St. Louie Chop Suey

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

Weeks earlier, Cheng, a wiry 44-year-old with puffy eyes, had taken a moment from filling orders to let me in through the locked iron door separating Hing Lung's kitchen from its ordering area. In addition to the buckets of fried duck wings and cooked rice, the kitchen was equipped with several surveillance cameras. Cheng's wife, whom he declined to name, hovered nervously, awaiting customers.

Cheng's fears aren't unjustified. Henry Lu, who operated Hing Lung Chop Suey in the late 1990s, was shot dead there during a robbery on December 3, 1999.

"This is a jail," Chen said, sweeping his arm to indicate the kitchen. "I'm locked in; they're locked out."

Edward Hopper immortalized Chinese-American fare in his 
1929 painting Chop Suey.
Edward Hopper immortalized Chinese-American fare in his 1929 painting Chop Suey.
Poster from Seattle in the 1880s.
Poster from Seattle in the 1880s.

Why?

"Why?" he responded incredulously. "I'm not crazy."


It wasn't always so. In the early twentieth century, St. Louis' Chinese and African-American communities often found themselves allied on the margins of white St. Louis.

"Many African Americans couldn't get loans from white bankers, so they came to rely on Chinese merchants to provide them loans," says Truman State historian Huping Ling. "The Chinese would also run businesses in African-American neighborhoods. Chestnut Valley [one of the city's historic African-American enclaves] was just north of Chinatown, so some Chinese, because of the police raids against the opium shops, would close their shops in Chinatown and reopen in Chestnut Valley."

But in the 1950s and '60s, social and economic forces conspired to drive a wedge between the two communities. From 1949 to 1953, under Mayor Joseph Darst's administration, St. Louis embarked on a massive urban-renewal project that would carve up the city with the construction of highways 55, 44, 40 and 70. Chestnut Valley was leveled, as was another African-American enclave, Mill Creek Valley, which stretched from Vandeventer Boulevard to the Mississippi River between Olive Street and the railroad tracks.

Dubbed the "Negro Removal Project" by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the city's relocation of its black population to north St. Louis was followed by the destruction of Hop Alley to make way for Busch Stadium, which opened in 1966.

"The wealthier population of St. Louis has always been running from poverty. No one ever says this, but one of the results of rebuilding the city was getting rid of a large and impoverished population that lived in blighted districts," says James Neal Primm, author of the seminal Lion of the Valley St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980. "They got rid of a lot of poor bad housing when they built Busch Stadium. The whole idea was to make St. Louis what it had been in the past: a leading city in the Midwest."

Nationally, other factors were at work to dislodge chop suey not only from its most-favored entrée status among St. Louis' African-American population but also from its place of honor at the broader American dinner table.

"1965 was really a watershed year," says UC-Irvine's Yong Chen, noting that virtually no Chinese were allowed to enter the U.S. from 1882 until the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and China was given a token quota. "Before [1965], American immigration policies and laws favored European countries. Only 105 Chinese immigrants per year could enter the United States. China still couldn't send people here, but Taiwan and Hong Kong could."

The loosening of immigration policy dealt a devastating blow to the chop suey culture. The previously static Chinese-American population hailed almost exclusively from the province of Canton, and like the tightly controlled Chinese-American population, our very concept of Chinese food had been frozen ever since that mythical Chinese cook told his table full of appreciative miners that they were eating "chop suey."

After 1965 the ranks of Chinese Americans increasingly began to mirror mainland China, swelling with émigrés from Hunan, Szechuan and Peking (not to mention Taiwan and Hong Kong). Not only did the United States beckon to a broader Chinese cooking population, but there was an attendant broadening of the customer base. Abhorring a vacuum, Chinese restaurateurs rushed to cater to the expanded market.

Chop suey's death knell finally rang in 1972, when Richard Nixon became the first American president to travel to China. A hefty press corps was quick to recount to its stateside audience the particulars of Nixon's Chinese meals. A February 26, 1972, New York Times article titled "The Menus at Peking Banquets Didn't do Justice to the Foods" recounted that Nixon had enjoyed "that rarefied area of Chinese gastronomy — classic cuisine."

The Times article noted that with few exceptions, the Nixons were treated to dishes that were never served in America. "The banquet stressed purity and elegance of taste and, particularly, texture. Shark's fin and almond junket are two examples of this, basically bland foods, which like the ancient eggs also served, delight the ultra-refined Chinese palate by their feel and subtlety rather than with the pyrotechnics of their preparation."

Says curator Cynthia Lee: "It kind of dawned on the American public that there's much more to Chinese cooking than what they've known. This kind of helped drive this desire for what's authentic."

As the nation's collective palate discovered the spicy dishes of Szechuan and the ethereal creations that are the hallmark of authentic Cantonese cooking, humble chop suey was pushed to the culinary margins, where it clings today.

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