Woman arrested for calling Chicago restaurant “Chop Chop Chinaman” racist in graffiti


Last October, Chicago-area entrepreneur Larry Lee helped to open a restaurant featuring Chinese & Szechwan cuisine. The sign featured a figure wearing a “coolie” hat and pulling a cart beneath that icky “chop suey” font. Lee called his restaurant “Chop Chop Chinaman”.

Yeah, dude, that shit is racist.

Local Chicago-area resident Jeannie Harrell agreed. A self-identified biracial Asian American, Harrell passed the restaurant one night in February and decided to express herself. She took a tube of lipstick out of her purse and wrote a message on the store window.

Fuck this hate crime shit. It’s 2015.

Harrell took a picture of the graffiti and posted it to social media. A week later, police arrived to arrest Harrell for misdemeanor criminal damage of private property.

Photo via Jeannie Harrell.
Photo via Jeannie Harrell.

Okay, so yes. What Harrell did was a misdemeanor crime, and yes, if the owner presses the issue (which Lee did after he found the image on social media), then okay, Harrell should face appropriate charges. And for the record, Harrell doesn’t really disagree with that assessment either. She agrees that what she did was a misdemeanor crime:

“The irony of [the owners] not being able to handle my message and calling the cops is not lost on me,” Harrell said. “I own up to the fact that what I did was a misdemeanor — I did write on a business with lipstick — but that is as much as I own up to.”

But, dude. That restaurant name is So. Fucking. Racist.

“Chinaman” is a derogatory, racist slur. Period.

Restauranteur Larry Lee (the restaurant is owned by a corporation but apparently Lee is part of its day-to-day running) points out that the term’s history arises out of the time when his Chinese American ancestors — he self-identifies as “Euroasian (sic)” — arrived in this country. Speaking to DNAinfo, Lee says:

“That’s how we were classified when we were building railroads in this country,” said Lee, whose grandparents emigrated from China and who describes himself as “active” in the corporation that owns the restaurant.

Lee is correct about “Chinaman’s” archaic history, but incorrect in his suggestion that the term is largely innocuous — equivalent to “Englishman” or “Irishman”. “Chinaman” was used with a distinctly derogatory context, and used hand-in-hand with some of the most overtly brutal racial stereotyping of the history of Chinese Americans. This was a time when a “Chinaman” was stereotyped as bestial, feral, sexually predatory, inhuman, unscrupulous, and threateningly foreign.

The cover for a 1940's novel, which illustrates the racial history of the term "Chinman".
The cover for a 1940’s novel, which illustrates the racial history of the term “Chinman”.

The phrase “a Chinaman’s chance” referred to the routine practice of preferentially sending Chinese transcontinental railroad workers into rocky tunnels to blast away mountainsides to allow the passage of the railroad; this was viewed largely as a suicide mission. Chinese men were sent because they were the most expendable, and thousands of Chinese labourers lost their lives to lay track for the rail. In the same time period, while hundreds of discriminatory laws were passed to specifically target the country’s growing “Oriental problem“, countless “Chinamen” were lynched in America’s largely untold story of anti-Asian American mass killings.

But putting aside “Chinaman” and its history of anti-Asian racism for a second, “Chop Chop” derives its etymology from a caricature of how the Chinese language sounds to non-Chinese speakers, and NPR notes that it takes on distinctly classist and anti-Asian overtones as a phrase frequently used to order coolies to “hop-to” or “hurry” and obey an order. Thus, the phrase references the same yellow-skinned, buck-toothed, and queued racist caricature as “Chinaman”, and even maintains an enduring legacy in the history of DC comics, as a racist sidekick of the Blackhawks team back when the characters were part of Quality Comics.

The character of "Chop-Chop", part of the Blackhawks team, as he appeared in the 1940's and 1950's.
The character of “Chop-Chop”, part of the Blackhawks team, as he appeared in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

When combined with the term “Chinaman”, “Chop Chop” both reinforces the reference to this racist caricature, and also adds the subtle double entendre of violence: chopping, as in the sound of a butcher knife — Chinese people.

Popular culture largely acknowledges the racism of “Chinaman”. DNAinfo notes that the Chicago Sun-Times apologized for using the term twice in a 2001 column. Last year, Fox News host Bob Beckel used the term on-air, and online outrage forced him to issue an apology.

That a fellow Asian American would be so tone deaf in creating a restaurant with this name, and subsequently defending it, is beyond me. Lee claims that his business practices “don’t infringe upon anyone’s way of living”, but phrases like “chop chop” and “Chinaman” (as well as the racist stereotypes they evoke) are hurtful to all Chinese Americans and Asian Americans because they are squarely positioned in a history  of Chinese Americans being treated as inferior and bestial. Reports DNAinfo:

When Marie Yuen first heard of Chop Chop Chinaman in an online discussion on EveryBlock, though, it was the reminder of her personal history that stung.

“It was a visceral, gut reaction,” said Yuen, an American-born Chinese woman who now lives in Bowmanville. “It was sort of like, ‘Oh no, this is still going on.’ People think this is a fun thing.”

Yuen experienced “massive” bullying as a child in the 1970s, when neighborhood children physically attacked her and taunted her for her almond-shaped eyes and dark hair, she said.

Yuen, a writer, later penned a short story based on her experience, in which a fellow kindergartner yanked on her hair while chanting, “Ching chong Chinaman, chink chink chink.”

“It was because I was different. So it definitely influenced a lot of who I am,” Yuen said.

So, yeah. Whether you like it or not, Larry, your restaurant’s name does infringe upon me. It is fucking racist and I don’t ever plan on eating there.

Fuck this hate crime shit. It’s 2015.

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