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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.


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