These postcards are from Bob Salika, a knowledgeable collector in the Chicago area. They are important because, unlike most historical photos of restaurant interiors, postcards are closely dateable (1). This means that we can trace changes in restaurant design over time, using images chosen by the owners themselves to show their restaurants at their most impressive and appealing.
The biggest change one sees in such pictures is that Chinese restaurants in the early days were larger and more richly decorated than those of later times. The most luxurious appeared soon after Chicago’s Chinese restaurant boom began in 1901. Several of those that were already in operation by 1910, including Mandarin Inn, King Joy Lo, and Joy Yen Lo, had as much social prestige as the city’s most expensive French and German restaurants.
The move down-market may have begun in the 1930s during the Great Depression. High-end Chinese restaurants frequented by rich Chicagoans gradually disappeared, to be replaced by Chinese restaurants aimed at the middle classes. Some of those restaurants were large, to be sure, and some — notably the splendid art deco rooms of Hoe Sai Gai, were spectacularly decorated. Some still had live music and dance floors — in fact, as Charles Sengstock has shown, Chinese restaurant-night clubs supported a number of Chicago’s leading dance bands (2). However, all this was gone by the end of World War II in 1945. From the mid-1940s onward — interestingly, from just about the time that the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 — Chinese restaurants held a different place in American society. They remained important to members of other ethnic groups, who often ate in them. They still provided a decent living for many Chinese-Americans. But they were smaller, more affordable, and less expensively decorated.
Why did this happen? Why is it still true in 2005 that no Chinese restaurant in Chicago (with the possible exceptions of the pan-Asian Shanghai Terrace and the European American-owned and -staffed Opera) is as fancy as those of the 1910s? Why does Chicago have two- and three-star restaurants run by Thai Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and Japanese Americans but no Chinese American-run restaurant with that ranking?
We suspect that the move to less expensive restaurant operations is connected with the fact that economic opportunities for Chinese-Americans began to expand in the postwar years. But we have not quite figured out how this worked. Did the community simply start investing in education rather than buildings? Was the cause more complex?
(2) Charles Sengstock, That Toddlin’ Town: Chicago’s White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950. U. of Illinois Press, 2004.