Saturday, February 13, 2021

Why Chinese Restaurants Nearly Became Extinct in Chicago.

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In a country with over three times more Chinese restaurants than 14,000 McDonald's, it is hard to believe that Chinese eateries almost became extinct over a century ago.

The threat came from legislation passed in Chicago — and other cities around the country — aimed to protect young white women from the supposed dangers of chop suey houses.

The folks leading this charge included an unexpected mix of restaurant labor unions, Chicago aldermen, and legislators nationwide. Strangely enough, it even had articles in the Chicago Tribune, including those that used a racial slur.
A 1910 Tribune investigation charged: "The laws of morality and health, police regulations, and practically all the other protective measures are being violated openly by many chop suey establishments... Young girls with braids down their backs are escorted daily into these oriental places by boys wearing their first long trousers and are introduced to cigarette smoking and drinking. Other evils destined to make them the slave wives of Chinamen, or drag them down into lives of more open shame."

So how did this anti-chop suey hysteria start, and how did it all simmer down? That's chronicled in a recent paper, "The War Against Chinese Restaurants," by the University of California at Davis law scholar Gabriel "Jack" Chin. Chin says he got his first inkling of this history when he ran across "this bizarre 1911 case about a law in Massachusetts that prohibited white women from entering or working in Chinese restaurants."

The law was eventually declared unconstitutional, but Chin found similar proposals nationwide, including in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and Boston.
Guey Sam's Chinese Restaurant, on Wentworth Avenue in Chicago's Chinatown, is shown in 1928 during a celebration of the anniversary of the Republic of China. Chop Suey palaces like Guey Sam were targeted for closing earlier in the 1900s. 

Chin says the movement started with restaurant-worker labor unions that felt their livelihoods were threatened by the explosion of (nonunionized) Chinese restaurants in the early 20th century. "The union members and their comrades in the labor movement didn't want the competition, and so they came up with a range of ways to suppress them," he says.

These ways included telling their members to boycott Chinese restaurants under the threat of fines. But that fizzled when the union members kept eating at the restaurants anyway. "It turned out they couldn't fight the lure of cheap, tasty food," Chin said with a laugh. But then the movement turned legislative. 

In Chicago, this meant proposals for the following:
  • A 1906 proposal to restrict men under 21 and women under 18 from entering chop suey restaurants after 10 pm while banning any live music from the establishments.
  • A 1906 rule requiring special licensing fees and additional taxes for chop suey restaurants.
  • A 1906 measure to restrict restaurant licenses to only those with American citizenship — something people from China were not allowed to obtain.
  • A 1911 ordinance to refuse construction permits to any "Chinamen” near Wabash Avenue and 23rd Street.
When Alderman Daniel Harkin (one of the 1906 citizenship ordinance's supporters) was informed that the proposed legislation would effectively bar Chinese from the restaurant trade, he responded that the city "could get along without any chop suey places," according to Tribune reports at the time.

It should be noted that many (but certainly not all) of Chicago's early Chinese restaurants sprang up in Chinatowns that abutted the city's red-light districts (first around Harrison Street and then Cermak Road). Many offered music, kept late hours, attracted a Bohemian clientele and were connected to saloons or gambling houses.

"You could think of them as kind of underground rave or underground dance parties," Chin says, reaching for a more modern analogy. "They were places of racial mixing, freer from the regulation of a traditional society at a time of cultural change when women started to vote and were headed toward national suffrage. And in the middle of this emerged a chop suey craze."

This all came together to produce the fear illustrated in this excerpt from a 1910 Tribune editorial.

“More than 300 Chicago white girls have sacrificed themselves to the influence of chop suey joints during the last year, according to police statistics. Vanity and a desire for showy clothes led to their downfall, it is declared. It was accomplished only after they smoked and drank in the chop suey restaurants and permitted themselves to be hypnotized by the dreamy seductive music that is always on tap.”

So how close did these laws come to closing Chinese restaurants altogether?

"We came pretty close," Chin says. "These laws passed legislatures in places like Pittsburg, Montana, and Massachusetts. But, in all those cases, cooler heads prevailed at the end of the day. In Montana, the U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan communicated with the legislators that this didn't make any sense and would cause problems for us internationally."

In Chicago's case, most of these laws were eventually struck down by the City Hall lawyers who warned the aldermen they couldn't single out individual types of restaurants for special rules. Still, in 1911, the City Council passed the ordinance to refuse construction and remodeling permits to people of Chinese descent around 23rd and Wabash. The rationale? That "the Chinese of the city of Chicago are invading said neighborhood" and "if they are permitted to settle in the neighborhood, it will materially affect and depreciate the value of the property."

But just because much of the legislation stalled, it didn't mean the larger movement was stopped. Chin notes that the anti-Chinese movement succeeded in its bigger goal to expand immigration restrictions to Japanese, Filipinos, and South Asians. And this goal was achieved with the passage of the Asian Exclusion act of 1924, clamping down on the immigration of all people from Asia.

So then, how did Chinese restaurants continue their steady growth to become one of the most ubiquitous restaurant styles in the country?

Chinatowns were first formed after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. The law barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S., though exceptions were made for students, teachers, diplomats, and merchants. The Chinese already living in America suffered violent racism and discrimination and could not assimilate into the country's social or economic fabric. They relied on urban clusters — Chinatowns — to survive without the means to return to China.

A 1915 federal court decision was found that secured the standing of the "restaurateur" as someone who could qualify under the "merchant" category.

The act was repealed in 1943, though there was an annual quota of 105 new entry visas, and the ethnic Chinese were still banned from owning property or businesses. It wasn't until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act that racial immigration restrictions were lifted. The country's Chinese population in America soared in the following decades, especially in Manhattan and San Francisco, ushered by the rise of communism in mainland China.

The number of Chinese restaurants in large American cities rose substantially. In some places, it was eightfold, and in other areas, up to twentyfold. This status finally allowed the restaurateurs to travel back and forth to China and bring over relatives crucial to their labor force. These were usually sons roughly between the ages of 12 and 17 who could go to (American) schools for a few years while working part-time in restaurants. And when they were old enough, they became full-time employees.

But it's not like the process was easy. Applicants had to prove they were operating a "high grade" restaurant, which required raising $80,000 to $150,000 in today's money. This may explain why many of Chicago's early Chinese restaurants were built as chop suey palaces with lavish decor and live music.

Even after the applicants launched the restaurant, rules required that the merchant refrains from any menial labor (cooking or serving) for a year. And two white witnesses (often vendors to the restaurant) had to vouch for their claims. But the Chinese were resourceful, inventive, and determined when working the system, and they had to be.

With the resulting economic growth of the Chinatown boom in the Chinese restaurant industry, it wasn't long before Chinatowns began to be viewed as tourist destinations.

Why Chicago's Chinatown is booming
even as others across the country are fading away.
Chin Foin, Chicago's foremost Chinese restaurateur, opened his first restaurant, "King Yen Lo" in 1902 upstairs from a saloon, the notorious establishment of alderman Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna on the corner of Clark and Van Buren.

Most Chicago Chinatown businesses, restaurants, and agencies operate bilingually since most residents speak a Chinese dialect, and nearly 65 percent are foreign-born. At a time when traditional urban Chinatowns in Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia are fading due to gentrification and changing cultural landscapes, Chicago's Chinatown is growing larger — becoming what experts say could be a model for Chinatown survival in America. In Chicago, where several neighborhoods are no longer defined by the immigrant or ethnic groups that once occupied them, Chinatown is an exception, having anchored the area centered around Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue since 1912.
Chinese people parade on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China in 1956.
Local leaders say it has avoided gentrification because Chinese Americans value a sense of belonging and choose to stay in the neighborhood. Few Chinese move out, but if they do, they sell their homes to other Chinese people.

Between 2000 and 2010, Chinatown's population increased by 24%, and its Asian population increased by 30%. Asians make up nearly 90% of the neighborhood's population. Experts also say that of all the foreign-born Asians living in Chicago's Chinatown, almost 10% arrived in the last three years — a stark contrast to New York and San Francisco, where immigrants no longer fuel Chinatowns.

Walk through the Chinatown Gate and south on Wentworth. You may see young Chinese professionals gathered at dim sum restaurants, clusters of Chinese children skipping to the playground for recess, or hear a Chinese drama echoing from a dated television at the back of a bakery. 

It's unlikely Chicago's Chinatown will succumb to national trends, experts say, and projections show the greater Chinatown area growing. Bordering neighborhoods have already seen an influx of Asian families moving in: Between 2009 and 2013, Bridgeport's Asian-American population grew from 26% to 35%, while McKinley Park expanded from just under 8% to 17%.

Recognizing the national decline of other Chinatowns, city planners and local organizations are committed to investing in it, which could be why the neighborhood is thriving. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning executed its plan to preserve Chinatown's cultural identity by improving public education, and elderly care, bolstering transportation infrastructure, and creating more public parks.

The city opened a two-story, $19.1 million branch of the Chicago Public Library on South Wentworth, which attracts about 1,500 people daily. It caters to Chinese-speaking patrons, as many residents visit the library for English classes.

Smaller Chinatowns, like that of Washington, D.C., have been diminishing for decades and are now identifiable by just an ornate welcome gate or pocket of Chinese restaurants. And in the last few years, the large, traditional Chinatowns in San Francisco and Manhattan have also decreased.

Chicago differs from Manhattan and San Francisco in that it doesn't have as high of demand nor as tight of a supply of rentable apartments. Experts and local leaders agree that Chicago's Chinatown could thrive because of its commitment to Chinese traditions, making it attractive to Asians and non-Asian visitors. 

Some young people even live and work in Chinatown just to learn Chinese.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributors: Monica Eng and Marwa Eltagouri


  1. Fascinating read. I didn't appreciate Chicago's Chinatown until I visited the Chinatown in SFO. I have several friends who are Chinese and told their personal stories of escaping communistic China under the revolution. I hope the Chinese communities stay as they are and the younger generation s remember and take pride in their ancestry.

  2. Fascinating. I love Chinatown, the culture, the architecture, the dim sum and those baked goods! Whenever I go by on the red line I'm proud that it is part of our city and hope tourists appreciate how cool it is.

  3. Excellent article. I have always been fond of Chinatown. Frequented it several times a year. Living in Florida, I miss many things, Chinatown included.


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