn French or Spanish to save my life,” Stephen confessed to Katy Ward, who profiled him in the Provincetown Banner in December 2016. “But I was able to learn Chinese. I got really lucky that I don’t have a foreigner’s accent.”
Stephen’s wife, Lu, a native of northeast China, confirmed his uncanny proficiency. “In China, if you were to talk with him on the phone, you would not know he was a white guy,” she said. “His accent was much better than mine.”
He became a teacher of English in China, working with students from middle school to university. After leaving the university, he remained in China and became manager of a chain of 13 restaurants owned by an investor in Texas, and then opened two pizza restaurants of his own: I Love New York Pizza and New York Pizza Delivery. Both were “super successful,” said Lu. “People lined up to get in.”
“China changed his life,” said his mother. During his eight years there, Stephen became something of a celebrity, appearing on television talk shows. When Leslie visited him, she said, she was amazed at his fluency and how he was able to solve every travel-related problem. When he spoke, she said, “people not only listened, they acted. He had that effect on people.”
In 2011, Stephen’s younger brother, Blake, died after he was hit by a car while he was walking his bicycle along Route 6 in Provincetown. Stephen returned from China to help his mother with the family business, the Packard Gallery in Provincetown’s East End.
It was back in Provincetown, ironically, that he met his future wife. She had come here to work on a J-1 student visa. After they met, they learned that they had “a lot of common friends in China,” Lu said.
The year their first daughter was born, 2014, Stephen opened Kung Fu Dumplings at 293 Commercial St. with a partner, Chuang “Leon” Tong, whom he’d met in a Chinese restaurant in New York City the year before. Leon, too, was from northeast China.
With its open kitchen, the restaurant was a success. Stephen and Leon also ran the Kung Fu Dumplings food truck on Route 6 in Wellfleet.
From 2014 to 2016 Stephen managed the restaurant, the food truck, and the family gallery, now called the Packard Print Gallery. In 2016, Stephen sold his share of the restaurant business to Leon. He needed to help his mother once again, she said.
What people will remember most about Stephen, said Leslie, is his generosity. “He would help anyone he could,” she said.
He photographed art for Patricia Zur’s Provincetown Art Guide, for example, and would not charge for it. He helped friends with their broken electronics and other technical snafus. He could “do almost anything he put his mind to,” his mother said.
“He had a big heart,” said Lu. “He would take care of everybody. Provincetown is his home town,” she added.
The East End Gallery District will never be the same without him, said Leslie.
He leaves his wife, Lu Rome, and their two daughters, Ella, 7, and Isabel, 4, who, like their father, are both fluent in Chinese. He also leaves his beloved grandmother, the artist Anne Packard, recently turned 88, whom he named “Mere” when he was a toddler. The name caught on with all the new grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Stephen also leaves his mother, Leslie Packard; his father, Howard Monte Rome; his aunts, Cynthia Packard and Susan Packard; his uncle, Michael Packard; his sister, Rose Rome; and his cousins, Zachary, Silas, and Caleb Luster, Jacob and Josiah Packard, and Rebecca and Ben Dawley.
He was predeceased by his brothers, Blake Van Hoof Packard and Maxwell Rome, and by his uncle and namesake, Stephen Packard.
Funeral services are private. There will be a celebration of Stephen’s life at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 26 at 6 Cabral Farm Road in Truro.