Our digging for the Sweet and Sour exhibit continues. This time, we thought we’d spread our wings to Hawai‘i.
Most of the Chinese immigrants to Hawai‘i arrived in the mid-to-late 19th century; many came as laborers to work on sugar plantations. After their contract expired, many Chinese immigrants opened businesses in an area which later became Honolulu’s Chinatown. Hawai‘i has one of the largest and oldest Chinese diaspora.
After researching restaurants in Hawai‘i, two places stood out. Wo Fat and Lau Yee Chai. Wo Fat is one of the oldest restaurants dating back to 1882, and, in spite of its closing in 2005, the building and its neon signage “Wo Fat Chop Sui,” still remains as a historical landmark in Chinatown. It has been a challenge tracking down artifacts from this restaurant. However, we have some leads with plates and documents.
Lau Yee Chai was built in 1929 by Chong Pang Yat, and its elaborate, classical Chinese architecture stood out in the Waikiki landscape, effectively attracting mainland tourists to its door. The original landmark restaurant featured a moon gate entryway, fishpond filled with carp, waterfalls, and a rock garden. Some of the art work remains at the current restaurant in Waikiki.
Lau Yee Chai was a place for locals to dine at on special occasions. P. Y. Chong, the original owner and chef, was quite a businessman and marketed the restaurant widely by promoting himself with Creole pidgin slogans such as “Me, P.Y. Chong!” on radio and newspapers. I located some of his photos at the Bishop Museum archive. During my visit, John, the manager of Lau Yee Chai was kind enough to meet with me as I stated our museum’s mission and upcoming exhibition on Chinese foodways. He talked to the Mau family, the owner, and prepared original plates and menus to look at. The Mau family generously donated dishes with logos to the museum.
Another local Chinese restaurant I visited, which has been in existence for over half a century, is Tasty Chop Suey. I met with Mrs. Liu, the current owner, who took over the business in 1985. I explained to her why I was there and what I was interested in and about our upcoming Chinese foodways show. Miraculously, she had kept a few samples of the original dishware with the logo on them. She generously donated them to the museum along with the current menu.
Tasty opened in 1956 by the Wong family, Mr. Wong Served in the U.S. Army as a cook during World War II. After the war, he worked at several Chinese restaurants as a cook, including Lau Yee Chai, before opening Tasty. During the 1960s, due to a freeway construction, the restaurant moved to its current location. Fortunately, it kept the original neon sign and logo. Thanks to the original owner’s son, Dennis, not only was the original menu of Tasty preserved, but also chopsticks and a few other items with Tasty Chop Suey’s logo on them. Their slogan was “Hungry for God’s word – Go to church! Hungry for Chinese food – Come to Tasty Chop Suey!”
We procured wonderful items representing Chinese restaurant establishments in Hawai‘i. Now, we will be looking at other cities in mainland USA.