Chi­nese eatery stirs de­bate

Woman of­fended by ‘Chi­na­man’ name turns to van­dal­ism; owner sues

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - with Kevin Pang

The evening of Feb. 17 was an oth­er­wise quiet one for Chicago Po­lice Dis­trict 19. The in­ci­dents re­port showed a mo­tor ve­hi­cle theft and an at­tempt to cash a coun­ter­feit check.

Then came HY154977 at 5:56 p.m. The of­fense: crim­i­nal dam­age to prop­erty at a restau­rant on the 3300 block of North Hal­sted Street. The weapon used: a free sam­ple of Nars lip­stick.

At the root of the mat­ter is one word: “Chi­na­man” — a word that, depend­ing on whom you ask, is a slur, or just a catchy name for a newly opened Chi­nese restau­rant, in this in­stance Chop Chop Chi­na­man.

For Larry Lee, who is 46 and three-quar­ters Chi­nese (his mother is Chi­nese Ital­ian), the word is in­grained in his vo­cab­u­lary. His fa­ther owned a num­ber of restau­rants, in­clud­ing three called Mr. Chop Suey, in the ’80s and ’90s. Lee re­mem­bers the word “Chi­na­man” be­ing tossed around with chummy af­fec­ta­tion.

And in a restau­rant land­scape lit­tered with “bamboo,” “jade gar­dens” and “palaces,” Chop Chop Chi­na­man surely stood out.

“You have to take the risk,” Lee said. “The one who kills the rab­bit, eats.”

On the other side of the case is 26-year-old Jean­nie Har­rell, who works in the book pub­lish­ing in­dus­try and has no pre­vi­ous crim­i­nal his­tory. She lives a few blocks from the restau­rant and spot­ted the sign when she was walk­ing home.

“I thought, ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ ” said Har­rell, who is half-Ja­panese and was raised in Tokyo. “What busi­ness would want that kind of at­ten­tion, and why would they want to make our neigh­bor­hood look that way?”

The word long had a neu­tral to pe­jo­ra­tive con­no­ta­tion, used in popular id­ioms (“a Chi­na­man’s chance”) to points of geog­ra­phy (the Hawai­ian islet Chi­na­man’s Hat).

But in time, said North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity’s An­drew Leong, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism and the rise of Asian Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture pushed words such as Chi­na­man and Ori­en­tal out of fa­vor.

“I can imag­ine peo­ple the 1940s and ’50s us­ing that word with­out be­ing of­fen­sive,” said Leong, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Asian lan­guages and cul­tures and English. “But in the ’70s there was an aware­ness of the his­tor­i­cal ill use of that word, and that was a real con­scious­ness shift.”

For Har­rell, by Feb. 17 she’d had enough. She wanted to van­dal­ize Chop Chop Chi­na­man, she tweeted at 5:46 p.m., but “only have nice NARS lip­stick to write with.”

In­side the restau­rant, Lee was tend­ing to busi­ness when a server called him over. A woman was scrawl­ing on the win­dow. Lee said that as the woman walked away, she looked at him, her hand raised and clenched but for one fin­ger.

The mes­sage was an ar­row pointed to the restau­rant logo, a man wear­ing wooden san­dals and a coolie hat pulling a rick­shaw. In crim­son lip­stick it de­clared the name a “hate crime,” drop­ping an F-bomb for em­pha­sis.

When a friend asked whether she had pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence, Har­rell tweeted back: “Not wise to re­turn to scene of crime but oh well.” She posted a pic­ture of the lip­sticked win­dow. Lee called po­lice. If not for Twit­ter, the case might have re­mained un­solved and forgotten.

But Lee tracked down Har­rell through so­cial me­dia and pressed charges. Lee said the logo had to be scraped off and re­placed at a cost of sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars.

“What’s to stop the next per­son to throw a brick through the win­dow?” Lee said.

Ten days af­ter the in­ci­dent, Har­rell was sit­ting at home on a Fri­day night, in her pa­ja­mas, when some­one knocked on her door. It was the Chicago Po­lice Depart­ment.

She was led to a squad car and driven to the restau­rant, where Lee iden­ti­fied her as the cul­prit. She was hand­cuffed, fin­ger­printed and kept in a hold­ing cell till 2:30 a.m.

“So re­mem­ber how I van­dal­ized that racist restau­rant with lip­stick?” she tweeted on Feb. 28. “Any­way I just got out of jail and I now have a court date.”

Mat­ters es­ca­lated af­ter Har­rell shared her story with a neigh­bor­hood news web­site. That day the restau­rant re­ceived a few dozen prank phone calls. Lee said one man called the restau­rant 32 times and told Lee, “Watch your back.” An­other prankster claimed to be from the Ku Klux Klan and tried to goad Lee into say­ing some­thing in­flam­ma­tory against the Chi­nese.

In per­son, Lee speaks in mea­sured tones about how his mixed her­itage cod­i­fied his views on eth­nic­ity. As some­one who wasn’t fully Chi­nese and grew up around Chi­nese chil­dren, he be­came the butt of jokes. He speaks co­gently on the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act — the 1882 fed­eral law that re­stricted the flow of Chi­nese im­mi­grants into the United States — and how his el­ders en­dured its ef­fects. The peo­ple on Yelp cry­ing racism, Lee said, were se­lec­tive about their out­rage.

“I’m not call­ing any­one a Chi­na­man. But ev­ery­one is point­ing at me and call­ing me racist, and it’s peo­ple who hide be­hind a com­puter,” Lee said. “How am I racist? I em­ploy two Chi­nese cooks and a His­panic server. My neigh­bors don’t have a prob­lem with the name.”

Har­rell felt a back­lash too. On her em­ployer’s Face­book page some­one sug­gested she be fired.

On one level, she can em­pathize with Lee. Class­mates taunted her mixe­drace her­itage, with one boy call­ing her a slur. “My point is, if I can pre­vent one Asian kid from be­ing called Chi­na­man, I’d be happy with that,” Har­rell said.

Her court date is April 8. She has been charged with crim­i­nal dam­age to prop­erty (un­der $300), a class A mis­de­meanor that car­ries a pos­si­ble $2,500 fine and up to one year in jail.

“I’m a bit scared, but I think I’ll be fine,” she said. “What I did was so mi­nor, in terms of the dam­age I did, rel­a­tive to some­one putting up some­thing that is ag­gres­sively racist. I don’t think any­one should be im­pris­oned for a prob­lem Win­dex solves.”

She has since set her so­cial me­dia ac­counts to pri­vate.

Pho­to­graphs by Ar­mando L. Sanchez Chicago Tri­bune

THE CHI­NESE RESTAU­RANT’S owner, Larry Lee, is him­self three-quar­ters Chi­nese and doesn’t con­sider the name Chop Chop Chi­na­man of­fen­sive.

JEAN­NIE HAR­RELL’S tweets about scrawl­ing with lip­stick on the restau­rant’s logo led po­lice to her door.

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