Anatomy of a restaurateur: Chin Foin

In the early 20th century Chin Foin was considered Chicago’s foremost Chinese restaurateur, being affiliated with four of the city’s leading Chinese restaurants: the King Yen [above] and King Joy restaurants and the Mandarin Inn and New Mandarin Inn. His exact degree of ownership and management of the four over time is difficult to determine but it’s clear that his participation was significant. He also ran an import business in Chicago called Wing Chong Hai & Co.

His first restaurant King Yen Lo began inauspiciously in 1902 upstairs from a saloon, the notorious establishment of alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna on the corner of Clark and Van Buren. Operating above or behind a saloon was not uncommon for Chinese restaurants and may reflect difficulties the Chinese encountered in renting property. Additionally, having a restaurant nearby or physically connected may have served the interests of saloon keepers who wanted to evade early closing laws by funneling drinks through an eating place.

Whatever the case, the King Yen restaurant was better than it had to be. Like the other restaurants Chin Foin would run, it appealed to the non-Chinese after-theater crowd and featured orchestral music and steaks and chops alongside chop suey and “Mandarin” dishes. The kitchen was open for inspection and a special section was reserved for women unaccompanied by men, important since women shoppers were known to be fond of Chinese food. It’s not clear how long he was actively involved with King Yen but he was still an owner in 1907 when a Chinese envoy attended a formal dinner held there for the christening of Chin Foin’s infant son Theodore.

The King Joy restaurant on W. Randolph [pictured, ca. 1910] was a much bigger venture. It was a component of an international Chinese organization meant to raise funds for political and economic modernization in China. Investors included Chinese living in China and America as well as non-Chinese Chicagoans who supplied $125,000 [more than $3M today] to build the thoroughly modern restaurant. It opened in December of 1906 with Chin Foin as manager.

The investors in China must have heard that running restaurants in America was very profitable because little more than a year after the restaurant’s opening they began to complain about not receiving any dividends. I don’t know how all that was sorted out but clearly Chin Foin’s personal wealth was growing, enabling his family to move to a posh neighborhood in 1912. The newspaper reported he was a wealthy Yale graduate, which brought a grudging acceptance from a non-Chinese woman who said she could hardly object to a Chinese neighbor since, she observed, “We have Negroes out here now, and a few Goths and Visigoths.”

The very Americanized Chin Foin had ambitions of running a type of restaurant that was scarcely Chinese at all. After opening the Mandarin Inn in 1911 and the New Mandarin Inn in 1919 [pictured], both on South Wabash, he announced he had taken a 25-year lease on a Wilson Avenue property formerly occupied by a car dealer. To be called the Mandarin Gardens, the restaurant was supposed to open in 1921 but never did as far as I can tell. Reflecting on the upward arc of his restaurant career, he said in 1920, “Now we’ve cut out the far east features and operate a strictly American restaurant, and that’s what the Mandarin Gardens will be.”

The New Mandarin Inn had also shed some of its Chinese-ness. Since its opening in 1911 it had broken with Chinese restaurant tradition by using linens on the tables and serving European wines. Although it served Chinese dishes, it also offered Sunday chicken dinners and, in 1921, served a high-priced Easter dinner with choices such as Blue Points on the Half Shell, New Orleans Gumbo, Lamb with Mint Jelly, Whipped Potatoes, and Strawberry Shortcake.

Sadly, Chin Foin’s plans were abruptly terminated in 1924 when he stepped into an empty elevator shaft at the New Mandarin Inn. The subsequent owner of that restaurant, Don Joy, added “Chinese” features such as dragons on the front and a simulated temple roof. Don Joy’s Mandarin Inn closed in 1928, later to become a nightclub (Club Royale) and, eventually in 1959, Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant. The building occupied by King Yen was razed in the teens for a new location of the John R. Thompson’s lunchroom chain, while King Joy became the Rialto Gardens (Chinese), and then one of Dario Toffenetti’s cafeterias.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

6 Comments

Filed under proprietors & careers

6 responses to “Anatomy of a restaurateur: Chin Foin

  1. Pingback: Wild History, Part 1: JPUSA’s Wilson Abbey From Auto Dealership to Strip Club to New Uptown Gem

  2. Pingback: Wild History: JPUSA’s Wilson Abbey From Auto Dealership to Strip Club to New Uptown Gem – Part 1

  3. I love the lady’s comment about Negroes and Goths and Visigoths, which led to a look see on Wiki: Visigoths were one main division of the Germanic Goth tribes post-Roman Empire; Ostrogoths were the other (and lesser known, who’s ever heard of an Ostrogoth?). But basically we’re talking uncouth Germans here, which couldn’t have been that much of a rarity in Belle Epoch Chicago.
    On a more relevant note, I have a Chinese-American friend whose story is equally fascinating. Circa 1930s an immigrant Chinese family in NYC gets rich in the jewelry trade, returns to Shanghai and lives in feudal splendor. Daughter sent to university where she meets future husband. Rich family opposes marriage b/c he’s poor; poor man’s family opposes marriage b/c a rich girl will never do any work, will be lazy and spoiled. They marry and my friend is born. She’s a young child when the Japanese invade. The family flees –my friend with her maternal grandparents, her siblings with the paternal grandparents, the parents alone. THEY WALK TO HONG KONG! It takes a year. They’ve made up stories about who they are to evade persecution in th0se turbulent times. In Hong Kong, my friend is approached by a woman who says she’s such a pretty girl and asks where is her mother. My friend: “My mother is dead!” You guessed it — it was her mother asking. The story goes on and gets better all the way, but I guess I thought of it b/c her family made it to the US and her father started the most successful chain of Chinese restaurants in Connecticut. All four kids got advanced degrees from the best universities and are extremely successful in business, medicine and law. Sorry to be so long winded.

  4. Henry Voigt

    Hi Jan. Did your research on early Chinese restaurants in Chicago unearth anything about The Foochow at 233 Wabash Avenue?

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