Skip to main content

Chicago's Chop Suey Controversy


A Chinese-American restaurant in Chinatown. This postcard is provided by the Chicago History in Postcards website. 

In the early 1900s, Chinese restaurants in Chicago became the target of various attempted restrictions. “Chop suey houses,” as they were often called, were seen as problematic for several reasons: they were usually owned by non-citizens, they were thought to lower property values, and some even thought that they corrupted America’s youth. This effort to limit the operation of Chinese restaurants was also part of the larger anti-immigrant sentiment of the time. 

A crowd at the King Joy Lo restaurant on Randolph Street. This postcard is provided by the Chicago History in Postcards website.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred all Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. except for students, teachers, diplomats, and merchants. When the federal court decided that restauranteurs fell under the category of merchants in the early 1900s, this led to a boom in Chinese restaurants opening up across the country. Chop suey was usually their main specialty. 

According to Smithsonian magazine, chop suey roughly translates to “assorted mix” and has been used as a general term to mean any sort of stir-fry made with a sauce. The ingredients used in the stir-fry depend on what happens to be available and popular, and the spice level is usually toned down to be acceptable to American palates.

Joy Yet Lo Co. provided separate tables for ladies and parties. Postcard publisher is unknown. 

According to the Chicago Tribune archives, some of the early Chinese restaurants in the city were located near the red light districts around Harrison Street and Cermak Road, and some developed a reputation for being rowdy places that kept late-night hours and attracted a bohemian clientele. In 1906, measures were proposed that would ban live music in Chinese restaurants in Chicago, prohibit young men under the age of 21 and young women under the age of 18 from entering after 10 p.m., and impose special taxes and licensing fees on these establishments. In the same year, a Chicago alderman proposed a law that would only allow U.S. citizens to obtain licenses to run restaurants, food shops, and food stands in the city. This law targeted Chinese restaurant owners (who could not become citizens at the time) as well as Italian and Greek immigrants who ran fruit stands, candy shops, and ice cream parlors. These laws were eventually struck down by City Hall.

King Wah Lo on Wabash Avenue. This postcard is provided by the Chicago History in Postcards website. 

But in 1911, a law that barred Chinese people from obtaining construction permits to build in the vicinity of Wabash Avenue and 23rd Street passed in the City Council due to concerns over depreciating property values in the neighborhood. In 1910, a Tribune editorial bemoaned the negative influence that Chinese restaurants supposedly had on young white women. The article claimed that these impressionable young women would become “hypnotized by the dreamy seductive music that is always on tap” at chop suey houses and would be lured to smoke, drink, and (heaven forbid) socialize with men of different ethnic backgrounds at these establishments. 

Moralist Samuel Wilson’s 1910 book Chicago by Gaslight includes a chapter devoted to the evils of chop suey houses. “It is amazing to see the number of young women who frequent these places and become surprisingly intimate with the men connected with the place,” Wilson wrote. In keeping with the anti-immigrant sentiment of the time, Wilson also devoted a chapter of his book to the evils of Greek-owned ice cream parlors, describing them as havens for young people to gather and engage in various immoral acts. (Wilson wrote another book titled Chicago and Its Cess-Pools of Infamy, and he generally considered the city to be a hotbed of sin.)

Yun Fong Lo Co. was open day and night and was located at 119 Madison Street. This postcard is provided by the Chicago History in Postcards website.


I’ve never ordered chop suey from a restaurant, but my mom used to make it for dinner sometimes when I was a kid. It seemed pretty exotic to me at the time. Even as recently as the 1990s, fading advertisements for chop suey houses could still be seen on the brick facades of many buildings in the city. 

Guey Sam's began serving Chinese food in 1901. This postcard is provided by the Chicago History in Postcards website. 

When Chinese restaurants today advertise chop suey on their neon signs, it seems like a relic of times past when it was the only Chinese dish that Americans would dare to eat. As Americans have become more likely to try more authentic Chinese fare, many Chinese restaurants no longer serve chop suey. But some still list it on their menus, serving as a reminder of earlier times when America was less accepting of immigrants and their cuisine. 

There happen to be many postcards dating as far back to 1903 that show images of Chinese restaurants in Chicago and their Far East décor.

-- Written by Emily Ruzich

The Wing Yee Restaurant with its Far Eastern interior design. Postcard provided by the Chicago History in Postcards website.







Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost Souls on Chicago's Forgotten Suicide Bridge

On this postcard, the bridge is called Suicide Bridge instead of its official name High Bridge. Postcard publication is unknown.  A tall pedestrian bridge that was built over the Lincoln Park Lagoon in 1894 was later dubbed “Suicide Bridge” after the structure became a popular place for people to take their own lives . It is believed that about 100 people jumped off of the bridge during its 25 years. Located south of Fullerton and east of Lincoln Park Zoo near Webster Avenue (originally called Asylum Place), High Bridge allowed pedestrians to cross from Lincoln Park to the lakefront. At 75 feet--or four stories--tall, the bridge was built high enough to allow sailboats to pass underneath. It was so high that people standing on the bridge on a clear day could see as far as the stockyards, Jackson Park, and the steel mills.   High Bridge was featured in a chase scene in the 1916 film Cousin Jim . The stuntman hired to jump off the bridge refused to do it because he thought

Marshall Field's at Christmas

  The aisle on the first floor of the State Street store is 358 feet long. Postcard publisher is unknown.  Many Chicagoans continue to miss visiting Marshall Field’s during the holiday season. Just talking about the famed Christmas windows and holiday decorations brings about memories of the department store’s glory days. Many of us can recall the strong smell of perfume that would greet visitors upon entering the flagship State Street store, along with the huge white Romanesque columns decorated with Christmas fare on the first floor. The real fun, however, was taking the elevator to the 7 th floor to get a glimpse of the giant Christmas tree inside the Walnut Room restaurant. The best place to view the tree was one floor up on a balcony area. Christmas decorations on the first floor. Postcard publisher is unknown.  Frango mint chocolates were piled high in various areas throughout the store, and many visitors couldn’t resist buying a box. Frango chocolates were once made in a kitc

Putting the “Toddle” Back in “That Toddling Town”

  Postcard designed and sold by appshop. The “toddle” was a jazz dance step that became popular across the nation just in time for the Roaring Twenties. And Chicago became known as “that toddling town” thanks to the lyrics of Fred Fisher’s 1922 song “Chicago (That Toddling Town).” While many still know Frank Sinatra’s famous cover version of that song, the dance step has largely been forgotten. In a 1921 South Bend News-Times article, dance teacher Arthur Murray describes the toddle as having the “delightful abandon so characteristic of everything American.” According to Murray, the toddle was similar to the shimmy but without the shoulder shakes. It also bore a resemblance to the fox trot but with an extra bounce added to the steps. Songwriter Fred Fisher was not the first to associate the toddle with Chicago. A variation of the toddle, which focused on movements of the hips rather than the feet, was called “the Chicago toddle” or simply “the Chicago.” In 1921, a print advertiseme