The hunt to uncover the historical past of Dallas’ Asian eating places, one matchbox at a time

When Dallas was nonetheless a city of muddy, unpaved roads and cotton fields, a Chinese language entrepreneur by the title of Joe Hay opened Star Restaurant on Important Road. It was the primary Chinese language restaurant and sure the primary Asian restaurant to open within the metropolis, and it got here at a time when ethnic discrimination hit a fever pitch as anti-Chinese language sentiments had been codified into legislation.

The hunt to uncover the historical past of Dallas’ Asian eating places, one matchbox at a time
Jim Wing, also called Joe Hay, opened what’s believed to be the primary Asian restaurant in Dallas within the Nineties. His 1933 obituary in The Dallas Morning Information referred to as him a “distinguished” determine within the metropolis.(The Dallas Morning Information)

A decade earlier than Hay opened his restaurant, the Chinese language Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted, making it the primary main piece of laws to broadly limit immigration within the nation. It suspended Chinese language immigration into the USA, however individuals like Hay, who had been born in the USA or immigrated from China previous to the exclusion act, maintained their cultural affect.

Hay, who many knew as Jim Wing, served conventional Chinese language meals in his downtown Dallas restaurant, however he additionally marketed chop suey and “American dishes” to attraction to the plenty. He went on to open two extra eating places throughout his profession and have become acknowledged as a “distinguished” determine “recognized to hundreds of Dallas residents as one who by no means turned away a hungry man,” in line with his 1933 obituary in The Dallas Morning Information.

Now, greater than a century after Hay first introduced Chinese language eating places to Dallas, two ladies are unearthing and piecing collectively his story and the tales of the various Asian restaurateurs after him who essentially formed the best way Dallas eats as we speak.

Their archival undertaking is a part of the broader work Stephanie Drenka and Denise Johnson are doing via the Dallas Asian American Historic Society, which they co-founded in early 2022 as a response to the rise in anti-Asian discrimination within the wake of the pandemic.

Denise Johnson (left) and Stephanie Drenka are piecing together the history of Asian...
Denise Johnson (left) and Stephanie Drenka are piecing collectively the historical past of Asian eating places in North Texas by counting on shreds of clues like outdated matchboxes and menus discovered on Ebay.
(Juan Figueroa / Workers Photographer)

“It was one thing we realized no person else was doing, and it was the one factor we thought may have a long-term impression in decreasing discrimination and racism towards Asians,” Drenka says.

Johnson and Drenka are within the technique of filming a documentary collection referred to as Thank You, Have A Good Day (a nod to the frequent takeout bag slogan), which is a set of interviews with North Texas Asian American restaurateurs to focus on their contributions to the eating scene. They need to doc the tales of those enterprise house owners earlier than they’re misplaced to time just like the tales of many Asian restaurateurs who got here after Hay. They’re additionally trying to safe historic markers for the areas that when housed a few of the metropolis’s first Asian-owned companies.

“We would like Asian American restaurant house owners and enterprise house owners to know that their work is historic and the way it matches into the larger image,” Drenka says.

Dumpling makers Sophia Chen (left), Eliza Monica and Huajuan Shen  work with ingredients and...
Dumpling makers Sophia Chen (left), Eliza Monica and Huajuan Shen work with elements and dough to make Chinese language dumplings at Royal China restaurant in Dallas.(Ben Torres / Particular Contributor)

Uncovering the historical past of Asian Individuals in North Texas, particularly the historical past of bygone eating places, has proved to be an arduous enterprise. A lot of the historical past of Asian eating places and their house owners was by no means documented or preserved, so Drenka and Johnson depend on shreds of clues like outdated restaurant matchboxes and menus discovered by scouring Ebay when newspaper information run dry. These objects are a few of the solely remaining fragments of most of the Asian eating places that used to feed Dallas.

The tales Drenka and Johnson have dug up to this point, like that of Joe Hay, reveal an area Asian meals historical past far deeper than most individuals are conscious of. April Kao, proprietor of Royal China, one among Dallas’ oldest presently working Asian eating places, was shocked to be taught when Dallas’ first Asian restaurant opened.

“I had no thought it was that way back,” she says. “I’m not stunned although, as a result of there have been Asian males within the Military service and in addition the Chinese language helped construct the railroad at the moment.”

In latest many years, and positively throughout Hay’s time, the Western gaze generally lumped all Asian cuisines beneath a generic understanding of Chinese language meals. Restaurateurs catered closely to Westerners’ style buds and expectations as a method of survival. That’s modified now, and persons are higher educated on the breadth of Asian culinary traditions, Kao says.

At Royal China, which was opened by Kao’s father-in-law, Buck Shu-Chang Kao, in 1974, diners are subtly educated on the intricacies and technicalities of regional Chinese language cooking by its open idea dumpling bar, the place dough is rolled, stretched and elegantly remodeled into hand-cut noodles and delicate dumplings. Kao stated it was one of many first eating places of its variety to convey that have to diners, and it was an immediate hit.

Social media has additionally performed a major function in educating diners on the expanse of Asian cuisines and the culinary contributions of Asian Individuals, says Vu Ly, co-founder of the extremely well-liked Fb group Asian Grub in DFDub. The group, which has greater than 50,000 followers, was began in March 2020 to fight anti-Asian rhetoric and is devoted to sharing and supporting Asian-owned eating places in North Texas. It additionally gives assurance that the tales of recent generations of North Texas’ Asian eating places won’t be misplaced.

“The group brings consciousness to the truth that you may assist your neighborhood it doesn’t matter what race they’re,” Ly says.

Simply previously decade, the Asian meals scene in North Texas has exploded with eating places that signify hyper-regional cuisines, lots of that are run by youthful generations. There’s Okaeri Cafe in Richardson, which serves Japanese avenue meals at coveted zashiki-style tables. There’s Krio in Bishop Arts, an Asian Cajun restaurant “the place The Far East meets the Deep South.” In Haltom Metropolis there may be Lao and Thai restaurant Asiannights, and Koryo Korean BBQ is one among dozens of eating places in Dallas’ Koreatown. Vietnamese delicacies is spotlighted at Quoc Bao bakery in Garland, Sandwich Hag in Dallas’ Cedars neighborhood, and Saigon Block in Richardson.

“The youthful technology has are available in and put their very own twist on the delicacies,” Ly says. “There are one to 2 new Asian eating places opening up each month or so.”

Though a lot has modified since Hay opened his restaurant within the nineteenth century, the racism and xenophobia he lived amongst nonetheless linger. At occasions it feels as if nothing has modified, however there are earmarks of progress, Ly says.

“Social media helps convey consciousness to stopping Asian hate. It’s nonetheless there, however I believe we’re progressing slowly,” he says. “Meals is one other language that individuals can use to speak with one another. It brings individuals collectively.”

Johnson likes to consider what Hay would make of the Dallas he knew versus Dallas as we speak, with its expansive suburbs which have develop into enclaves of Asian tradition and culinary preservation and innovation.

“I really feel like his thoughts could be blown at what number of specialised Asian eating places there are actually that target particular cultures and meals,” she says.

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