St. Louie Chop Suey

You are what you eat: The story of a culture, told through its cuisine.

That last fact is all the more extraordinary when you consider that, according to the trade publication Chinese Restaurant News, the U.S. is home to roughly 36,000 Chinese restaurants. In other words, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than there are McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King franchises combined.

"The Chinese restaurant is really the story of the American dream," says Chen. "Chop suey has become so deeply imbedded in the American consciousness that it's truly one of the most American dishes around. It really is an iconic dish. And it's disappearing."


You want tails with that? An illustration depicting the 
Chinese as rat-eaters accompanied cub reporter Theodore 
Dreiser's St. Louis Republican account of an 1894 
excursion to Hop Alley.
You want tails with that? An illustration depicting the Chinese as rat-eaters accompanied cub reporter Theodore Dreiser's St. Louis Republican account of an 1894 excursion to Hop Alley.
The relationship between chop suey houses and their 
African-American clientele ain’t what it used to be.
Jennifer Silverberg
The relationship between chop suey houses and their African-American clientele ain’t what it used to be.

Kant taught us that by loving something that is imperfect we can create a passion that is uniquely ours. We loved chop suey for its glutinous gravy, crab Rangoon for its sweet and creamy center, egg foo young for its pucklike honesty.

But what would Kant say upon realizing that chop suey's gravy is a horrid, gustatory Frankenstein? Tastes change, and the very flaws we once adored can quickly become the objects of our evolving scorn.

Documenting the recent unsolved gangland-style murder of eighteen-year-old Brendan Johnson, the Evening Whirl, a broadsheet devoted to the misdeeds of St. Louis miscreants, opened its story this way:

"The ghetto perp with more dog in him than beef fried rice is still on the loose after he shot a teen in the head the evening of Sept. 8."

One hundred and twelve years after the St. Louis Republic accompanied Theodore Dreiser's article with an illustration of rat-eating Chinese, certain stereotypes persist.

And today's north-side chop suey purveyors have another hurdle to clear.

"They've got mold everywhere. The floors are filthy, the glass is filthy, the windows are filthy and the [building] colors are hideous. They disregard the entire community. They have no feelings at all toward the black community," says Charles Quincy Troupe, alderman for St. Louis' predominantly black First Ward. "The monosodium glutamate and salts and all that other stuff they have in it will send your sugar diabetes right through the roof — and the black community has a propensity for heavyweight diabetes and high blood pressure. It's not a wholesome meal, and it's not a safe meal."

Troupe's U-shape ward, bounded by Northland Avenue to the south and West Florissant Avenue to the north, is home to only two chop suey houses. That's two too many for Troupe.

"They are just playing a parasitic role. They come in, they suck up all the money and then they leave, and the environment they create becomes a part of the problem," says the alderman, who aims to get the chop suey houses to clean up their act or get out of his ward.

Wait. He's not done.

"They don't contribute to the scholarship fund," Troupe says. "They don't contribute to the back-to-school programs. They don't attend the police community-relations meeting. They don't participate in anything in the community, they don't support the churches, they don't support nothing."

Gino's Lounge, a tavern in the neighboring suburb of Pine Lawn, is straightforward about its distaste for chop suey houses. On one of the tavern's walls is a sign:

"No Chinese Food."

"A black radio station called me up on the air and asked me why these chop suey places never hire any blacks," notes Eric Huang, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Greater St. Louis. "It's a mom-and-pop store. Oftentimes they're not fluent in English, so it'd be like a chicken trying to talk to a duck.

"They'll want to make a quarter per order, so they don't have the profit margin to hire a helping hand," Huang goes on. "For many years I've seen black dishwashers in a full-fledged restaurant, but never in a chop suey restaurant."

Huang says chop suey joints are rarely passed down from generation to generation and these days are just as likely to be helmed by Vietnamese refugees as ethnic Chinese.

"The kids don't want to operate the restaurants," he explains. "The kids have seen how hard their parents work, and they don't want to do it."

Huang's sentiment is seconded by Jack Lo, who works with his father at Bamboo Inn Chop Suey on Delmar Boulevard west of Kingshighway.

"I wouldn't be working here if I had the choice. I mean, look at it," says Lo, swinging the hinged bulletproof service window he uses to protect himself against robberies. "Not only is it dangerous, it's hard work, too. You got twelve-hour days and you're here six or seven days a week."

Lo's service window, a small hinged cube that fits into a larger sheet of bulletproof glass, is but one example of the most obvious sign of distrust between chop suey restaurateurs and their customers.

"There are a lot of bad people. They've broken my front window. They wanted inside. They've also tried to break in my back door," reports Huai Cheng, who owned Hing Lung Chop Suey on North Union Boulevard until he closed the restaurant last month out of frustration. "It's an awful life. I always call 911. I have it on tape but they never help. I've called the police almost thirty times in two years, but because I don't have good English, they don't help."

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