By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
PHILADELPHIA -- Could a restaurant by any other name make a cheesesteak so good?
Joseph Groh's popular eatery in a blue-collar neighborhood of northeast Philadelphia has been serving them up pretty much the same way since it opened in 1949. Authenticity is everything here -- the original soda fountain, the same ceiling fans, the same sparse menu and the 1950s-vintage wooden booths, now way too snug for today's expanded waistlines.
Even the sign outside bears the nickname of the restaurant's original owner, and therein lies a problem.
It's called Chink's Steaks.
The restaurant was opened by Samuel Sherman, who was nicknamed "Chink" as a child because of his supposedly slanted, Asian-looking eyes. "Nobody ever called him Sam," said Groh, who started working at the eatery at age 15 and later bought it after Sherman died. "That was his name from the age of 6."
The problem is that the term "chink" is every bit as racist and hurtful to Asian Americans as "the n-word" is to African Americans -- so much so that some have taken to calling it "the c-word."
"It's definitely a derogatory term," said Ginny Gong, national president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, one of several groups pressing for the restaurant to change its name. ". . . Maybe there is this feeling that Asian Americans will not express some degree of outrage. But we are outraged that there is this comfort level."
For Groh, 45, the name remains part of his restaurant's tradition. When his mother suggested he change it to "Joe's," he said, he told her: "Why would I? This is Chink's."
Asian American groups began lobbying Groh to change the name in 2004, after 21-year-old Susannah Park, who is Korean American, heard about the small eatery from friends. When she called to ask why it is called "Chink's," she said she was told: "Because the owner had slanty eyes."
Park, now a 25-year-old college student, grew up in Clarksburg, W.Va., the adopted daughter of white parents. "I had all kinds of experiences with that word," Park said. "Growing up in West Virginia was traumatic. . . . Imagine being one of the only Asian American kids in a town that's almost all white."
Park's campaign to get the name changed was unsuccessful. In fact, it elicited a backlash when neighborhood residents began a petition drive to support the restaurant. Philadelphia magazine in its "Best of Philly" edition mocked Park and called her effort "the worst complaint" of 2004.
Park said that she was young then and had no experience organizing a campaign and that despite help from the Anti-Defamation League and other groups, she eventually retreated. Groh said: "It just died down."
But when Groh wanted to open a second Chink's Steaks in South Philadelphia, Asian American groups protested to the Philadelphia River Port Authority, which owns the site. The lease was denied.
Tsiwen Law, general counsel of the Greater Philadelphia OCA, said opponents of the name organized quickly to block the new restaurant, and will do so again. "We actually stopped it from expanding," he said. "Going outside of his neighborhood will be difficult, because we will respond," he added, referring to Groh.
Law said people who use the word or who trivialize Asian American concerns "don't understand the origins of the word and its use as a racial slur." He said the slur became common in the United States in the late 1800s, after the railroads were built and a movement was started to expel Chinese workers from the nation.
"The word reflects that period of time, from Chinese exclusion to ultimately deportation," Law said. The term became "a very common aspect of anti-Asian violence."
And the word -- possibly a crude derivation of "Ching guo," or a subject of the Qing Dynasty -- has been used to demean other Asian Americans.
Kay Kyungsun Yu, president of the Asian American Bar Association of the Delaware Valley, grew up in Seattle and recalls driving across the country with her parents when she was in middle school. They stopped at a small-town diner, where they were harassed by a group of teenagers using the word.
"I think that was the first time I ever heard the word," she said. "It was immediately apparent to me what it meant. We're Korean, not Chinese. We got back in the car and left."
Yu and others said that the groups learned from the failed experience, and that they recognize that part of their efforts must be to heighten sensitivity and educate non-Asians about the term and why Asian Americans find it offensive.
They are in some ways battling entrenched stereotypes. Among them is the perception that Asian Americans are, for the most part, affluent, educated and well assimilated, and should therefore have no complaints -- the "model minority."
"We have not done a good job at sensitizing the general population," Yu said. Many Americans, she said, "generally don't associate Asians as a minority facing discrimination."
Grace Kao, director of Asian American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said part of the problem is the way race is still defined and discussed in the United States. "In this country, race is still largely a black-and-white issue. Asian Americans and Latinos are largely left out of the conversation," she said. "In public dialogue, you can't say certain things about African Americans, but it's still okay to say things about Asian Americans."
Yu said the Asian American community is willing to pay for all the costs associated with changing the restaurant's name and for a publicity campaign around it as well.
Taking a break between the lunch crush and the dinner crowd, Groh was reflective. He knows the name is a problem. But he has a long history with the popular business, which put his daughter through college.
Groh said he likes the name because of its tradition, and does not see the need for a change. But he acknowledges, "I don't think you could open a place today with that name."