by Tim Gilmore, 2/28/2019
I did not know, when I first published my story about Chopstick Charley’s, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city, that it was his birthday. On August 18, 2017, John Ming “Chopstick Charley” Cheung would’ve turned 99.
“My father,” says Mai Hoo Cheung, “if alive today, would be 100 years old.” Mai’s Chinese father stood 5′ tall, her white mother a foot taller. Her parents were the best cooks Mai’s ever known. Chopstick Charley was 77 when died in 1996.
A year and a half ago, I began the story this way: “Because this is what a Chinese restaurant looks like in film noir. Because a Chinese American restaurant should be dirty, stained, greasy and cheap. Most importantly, because Chopstick Charley’s is the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city.”
Below, the story continues as originally written, except for where Mai Hoo Cheung shines new light. She emailed me on Wednesday, February 27, 2019, solving mysteries and saying, “I knew the original Chopstick Charley. He was my father.”
In her 2008 TED Talk, “The Hunt for General Tso,” Jennifer 8. Lee says, “There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy’s combined.” So calling Chopstick Charley’s the city’s oldest Chinese restaurant is saying a lot.
Because the letters have fallen from the front sign, so you have to read the less weathered blanks where the letters used to be. Because the front windows have been bricked in, two small square portals left, each the size of a man’s face. Because everyone who doesn’t already know Chopstick Charley’s assumes this place has long been closed.
These are the reasons the back corner booth is the best place in town to meet for secret psychogeographical sessions. Also, it rains through the ceiling on the front corner booth.
Everyone’s favorite is the woo dip harr, shrimp wrapped in bacon with sweet and sour sauce.
“Miss Kitty,” as everyone calls her, sweats by the register and yells into the phone. She tells the caller she’s already told him she won’t cook for him. She repeats her statement four times, insistently, then lowers her voice, says, “Okay, 40 minute!” and hangs up.
The air outside is humid and smells of frying eggs. The air inside is humid and smells of frying eggs and stale red carpet faded brown. We must discuss, in this back corner, details we can mention nowhere else in the city.
When the motel was built in 1951, its eatery was the Tropical Restaurant. Whatever it offered, it didn’t last long. Kitty Cheung has cooked here since 1974, but Chopstick Charley’s has served lo mein and egg drop soup since the mid-1950s. Philips Highway was a different place back then. Its dozen or so motor hotels made it a day’s getaway for the middle class. The abandoned motel on the property, “The Joe,” sponsored luau nights in the 1960s.
I ask Miss Kitty if she might share any stories from all the years she’s been cooking here. Her eyes open wide. She nods dramatically, bends forward and laughs loudly, then stands back up, composed and calm, and rings up an order. Whatever stories she holds, she’s not sharing them.
“You and your husband own the motel too, right?”
“No, no,” she says and waves her hand as if to flatten me. “Just caretaker.”
But property records list Chun Wo Cheung as owner of the restaurant and the long-shuttered brick-walled motel that hooks an L around the back of Chopstick Charley’s.
Sounds of skitterings, you can barely hear them, disperse across the apartment above the front office of The Joe. I’m almost sure someone’s up there. I can just see him thumbing a worn copy of Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles and reading: “No sirens. Silent street. No wind to speak of. Good night for stealing gas.”
Susan Bush remembers the man she knew as Charley. She and her late husband Sam King owned Gator Lodge down the street. Sam had Italian craftsmen install the mosaic tile in Gator Lodge bathrooms. Vincent Acri, an Italian cook and baker, ran the kitchen. Sam took such good care of that motel, says Susan, that “every blade of grass” stood “perfectly in place.”
She remembers the man who owned The Joe and the adjoining restaurant in the 1960s as Chopstick Charley himself, says he was “a no-nonsense kind of guy. If you came to his motel for hanky panky, he would throw you out.” He was determined The Joe, then called The Palace Motel and then The Three Hundred, would not be an “hourly place.”
In the years before Interstate 95 barreled parallel to Philips Highway and left the old thoroughfare a blasted shell of itself, illicit couples and cheaters occasionally rented rooms for a midafternoon fling, but the motel prostitution and drug dens of the 1970s through the ’90s here were yet unimaginable.
Susan remembers that “Charley” was “tiny” and “spoke very little English.” His wife, whose name she can’t recall, was a broad-shouldered white woman who stood a head taller than Charley. They had a little girl— “Her name was something like Mae Mae.” —who spent all her time in the restaurant “with both parents doting on her constantly.”
Now 87 years old, having remarried after Sam died in 1972, Susan says with a somewhat dreamy yearning, “I wish I could remember more. I wonder what happened to that little girl.” Suddenly she feels certain that same little girl has become Miss Kitty. “Or maybe she’s even a granddaughter. If Charley were alive today, he’d be about a hundred years old.”
“I am the ‘Mae Mae’ Susan Bush remembers,” says Mai Hoo Cheung, “but no one ever called me that. My father did know the owners of the Gator Lodge back then.” In fact, John Ming “Chopstick Charley” Cheung ran a second restaurant from inside the Gator Lodge, next to the lobby, and named it for his daughter. He called it the Mai Hoo Luau. “It didn’t stay open long,” she says. It was hard enough to run one restaurant, never mind two.
Mai says her father “spoke perfect English, but did have a Chinese accent.” He was “tiny,” Mai says, “and my mother was very tall.” In fact, her mother stood 6′ tall, a whole foot—Susan Bush says “a head”—taller than her 5′ tall father. Susan’s right about Mai’s father’s age, that he would be 100 years old today. It’s ironic she can’t recall the name of Chopstick Charley’s daughter when his restaurant in Sam and Susan’s Gator Lodge bore her name.
When first I spoke with Susan Bush, I asked Miss Kitty if she were related to the original owner, descended perhaps from Charley himself.
“Oh no no,” she’d said. “Restaurant had two or three owner, 1950 to 1974. Papa Lee became owner. Papa Lee is my father-in-law, okay, thank you.” And she hurried back to the kitchen.
Though city directories list Chopstick Charley’s for the past seven decades, The Joe is listed as The Palace Motel in the early 1950s, The Three Hundred Motel in the 1960s and ’70s, and finally The Joe in 1977, when it began to share space with Metter’s Auto Parts.
No Charley is ever listed. From the 1950s through the ’70s, directories list Jung Ong as owner and resident. By 1980, phone books list Mrs. Fong S. Ong. The Cheungs come in by 2000. Surely, “Charley” was an Americanism, a nickname, but this ownership history doesn’t match what Miss Kitty has told me at all.
Mai Hoo Cheung tells me Chun Wo Cheung— “We called him Wo.” — is indeed Papa Lee’s son. John Ming Cheung, “Chopstick Charley,” never owned the restaurant building or the motel. He rented his restaurant space from Papa Lee, whose Chinese name was Jung Ong.
“Wo married Kitty,” Mai says, “and brought her family here [from China] to run the business with her when my father left. Wo and Kitty lived at the motel when my father owned Chopstick Charley’s.”
Though Mai says, “Chinese people like to use their Chinese names and their American names to their own discretion,” she’s puzzled as to how the son of Jung “Papa Lee” Ong and Kitty took Mai’s own family’s last name, Cheung.
Restaurant and beer / wine licenses in the 1960s frequently referred to her father as both “John Ming Cheung” and “John Cheung Ming,” so maybe licensing and bureaucratic procedures, pervaded with Euro-American confusion regarding Chinese names, made Ongs into Cheungs.
“My parents visited Wo’s mother, Mama Lee, for years, until she passed away,” Mai says. “My parents thought the world of Mama and Papa Lee.” Mai last visited the motel with her parents when the Ongs lived there in the late 1970s. She has not set foot in the restaurant since 1975.
In Mai’s growing up, the restaurant and her family were inextricably woven together. Chopstick Charley’s was home as much as home was. “My whole family,” Mai says, “was always at the restaurant, helping out.”
She still feels pride in her father’s cooking and the culinary expertise her brother and her mother both learned from him. Indeed, Mai’s childhood is synonymous with the best food she’s ever eaten. Preparing food can be the kindest human action, sharing food the most meaningful connection. Food is primal, but food is transcendent. A childhood imbued with the love of food, and with food made with love, is as potent and poignant a foundation as anyone can wish to have lived.
“My father taught my mother Clo and my brother Garry how to cook,” Mai says. “He laughed when people commented on how great his Chinese food was, if he knew my mother had cooked it, but he always gave her credit. He said he’d taught her well. Which he did. Because no one cooks like my mom and dad did.”
In Mai’s family restaurant, that living-room away from home, she cherished childhood responsibilities. She says her mother was a “clean freak” and kept the place spotless. Her Aunt Jo waitressed, as did a close family friend named Mildred Utley.
“I liked to run the register and seat customers. My brothers Larry and Tommy did whatever they could or wanted to do. We all enjoyed it,” she says. “No one was made to work.”
Much of the time Mai and her brothers spent in the restaurant was on weekends. Her parents prioritized education. The present moment, yes, was family love, and John and Clo’s children loved helping in the restaurant, but school, the family understood, was sustenance for the remainder of days.
So Mai recollects to me in 2019. Below is how I ended the story in 2017. Because the poet Delmore Schwartz wrote, “Time is the fire in which we burn,” I stand by the following statement:
Here’s what you must do. Assume management downstairs. Check yourself in upstairs. Now the old motel is yours. Open the logbook. Work backward. Tell the story. Tell the stories of every night spent in The Joe / The Three Hundred / The Palace from the 1990s back to 1951. Astonish us all with how much experience a city collects in a single address. Be wondrous. Whatever you see, however much blood, whatsoever betrayals, love life. It’s infinitely full and filling. Show us. We’re depending on you and everyone is desperate.
The screens rot off the doors. The wood warps in brittle waves and crumbles in the humid heat. I’m telling you: it’s the muting quality of time that will allow us to survive. The catastrophe that’s bigger than the world in its moment falls quieter, quieter. It does not go away, but becomes what we can bear. Then we begin to carve from it its stories.
Stationed upstairs of the front office of The Joe, you log our covert operations from room to room. We watch. We record. A young couple runs flirtatiously across the back courtyard in the crook of the L in 1966. We meet with 1959 in a back left corner room and 1974 due right of the double oak. Your logbook of all these years will fill the front office, floor to ceiling.
Whatever happened here was human and must not be discredited. It mandates the peculiar discussions in the back corner booth in Chopstick Charley’s, nowhere else in the city, where we meet for hours.
Did you see the single pink rose blooming by the side window of the boarded office of The Joe? You order the egg foo young. I’ll share with you my woo dip harr. Let’s compare secrets. Read to me from your logbook. You know I’m just teasing you when I’m hard on you. Your hand folds slender, but not as small as it once did, into the breadth of my palm. I too once was small.
I am reaching for you. Always I’ll be reaching for you. Even when I was your age now, before you, I reached out for you.
Our stories continue one from the other. We can log them together. Don’t give up on that. Breathe anew, moment to moment, the secret urban jet streams of history. Remember. Charley’s a no-nonsense guy, whatever his real name. He must be at least a hundred years old. If anyone can find him. Above our restaurant table, the ceiling might collapse with the weight of the very next rain. Stranger things may’ve happened, but there’s nothing not wondrous and strange.