Chop suey

The Rice Bowl (Exterior) in Beaverdale, Des Moines (2019)

Walking into The Rice Bowl, nearly hidden among the businesses amassed together in the tightly-bound commercial corridor of Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood, feels like walking into a mid-century set piece. 

After all, that’s how it’s supposed to feel. The restaurant, which opened its doors in 1963 (first on the opposing side of the road and later at its current location), is likely the oldest still-operating Chinese restaurant in the central Iowa area (I’d have to do a more in-depth analysis to give it this title fully). Between sets of maroon booths, Formica tables are set in diametric patterns as to be easily pushed together should an extended family arrive. Sparse and traditional Chinese-American restaurant decor hangs upon the walls. The restaurant’s only window allows a little sunlight. 

On a frozen lunch hour located somewhere within the tundric purgatory that is the interminable time between Christmas and New Years, I ate at The Rice Bowl for the first time. Across from a respectable listing of Authentic Chinese Dishes (containing very old-fashioned conceptions about what that could mean, with dishes like sweet and sour pork alongside chicken spheres with vegetables and beef tenderloin with oyster sauce) was an entire listing dedicated to chop suey and chow mein. 

I was at the restaurant, ostensibly, to make contact with Kenny Lee, the grandson of a longtime King Ying Low owner Louis Leong, and a direct descendent of the oldest community of Chinese-Americans in Des Moines, who I’ve written about extensively in an article that was published by BuzzFeedNews last Saturday. But I found in this menu, in this place that is as much a tribute to the tradition of Chinese-American cuisine as you could find anywhere, an opportunity to do some hands-on research. 

The Rice Bowl (Interior) in Beaverdale, Des Moines (2019)

While reading through archived newspaper stories and attempting to stitch together the century-long history of King Ying Low, I found that one of the fundamental aspects of the popularity and success of early Chinese-American restaurants was the chop suey phenomenon. There are theories that trace the dish back to Guangzhou, the region of China where many of the earliest Chinese-Americans immigrated from, but it’s undeniable that the dish achieved immense popularity, to the point of ubiquity, on the North American continent in the early decades of the twentieth century. 

The dish’s name, which, from what I understand from its many competing mythologies and origin stories, is essentially shorthand for “trash food” due to the dish being mostly constituted by leftover scrap food. It's essentially a plate of food made up of a varying diced meat option along with various vegetables and sprouts served with rice and bound together by a translucent, starchy sauce. 

I stumbled upon a great illustration of how deeply popular chop suey once was on a recent drive from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to New York City. My traveling companions and I stopped at the Miss Bellows Falls Diner in Bellows Falls, Vermont, an ancient dining car opened in 1941 on the banks of the Connecticut River dividing Vermont from The Granite State. The menu mostly featured fried fish, but still, at the very top, chop suey was listed, living evidence of a dish that was so popular in the early 20th century that many restaurants and diners that didn’t otherwise serve Chinese-American cuisine put it on their menus.

The Rice Bowl’s chop suey with pork (2019)

Upon eating the dish for the first time at The Rice Bowl, it was immediately obvious to me why it had been such a popular food among America’s white population at the turn of the 20th century. If you had never had anything like this in your life, it was an exotic surprise for palettes unaccustomed to anything approaching the levels of spiciness common in a variety of traditional Chinese dishes, particularly Szechuan, it’s clear how totally revolutionary it was. In the present day, it’s easy to look at this dish and see something bland, old-fashioned, and unexciting, but it should be acknowledged for what it is: A singular and immensely popular dish in the pantheon of American cuisine. It’s in the DNA of every beloved dish available at your local Chinese-American take-out place.

I ate at King Ying Low only once in my life, months before its sudden closure would give way to the Fong’s Pizza empire. I don’t remember what I ate, but I’m certain it wasn’t chop suey. It was like General Tso’s Chicken, my preferred descendant of chop suey. I was sixteen, exploring the mostly deserted terrain of downtown Des Moines. I’d lived most of my life in the city’s western suburbs, a place with a shallow sense of history animated by the constant churn of land development. I didn’t realize that I was eating at a restaurant celebrating its centennial. Aside from the hostess working that day, benignly neglectful behind the station desk situated at the front of the narrow front room, the three of us at our table were the restaurant’s only customers. It was a bright, clear day in the summer, but the specific date has left me. 

I thought of this uneventful dining experience only occasionally over the following years. When I returned to Iowa from New York periodically, I would eat at Fong’s and revel in the idea that there was a strange, delicious kind of food you could only get in the place where I’m from, a place not widely known outside of the state for its oddity or for pushing the culinary envelope, even if the hodge-podge of cultural appropriation at work in the restaurant was both obvious and garish.

Miss Bellows Falls Diner (Exterior) in Bellows Falls, Vermont (2020)

It wasn’t until I was researching the history of Des Moines’ most beloved now-closed restaurants during the summer of 2019 while I was still at the Register that I thought about my solitary visit to King Ying Low again. While running the same searches of the newspaper’s archives as I did for the other restaurants written about in this article, I began to see the depth of coverage around King Ying Low over the years. There was clearly a broader story to tell and, I realized, there was a desire for one. One of the final mentions of King Ying Low in the Register came from a someone who wrote in to the “Your 2 Cents’ Worth” column, a part of the print newspaper I grew up reading for its anonymously sourced and belligerent opinions that has since vanished in Gannett’s war of attrition with its print product, fully replaced now by the far more chaotic screed of comments on the Register’s Facebook page. 

The “Your 2 Cents’ Worth” comment read: “Where is an investigative reporter when you need one? A tragedy has occurred: Des Moines’ oldest Chinese restaurant, King Ying Low, has closed and not one word in the Des Moines Register. What happened; who is going to tell us? I can’t believe it.” 

It was immediately clear to me that I would have to find out what happened and that it was up to me to tell this story.

I began by establishing a timeline of events from everything I could find about King Ying Low, something that I did for the first time during one long night spent enthralled by the informational detritus of a century, scouring the digital heap of the Register and its predecessors (Newspapers.com is an invaluable and important resource). I had to restructure and elaborated on this timeline again before I was able to write the piece. 

I did all of this initial research on my own time even while I worked for the Register, as researching and writing thousands of words about a local restaurant that had closed over a decade ago was not in my job description as a trending news reporter. I’m not sure who I was doing the research, perhaps just for myself and the “Your 2 Cents’ Worth” commenter, if they were still out there. 

King Ying Low (Interior) in Des Moines (Date Unknown). Photo courtesy of Maggie Suits and Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants by John Jung (2010)

This story stayed with me even through the events of September. After I published the essay about my experience in the Columbia Journalism Review, I received a text from Ben Smith, editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed. During my internship and brief period as a contracted staff writer in 2013 and 2014, Ben and I had rarely interacted. He was in the process of building a powerhouse of digital journalism and I mostly spent that time trying to find a journalistic identity of my own. In the six intervening years since I’d left BuzzFeed, a lot had changed. 

Ben offered to meet with me next time I was in New York, so the Friday morning before Christmas we met over coffee. We discussed a variety of subjects, but before he had to rush off to do a spot on the company’s Twitter-streamed morning show, he asked me to pitch him something. I thought he might, and I had the tale of King Ying Low and Fong’s Pizza in my back pocket. He saw the story I saw, but knew as I knew that there was only a small window of time that national readers would be particularly interested in reading a long reported feature out of Iowa. The story had to be done quickly. 

 “I think a good story always breaks news.” Ben said this in an interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner conducted in the wake of Ben’s announcement that he would be leaving BuzzFeed to become a media reporter at the New York Times a month after we spoke. The King Ying Low/ Fong’s Pizza story wasn’t breaking news in a traditional sense, there was no breaking “scoop,” but it did something many of my favorite stories often do: It revealed an unseen narrative hiding in common places, a consequential one that reveals something about how the world around has been made and remade over time. 

The cliche has it that a newspaper story is the “first rough draft of history.” This is a cliche for a reason, and some of these rough drafts are quite rough. Writing this story revealed the right limitations of these drafts. Each entry illuminating the lives of the extraordinary Chinese-Americans who built a community in Des Moines in the past century is tethered to and written through the contemporary moment. Early coverage of King Ying Low and it’s owners is extremely and obviously racist in language and intent. Through the decades, the overt racism fades with the changing mores of American culture, sublimated into subtext and coded language in the later decades. Stereotypes were wielded with less hostile intention, but instead were perpetuated in a myriad subtler ways to create an effect that was just as dehumanizing. This can be said of articles published in the aftermath of World War II as well as those from the 1990s and the aughts.

Chop Suey, Edward Hopper (1929)

Through this constant veil of othering language, still the character and personality of men who ran the restaurant came through clearly and legibly through their actions and words. Reconstructing their story through these skewed contemporary artifacts was a delicate task. Within the story the material is intentionally telling is the story that’s never explicitly written down. The story I’ve written, ostensibly about two restaurants and their shared history, is also about the complex history of newspapers in the United States. Without the roving eye of the daily news, there would be nearly no information publicly available about King Ying Low, but the cost of inclusion in the public record meant a community distorted and limited by cultural majority’s white gaze. 

One of the greatest struggles I encountered in writing the article came from attempting to wrestle the wide unwieldiness of history into a concise narrative. Episodes that I found fascinating just didn’t fit in, even in the first draft. One example: A customer can eat in the backroom at Fong’s today and be sitting where a woman shot her married lover and then herself in 1965, an event that proved so detrimental to King Ying Low’s reputation for a period of time that its owner sued the woman’s estate for damages. In the end, I wrote as much as I thought I could get away with in the first draft and trusted the editors to do what editors do. And they did. 

In the end, I think I did provide some answer to the question posed by the “Your Two Cents’ Worth” commenter. The literal answer was that King Ying Low closed after a particularly bad kitchen fire, which, to the Register’s credit, they did report on at the time. But, as always, the real answer is much more complex. When the fire occurred and the restaurant closed for good, downtown Des Moines was a depressed neighborhood in the midst of a nation-wide recession. There would have been little incentive for Tony Wong, the mysterious final owner of King Ying Low, to invest in rehabilitating the restaurant in the midst of the economic malaise created after decades of under-investment and suburban flight. But it also allowed a restaurant group that had the capital, accrued from its other popular restaurants, to weather the economic downtown and ride the wave of a post-recession revitalization of the neighborhood that was spurred by both a long-in-the-making development strategy (something I’ve written more about here) and an expansion of the rental market. The replacement of King Ying Low by Fong’s Pizza was not happenstance; it was the result of a capitalist system functioning as it was always intended to.  

From the outset, I was curious to know what the heirs of King Ying Low thought of this transformation. Despite my efforts, Kenny Lee, owner of The Rice Bowl and grandson of King Ying Low’s Louis Leong, decided to keep his own history private. But I was touched to learn that, after our interview and discussion of the restaurant and its history, Gwen Page, manager and co-owner of Fong’s Pizza, presented one of the red wooden lattices that once adorned King Ying Low and was later incorporated into the Fong’s decor to Kenny Lee in acknowledgment of their shared history. 

Read “Iowa’s Oldest Chinese Restaurant Is Now The Weirdest Fusion Pizza Place You’ll Go To” at BuzzFeed News.

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