Rediscovering DC's Earliest Chinese Restaurants

Chinese culture in the nineteenth century was profoundly strange to Americans. The story of how Chinese restaurants developed—transforming a cuisine that was considered strange and disgusting into a veritable American comfort food—is a startling one, fraught with white Americans' racism, cruelty, and insensitivity but matched by great resiliency and adaptability on the part of Chinese immigrants. As Washington's earliest Chinese restaurants gained their footing at the beginning of the 20th century, they spearheaded an enduring presence in the city's culinary culture.

Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in significant numbers in the 1850s, when poor farmers and laborers from China’s Pearl River Delta region sailed to San Francisco to join in the California gold rush. Many were employed by the railroads at hard labor, carving new routes through the rocky, unforgiving terrain of the west. Almost all were men, and they faced intense hostility from whites, who saw them as competition for scarce jobs. Gradually some began moving east to the larger cities, including a small number who came to Washington. Wherever they went, virulent racism limited what they could do and where they could live. The danger of violence from whites was ever-present, and it led to the formation of self-sufficient Chinatowns in larger cities for the protection and sustenance of their inhabitants.

From The Washington Times, Dec. 14, 1902.

According to sociologist Esther Ngan-ling Chow, the first Chinese resident of Washington was a man named Chiang Kai, who settled on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1851. D.C.’s Chinatown, or “Little China” as it was originally called, began to develop in the 1880s. It was little more than a block long, on the south side of Pennsylvania at 4 1/2 Street NW, a stretch of road that now separates the National Gallery of Art’s east and west buildings. By the late 1890s, it was a small, self-contained community, and this is where the city's first Chinese restaurants opened.

Washingtonians had certainly heard about Chinese restaurants long before they actually were able to eat in one. Reports from the West Coast and from travelers to China described exotic dens of mystery and intrigue where strange foods were served, matching the perceived strangeness of the people. In February 1877, the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church, located just a couple blocks north of where Chinatown would later develop, hosted a charitable bazaar fitted with various international “restaurants,” including a Vienna bakery, a Japanese tearoom, and a Chinese restaurant. The mock Chinese restaurant served rice and curry, and “for relishes, rats, cats, mice and dogs have been artistically prepared: but you will not be asked to eat them, unless your appetite craves that kind of food,” according to the Daily National Republican. The belief that Chinese ate dogs, cats, and rats was widespread. And thus, for 1870s Washingtonians, the idea of a Chinese restaurant was more akin to a circus freak show than an actual eatery. Much still needed to change.

As the city's Chinatown slowly grew on Pennsylvania Avenue, negative publicity in the press, fueled by the racist preconceptions of the city's white residents, gave it a mysterious and unsavory reputation. The tiny neighborhood was regularly reported to be a lawless den of inequity, where the inhabitants spent their time either smoking opium or robbing and killing each other—little of it true. Most residents were actually men who struggled to earn a living, working hard at menial service jobs or in laundries, the only work open to them. Not content to leave these people alone, white Washingtonians were fascinated by their exoticism. It was perhaps inevitable that they would go slumming in Chinatown, lured by the cheap thrill of braving a mostly-phony sense of danger.

From The Washington Times, March 29, 1903.

As early as 1894, the Post reported on the popularity of slumming excursions to dangerous places in D.C., especially Chinatown. Much of the peril to slummers was self-inflicted. A local beat cop was reported as saying “Another thing about the slumming parties that come through here—the girls always want to buy everything in sight. Why, these fellows just rob them right and left.” After the visit of the great Chinese statesman Li Hongzhang (1823–1901) to Washington and other American cities in 1896, slumming excursions into Chinatown grew ever more popular. 

This fanciful drawing of DC's Chinatown on Pennsylvania Avenue appeared in The Sunday Star on July 31, 1932.

One of the first of the city's Chinese eateries to be patronized by the slummers was the Hong Far Low Restaurant, located on the second floor of 314 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, above the Quong Sang Lung Company store. Taking its name from a pioneering Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, the Hong Far Low was in business by the mid 1890s. According to an 1897 Washington Post article, this was Chinatown's only restaurant, an exotic place of mystery that was abandoned during the day but teeming with life at night. “The savory odors of chop sui and rice, the crackling of Lichee gum nuts, the bubble and sparkle of cold tea and the ceaseless hum of strange, guttural conversation, beguile the senses,” the newspaper observed.

San Francisco Chinese restaurant, c. 1900 (author's collection).

The Washington Times noted in 1903 that Chinese dishes “have become a fad among the smart set, and a visit to a Chinese restaurant is looked upon as an excursion into Bohemia, a taste of slumming, as it were. In Washington there is hardly a night that the Chinese restaurants are not patronized at some hour of the night by fashionably dressed women with escorts in evening attire…”

Hard as life was for Chinese immigrants, especially after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned new immigrants from China, they proved tenacious and resourceful. Few were trained as cooks, and even fewer would have imagined themselves operating or working in a restaurant, but that is where many ended up. They had brought with them a stir-fry cooking technique that could be used with various meats and vegetables; its name comes from the Cantonese zap tsui, meaning “mixed pieces.” Tailored to American tastes, the dish was called chop suey, and it became wildly popular across the country as slummers descended on Chinatowns in every major city. 

Propelled by the popularity of chop suey, Chinese restaurants began proliferating in the early 1900s. Most of DC's early chop suey eateries were near or along Pennsylvania Avenue from 3rd Street to 13th Street. While some were modest, informal establishments whose names and stories are lost to history, others advertised in the newspapers, hoping to lure non-Chinese customers. Examples include the Man Far Law at 317 Pennsylvania Avenue and the Oriental Cafe at 926 Pennsylvania Avenue, both of which opened in 1900. Also in 1900, Sam Hing operated a chop suey restaurant, its name unrecorded, at 408 13th Street, just south of Pennsylvania Avenue. Among these, the Man Far Law made a point of offering both Chinese and American dishes in what would become a common practice.

With more and more Washingtonians wanting to jump on the chop suey fad, Chinese entrepreneurs were further emboldened to venture out of Chinatown to open new restaurants. An early destination was the entertainment district on 9th Street just north of Pennsylvania Avenue. As described in our previous article about the Gayety Theater, 9th Street was the center of the city's nightlife, the "Broadway of Washington," as it would later be called.  Here two of Washington's most successful early Chinese restaurateurs, Charlie Bing and Ung Wah, opened restaurants across the street from each other in the early 1900s. 

Charlie Bing's establishment, the Hong Kong Low Chinese Cafe, was located at 518 9th Street, on the second floor above the Holmes & Co. Rubber Goods store. The narrow storefront building abutted the hulking Washington Loan & Trust Company building (later Riggs Bank) that still stands on the corner of 9th and F Streets. In a 1905 advertisement, Bing proudly proclaimed that "The most costly and handsome Chinese restaurant furnishings imported direct from China serve to make this the most attractive and interesting oriental cafe to be found anywhere." Bing embellished the building's second-floor balcony with dragons and other elaborate Chinese decorations signaling the restaurant's exotic allure. How Bing financed the restaurant is not known, although he likely pooled resources from a number of Chinese supporters, possibly including investors in China.

Postcard view of the Hong Kong Low (author's collection).

Bing's restaurant lasted more than a decade, through Bing's various personal ups and downs. In May 1909, the restaurant made the front page of The Evening Star when Bing's staff of four cooks and waiters were all arrested one evening at the height of the dinnertime service. An immigration inspector had shown up demanding to see their papers, and when they could not produce any, the four wait staff were apprehended as illegal aliens in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Released on $500 bail each, they were all acquitted of the charges a month later. All were native Americans; three had been born in San Francisco and one in Seattle.

Charlie Bing worked hard to assimilate into his adopted country, converting to Christianity at an early age and joining the Episcopal Church. As a merchant, he was exempted from the Exclusion Act's constraints, and he was able to bring his wife Mamie to the U.S. Charlie and Mamie's original Chinese names are not known. They had two children, Mary Parsons Bing and Robert Parsons Bing, both named after the family physician. Tragedy struck the Bings when little Mary died from tuberculosis in May 1910, when she was just two and a half years old. The family had joyfully celebrated the birth of her little brother, Robert, just two months earlier. Charlie Bing reportedly was "was so greatly shocked that he was unable to attend the funeral," which was held at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. Mary Bing was buried as a proud Washingtonian at Congressional Cemetery.

Ung Wah was even more successful than Charlie Bing, though he had his close calls with the authorities as well. Wah reportedly spent many years working in the household of a rich benefactor, becoming an accomplished chef and acquiring the invaluable social skills associated with catering to the wealthy. He must have saved money as well, because in 1900 he was one of the co-owners of the Oriental Café on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In 1902, Wah enlisted in the U.S. Navy, to serve as a cook on the presidential yacht, The Mayflower. The circumstances of this unusual move are murky; it would appear that Wah likely intended merely to sign up temporarily as a cook, perhaps to cater an event or events held on the yacht.  Did Wah know that he was enlisting in the Navy for an extended term, or was he deceived by Navy recruiters? Whatever the case, he was arrested for desertion when he tried to go home one day. Wah had connections with important people—likely through the unidentified wealthy benefactor he had originally worked for—and he gained the services of an accomplished lawyer, Edward A. Moseley, who argued tenaciously for Wah’s innocence. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Wah’s supposed enlistment was invalid.

It was one of several harassments Wah suffered. Also in 1902, he was arrested for the theft of a diamond ring belonging to an officer stationed at Fort Myer. Two pawnbrokers fingered him as the thief who tried to pawn the ring. Then, after the ring was recovered from Sam Hing, the 13th Street restaurateur, the charges against Wah were dropped. A simple case of mistaken identity, the newspapers reported.

Wah must have done well with his stake in the Oriental Café on Pennsylvania Avenue, because in 1905 he struck out on his own, opening the Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant and Catering Company at 515 9th Street NW, across the street from Charlie Bing’s just-opened Hong Kong Low. Like Bing, Wah invested heavily in decorating his restaurant to meet American tastes and expectations. The building he took over was a former Methodist church originally constructed in 1835 and enlarged in 1879. According to Wah’s advertisement, his new restaurant was “gorgeously furnished with teakwood tables, inlaid with pearl.” A rare postcard view of the interior of the building shows the Gothic windows and sharply peaked ceiling of the former church complemented by a large, intricately carved Chinese screen, hiding the kitchen area, and tables likewise sporting elaborate Chinese carving and inlay.

Postcard view of the Port Arthur (author's collection).

Wah lived nearby, in an apartment over a 9th Street nickelodeon, with his second wife, Daisy, and his son Lee Yue. His rivalry with Charlie Bing was apparently very real, although undoubtedly exaggerated in the press. In 1907, the Washington Post reported on a supposed feud between Wah and Bing, in which each accused the other of plotting to injure his business and reputation. The Post’s reporter took obvious delight in describing how heated the dispute had become, as if the two restaurateurs were children fighting on a playground, but it’s unclear how serious the “feud” really was.

East side of 9th Street NW, circa 1901. The Port Arthur restaurant was in the Gothic style building with the gabled roof (Library of Congress)

By 1909, Wah was reported to be “one of the most prominent Chinamen in Washington,” and his Port Arthur restaurant was supposedly the largest Chinese restaurant in the city. He owned considerable property and was contemplating a $30,000 real estate deal, according to press accounts. He also had a contract to superintend the cooking and serving of all food at state dinners hosted by the Chinese legation. Few could rival this kind of success. Yet what kind of person was this Wah? His name was in the newspapers that year over a scandal involving a young 14-year-old girl that he had helped to immigrate to America. At first, the girl stayed with the Wahs as a companion to Wah's wife. But after two years, Wah sent her to live with a Chinese family in New York. She then ran away from that household and told the police that Wah had sold her to the New York family for $500. Few other details of the case are available. It certainly raises serious unanswered questions about Wah.

Postcard view of the Nankin (author's collection).

In 1916, Wah expanded his business by adding another restaurant on 9th Street, perhaps overextending himself in the process. The new restaurant was the Nankin, at 510 9th Street. Like the Port Arthur and the Hong Kong Low, the Nankin was a second-floor restaurant located over another store. Following the pattern of the most successful Chinese restaurants, it was lavishly decorated with marble-topped tables inlaid with mother of pearl, mahogany bentwood chairs, and silk-embroidered panels farmed in inlaid panels on the walls. Despite the significant investment, Wah only operated the Nankin for three years. In 1919, new management took over and expanded the restaurant by adding the downstairs space as a cafe. The restaurant closed in 1927.

The Port Arthur also continued in business into the 1920s, when it offered live dance music by a three-piece ensemble to accompany dinner. By the early 1930s it had closed, likely a victim of the Great Depression, which upended the restaurant business across the city. By that time, a new generation of Chinese restaurants was taking hold, some of them much larger than the early restaurants on 9th Street. By the 1930s, the newest entertainment district was on 14th Street, where during World War II, large Chinese restaurant/nightclubs like the Lotus and the Casino Royal would do a booming business catering to the thousands of war workers, government girls, and GIs that passed through the nation's capital. 

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Some parts of this article previously appeared in Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C: Capital Eats (2013), which includes a more complete discussion of the city's historic Chinese restaurants. Additional sources included Francine Curro Cary, ed., Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C. (1996); Yong Chen, Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America (2014); Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (2009); John Jung, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants (2010); James Morgan, The Life Work of Edward A. Moseley in the Service of Humanity (1913); and numerous newspaper articles.

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