A new exhibit at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago highlights the origin and history of Chinese fine dining and the struggles many Chinese restaurant owners faced at the turn of the century to modern time.
“This is a picture of the first Chinatown in Chicago,” said Soo Lon Moy. “That was located at Clark and Van Buren Street.”
Moy, the immediate past president of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago in Chinatown, knows a lot about Chinese history and culture.
“Everyone really loves Chinese food,” said Moy. “I think Chinese food is the first ethnic cuisine that America fell in love with and still really love -- now with more of a variety.”
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The museum was shut down twice last year, but reopened in recent months unveiling its first mini exhibit to visitors since the pandemic began.
“When we started doing our research we found there were so many fine dining restaurants but only during this special era so we thought that would be a good topic for us to explore,” she said.
Moy is the chair of the exhibition committee. She walked NBC 5 through the exhibit titled Era of Opulence and showed the origin and history of Chinese fine dining in America in the early 1900s.
“This panel, we have four restaurants that were advertised in the Chicago Daily Tribune,” said Moy.
Moy said King Joy Lo was the first upscale Chinese restaurant to open in Chicago in 1906. She described the restaurant as "elegant." The owner invested $150,000 to open the restaurant that catered to the upper and wealthy class, she explained. The restaurant offered Chinese and American cuisine like the Chop Suey and even provided entertainment for diners.
“One of the performers at the King Joy Lo were The Royal Hungarian Orchestra in 1909,” she said.
But around the same time, Moy said Chinese people also experienced racism and hate. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a federal law that prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the states. What Chinese Americans were fighting for at the turn of the century continues into modern time, Moy said, as more hate crimes are reported against Asian Americans and restaurant owners struggle in the face of the the pandemic.
“It’s very important for us to be able to tell our stories and acknowledge that our contributions to the United States of America, this is our country also,” she said.
The exhibit runs through September and is only open on weekends. The museum is asking for a suggested donation at the door for admission.