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Chop Chop Chinaman: Catchy restaurant name or 'hate crime'?

"I don't care about the name of a business, it's all about the food," says Chop Chop owner.

Feb. 17 was an otherwise quiet evening for Chicago Police District 19 in Lakeview East. The crime incidents report showed a motor vehicle theft in the 300 block of West Barry Avenue, an attempt to cash a counterfeit check at a credit union in the 3200 block of North Lake Shore Drive, plus various shenanigans. 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At the root of the matter is one word: Chinaman — a word that, depending on who you ask, is a slur against Asians, an outdated ethnic term like Negro, or, if you ask Larry Lee, an inoffensive, catchy name for a Chinese restaurant.

Lee is the face and operations manager of the Boystown restaurant Chop Chop Chinaman, which opened a month ago just south of Roscoe and Halsted Streets.

For Lee, who is 46 and three-quarters Chinese (his mother is Chinese-Italian), Chinaman is a word ingrained in his vocabulary. He attended St. Therese Chinese Catholic School in Chinatown and his father owned a number of restaurants, including three called Mr. Chop Suey throughout the '80s and early '90s. In dealing with food purveyors and suppliers in Chinatown, Lee remembers the word Chinaman tossed around with chummy affectation.

And so when the time came for his restaurant, Chop Chop Chinaman was a name decided as a group, Lee among them, who viewed it as a quirky and alliterative. No offense intended, he said. Lee admits there's another motive too. In a Chinese restaurant landscape littered with cliche "bamboos," "jade gardens" and "palaces" in their signage, a name as provocative as Chop Chop Chinaman will surely, Lee said, generate publicity and help it stand out.

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

On the other side of Chicago Police Department case HY154977 is a 26-year-old named Jeannie Harrell, who works in the book publishing industry and has no previous criminal history. She lives a few blocks from the restaurant and was walking home last month when she first spotted the sign. She did a double take.

"It was baffling. 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?"

When she posted a picture of the restaurant sign on Twitter, her friends quickly reacted as she did: in all caps and exclamation points.

"I don't know if it was a particular incident that set me off. I (had) walked by the sign three, four times already," Harrell said. "I thought, 'Would I have to walk by this every single day of my life?'"

If there exists a sliding scale of ethnic slur offensiveness, where would Chinaman stand? Is it more insulting than Oriental, but not as offensive as other words we can't use in print?

The California gold rush saw the first major wave of Chinese immigrants to America in the middle of the 19th century. For the most part, the word Chinaman always had a neutral to pejorative connotation, used from popular idioms ("a Chinaman's chance") to theatrical productions (Noel Coward's "Private Lives") to points of geography (the Hawaiian islet "Chinaman's Hat") and broadcast television (A "Seinfeld" episode once called opium "the Chinaman's nightcap").

It was around the 1970s, said Northwestern University assistant professor Andrew Leong, that the term lost whatever was left of its neutral connotation. He cited the political movement of Asian-Americans during that era, at the same time that Asian-American literature took hold, that pushed words such as Chinaman and Oriental out of favor.

In Frank Chin's 1972 play "The Chickencoop Chinaman," and the 1980 story collection "China Men" by author Maxine Hong Kingston, there was an effort among Chinese-Americans to reclaim that word, in the same way comedian Dick Gregory provocatively titled his autobiography using the N-word in 1964.

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

Harrell had walked by the restaurant enough times and finally had enough.

On Feb. 17, Harrell sent out a tweet at 5:46 p.m.

"Dilemma: want to vandalize new racist-a-- 'Chop Chop Chinaman' restaurant in my neighborhood, only have nice NARS lipstick to write with."

Inside the restaurant, Lee was tending to business at a corner table when a server called him over. A woman was scrawling something on the front window. Lee said 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. It read, in crimson lipstick: "F--- this hate crime s---. It's 2015."

When a friend asked if 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 and reported vandalism to his restaurant.

If not for Twitter, case HY154977 might have remained unsolved and forgotten. But when Lee discovered Harrell's account and saw the photograph, he printed out her Twitter timeline and Facebook page. Lee said the decal logo had to be scraped off and replaced, costing his new business several hundred dollars.

His decision to press charges was to send a message to potential copycats.

"What's to stop the next person to throw a brick through the window?" Lee said. "I'm not being vindictive. But you can't do a negative action in order to get a positive reaction."

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. It was the same week that news stories came out about interrogations at the police's Homan Square facility, so Harrell said her mind went there.

She was led to the back of a squad car and driven to the restaurant, where Lee identified her as the culprit. Then she was taken to the police station on Addison, then transferred in handcuffs to the Belmont/Western station, where she was fingerprinted, had her mug shot taken and was kept in a holding cell until 2:30 a.m.

As the reality of the situation dawned, fear turned into incredulity: "I kept describing it as being in a Coen brothers comedy."

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

The backlash, Lee would like to note, has come entirely via anonymous online posts and phone calls. Matters escalated after Harrell shared her story to the neighborhood news website, DNAInfo. That day, over three hours, the restaurant received a few dozen prank phone calls. Lee said one man called the restaurant 32 times and told Lee to "watch your back." Another prankster claimed to be from the Ku Klux Klan and was goading 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 federal law signed in 1882 that restricted the flow of Chinese immigrants into the United States, and how his elders endured its effects. The people on Yelp crying racism against the restaurant, Lee said, are 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. If my name is that offensive, then (Harrell's) actions are no better than the name of the restaurant."

Lee said he doesn't plan to change the name. For a small business starting up, it would cost thousands to replace the sign, design new logos, issue new checks, change the website.

"Would I name a place Chop Chop Chinaman again? Maybe," Lee said. "If I were to sink, let me sink because my food is bad, the room is dirty or the staff is rude. Don't let me fail on a perceived offense. The people who are offended aren't coming in the restaurant anyway. I don't care about the name of a business, it's all about the food."

Lee then claimed to have the best fried rice in the city and the only restaurant serving egg foo young over waffles. Just then, an Asian man walked in and ordered.

"See?" Lee said.

The backlash was not exclusive to the restaurant. Harrell said someone posted on her employer's Facebook page and asked if she would be fired.

On one level, she can empathize with Lee. Classmates taunted her mixed-race 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.

The days leading up to her April 8 court date have been stressful. 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. She has since set her social media accounts to private.

"I can't wait until this is over. I'm a bit scared, but I think I'll be fine. 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."

kpang@tribpub.com

Twitter @pang

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