In 1949, after living and working in the US for 30 years and making his home in Durham for over 10 years, Der Wo, the owner and operator of Durham’s first, very popular, Chinese restaurant was joyfully reunited with his family for the first time in 18 years.
Der Wo was originally from the Chinese province of Guangdong (called Canton by Westerners of the time) near Hong Kong. He immigrated to the US to work in Chinese restaurants in Washington DC. Before he came to Durham, he had 16 years of experience in the Chinese/American restaurant business. Der Wo brought his skills and joined a venture in Durham backed by the very successful sister restaurant, also the Oriental, based in Charlotte NC. Although the term “Oriental” is no longer used to identify people of Asian ancestry, in the period of the founding of this cafe, the term was widely used. The term “Chinese /American” more accurately reflects the people born in China who lived and worked in the United States.
Chinese /American cuisine had been a national fad in urban areas across the United States since the early 1900s. By the mid-1930s, Chop Suey, the common name for a Chinese/American adaptation of stir fry, was only available in Durham as a canned good from La Choy, founded in the US midwest in 1922, or from the Pines Tea Room near Chapel Hill, run by a Mrs. Vickers.
The Immigration Act of 1790 and the Chinese Exclusion Acts, in force from the 1880s until 1942, meant that Der Wo could not become a US citizen. In 1915 a court action opened the door for more Chinese restaurant workers to enter the US, but this immigration was tightly controlled. In the 1930 US Census, Durham had only 3 people identified as Chinese-born.
Nonetheless, by 1938 downtown Durham had the Oriental Restaurant, a thriving Chinese/American eatery. The Oriental, like other Chinese-owned businesses, followed Exclusion era practices by employing Chinese “bachelor” cooks and staff, several of whom lived on the premises. In the 1940 Census, Der Wo and five of his employees were listed as living above the restaurant on Parrish St.
A system of mutual support developed among Chinese/Americans and among business owners and restauranteurs called Huiguan. This relatively informal association system was similar to clans or a guild system for the management of both the supply of Chinese food and specialty products, and the flow of restaurant workers into the United States. The small staff of Chinese men gathered in Durham in the mid-1930s to open the new Chinese restaurant.
The Oriental was essentially a 90-seat `white tablecloth restaurant well-sited in downtown Durham about equidistant from the two largest hotels in the downtown area and two blocks from the busy passenger train station. The Oriental was whites only. The operators chose Parrish St, also known as the “Black Wall Street,” because of proximity to patrons via the railroad and hotels, but the business did not make any accommodation for black patrons. The presence of Black Wall Street in a white downtown was an anomaly as was a segregated Chinese Restaurant just steps from the two largest black-owned enterprises in the city.
By the early 1940s, a Chinese restaurant for black patrons, the Asia Cafe, was established about a mile from the Oriental. Located in Hayti, Durham’s black business district, the restaurant was near the important intersection of Fayetteville St and Pettigrew St. The Asia Cafe was operated by Hugh Wong. The site was taken under urban renewal as part of Durham Freeway.
The Oriental used many of the marketing tools available in the 1930s. Der Wo advertised his restaurant in the Duke Chronicle, UNC’s Daily Tar Heel, and the Durham newspapers as well as the City Directories and the telephone books. Der Wo arranged for civic groups to hold meetings and banquets in his facility. In addition to supporting the American war effort during World War Two via war bond drives and other donations, Der Wo’s earlier activism included support for the nationalist Chinese cause including holding a banquet at the Oriental in honor of a barnstorming Chinese aviatrix raising funds for the support of the nationalists against the Japanese.
A grand opening for the Oriental was held on Saturday June18th 1938 and the restaurant was a hit from the start. Der Wo with the backing of the owner of the Oriental in Charlotte had rented a white brick two-story restaurant building with granite details likely built in the late teens or early twenties. Since he came from restaurants in more architecturally sophisticated urban Washington DC, the Oriental exterior was modernized in the Moderne style with full plate glass doors and windows surrounded by opaque panels of pigmented structural glass, probably Vitrolite, in ivory and black . The name “The Oriental Restaurant” was in a green bamboo style script in the glass panel above the front facade and there was a neon sign. The colors of the renovated interior were cream and brown and the main dining room seated 60 and included both high booths and tables. There was an adjoining dining room seating 30 for meetings. The restaurant was fully air-conditioned at a time that many offices and hotel rooms were not.
The preferred Chinese/ American dish in the 1930s remained Chop Suey, but in a recent survey on social media of long-term Durham residents now in their 60’s and older, the Oriental’s Chicken Chow Mein is the most frequently remembered dish. The owner of a local plumbing company was so fond of the Oriental that his family ate there once a week throughout the 1950s and 1960s and many survey respondents remembered special Sunday lunches at the Oriental. The judgment concerning the popularity of the Oriental’s Chow Mein is verified in a 1950s newspaper article about the long-time cook at the Oriental, Frank Dea Toy.
George Lougee, a local newspaper reporter for the Durham Herald Sun, wrote affectionately not only about Der Wo, but also about the kitchen workers like Frank Dea Toy over several decades. Lougee’s primary beat was the Courts, and the Oriental was just around the corner from the Courthouse and jail.
Among the most interesting aspects of the Oriental story is Der Wo and his family’s path from China to Durham which was detailed in Lougee’s 1949 feature newspaper story about the reunion of Der Wo and his family after the long separation because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the disruption of World War II.
In 1919, Der Wo immigrated from China via San Francisco to Washington DC to make his way in the restaurant business. No doubt he improved his English and he learned about the operations of restaurants.
In 1931 Der Wo was successful enough to make the two-month journey to return to China to marry. Der Wo’s parents had arranged his marriage to Wu Mei On, an eligible young woman. Before Der Wo returned to the US about a year later, Wu Mei On had had a daughter and was pregnant. Wu Mei On and her children lived with Der Wo’s parents. Der Wo returned to the restaurant business in Washington DC in 1932 before coming to Durham in late 1937.
In 1941, the Japanese bombed and invaded the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The danger and brutality of the attack prompted the extended Der Wo family to flee into the interior of China. After a few months, they returned to Hong Kong to find their home intact and they resumed their lives there.
In some of the records of the census and other Federal agencies from the 1930s and 1940s, Der Wo is listed as white. In 1949 Der Wo began Naturalization proceedings and was finally reunited with his wife and met, for the first time, his 18-year old son. Part of the delay in the reunion was because of immigration restrictions. Both his wife and son had to come to the United States on temporary visas. The family lived together for a number of years and two other sons were born.
In 1953 Der Wo, suffering from heart disease, died of a sudden heart attack, and his wife and older son were forced to take over the operation of the restaurant.
In 1954 Federal Immigration and Naturalization authorities contacted the family about possible deportation because of the lapsed visa status of both Der Wo’s wife and older son. Lougee wrote about the family’s immigration situation and gathered local support. With the assistance of Congressman Carl Durham, a private bill was introduced and approved by Congress and signed by President Eisenhower to allow the family to stay together in Durham.
With the help of her son and the restaurant staff, Mrs Der Wo operated the restaurant successfully throughout the 1950s despite her limited English language skills.
In a mid-1950s feature story, Frank Dea Toy, cook at the Oriental, was featured. Dea Toy claimed, to newspaperman Lougee’s astonishment, that after living in Durham for over twenty years he had never been to any sort of ball game nor had he attend more than one movie a year. Radio and television were, he said, too “noisy.” The isolation of the Chinese workers was further illustrated by Lougee’s reporting on a 1944 fatal hit and run accident that killed an Oriental employee who was walking in Durham with two Chinese colleagues. The death was never solved.
By the early1960’s a shift in the primary shopping areas from downtown Durham to the suburbs north and south of Durham’s city center was well underway and the lunch and dinner trade at the Oriental were likely a fraction of what they had been. Urban renewal was in the planning stages and the face of Durham was changing.
Civil rights protest was also rising, and in May 1963 the Oriental was a site at which Black students, primarily from North Carolina Central University (then College), staged a late afternoon peaceful sit-in. Sit-in leaders asked to be served on behalf of their 60 followers and were refused by management. Some students left, but 48 waited for the police to charge them with unlawful trespass. All were charged and released without bond.
By 1964 the formal process of downtown Durham redevelopment using Federal funds was underway. The passenger train station in downtown Durham was closed and one of the two major downtown hotels closed as well. No doubt redevelopment was a part of the decline of the Oriental. Mrs. Der closed the Oriental in 1966. The building itself was not demolished until the early 1970s. The ultimate causes of the closure of the restaurant may have been the aging of the staff and owner, but other factors may have included the aging infrastructure and the changes in the surrounding business climate. In the face of public accommodation laws, urban renewal programs, the Durham Freeway, and the end of official segregation, the Oriental did not survive.
Many thanks to my colleagues, Yunyi Wang and Luo Zhou, and to Prof. Calvin Cheung-Miaw for their editorial assistance.
Select Bibliography/ Further Reading:
Bow, Leslie. Partly Colored : Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South. New York: New York : New York University Press, 2010.
Carter, Susan B. “Celestial Suppers: The Political Economy of America’s Chop Suey Craze, 1900-1930.” Asia-Pacific Economic and Business History Conference, 2009. Unpublished but available online, https://apebhconference.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/carter1.pdf
Chen, Yong. “The Rise of Chinese Food in the United States.” Oxford University Press, 2017.
Chen, Yong. “Chop Suey, USA : The Story of Chinese Food in America.” New York: New York : Columbia University Press, 2014.
Coe, Andrew. Chop Suey : A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. New York: New York : Oxford University Press, 2009.
Desai, Jigna , and Joshi, Khyati Y. , eds. Asian Americans in Dixie : Race and Migration in the South. Urbana: Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2013.
Edwards, Christopher. “Homeland Comfort in an Alien Land: The Role of the Huiguan in Exclusion Era Los Angeles.” The Toro Historical Review 6.1, 2019.
Hinnershitz, Stephanie. A Different Shade of Justice : Asian American Civil Rights in the South. Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill : The University of Carolina Press, 2017.
Holaday, J. Chris, and Patrick Cullom. Classic Restaurants of Durham. Charleston, SC: Charleston, SC : American Palate, a Division of The History Press, 2020.
Jung, John. Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants. Cypress, Calif.: Yin and Yang Press, 2010.
McGrath, Raymond and Frost, A.C. Glass in Architecture and Decoration. London: The Architectural Press, 1937.
Mendelson, Anne. Chow Chop Suey : Food and the Chinese American Journey. New York: New York : Columbia University Press, 2016.
Mohl, Raymond A., Van Sant, John E. and Chizuru Saeki, eds. Far East, Down South : Asians in the American South. Tuscaloosa: Tuscaloosa : The University of Alabama Press, 2016.