Tai Tung: a reclamation of "Chop suey" / by An Huynh

Today was a good day. It was a good day because after a year and a half of planning, Tai Tung finally got its sign. The two-sided neon blade sign is an almost exact replica of the original neon sign that once marked the entrance to the restaurant.

Tai Tung opened in 1935 and is the oldest operating Chinese restaurant in Seattle. It has remained a community anchor for this neighborhood ever since. The restaurant is owned by the Quan family and over the years has been passed down from father to son. Third-generation family members Harry Chan (pictured below) and Tommy Quan run the restaurant now, with many family members from the fourth generation helping out.

 A black and white photograph of the original neon blade sign was used as inspiration for the modern replica. 

A black and white photograph of the original neon blade sign was used as inspiration for the modern replica. 

Harry has worked at the restaurant since 1968, and I met him in the summer of 2016 when I first started working at SCIDpda. One of the first projects I worked on was to coordinate the design and installation of this sign for Tai Tung. I still can't believe it's up now. I've been staring at renderings of this thing for so long that it feels surreal seeing it installed and lit up with my own eyes. 

 An almost exact replica of the sign was installed today, December 11, 2017. Fuck yeah.

An almost exact replica of the sign was installed today, December 11, 2017. Fuck yeah.

 Tai Tung hasn't changed much since it opened in 1935. From the bar, you can see handwritten menu items taped to the mirror. 

Tai Tung hasn't changed much since it opened in 1935. From the bar, you can see handwritten menu items taped to the mirror. 

This sign means a lot to me for many reasons. Seeing Tai Tung thrive reminds me of the importance of a community-oriented businesses and supporting small, immigrant-owned businesses in the CID and elsewhere. The sign reminds me that immigrant communities have faced many waves of xenophobic legislation designed to keep us away, confined, or out of the U.S. altogether. Despite these racist laws, immigrants and refugees have been able to start businesses, begin new lives, build communities, and create spaces for ourselves like the Chinatown International District.

This sign reminds me that context and ownership matters. One usage of "chop suey" can be very different from the next, depending on who is using it and for what reason. The fact that the sign says "chop suey" today is an act of taking back a term that was turned on its head by racists and xenophobes to fuel anti-Chinese sentiment and legislation. Tai Tung has been serving chop suey - a Chinese American dish born in San Francisco during the California gold rush - since the day it opened. And although chop suey began as a dish in the United States, it grew to name an entire Chinese American cuisine that was known for using what was found and using everything you have. The term in question was not denigrated at the beginning, and this was an opportunity for Tai Tung to begin to reclaim the term. 

 Me and Harry Chan, the owner of Tai Tung, standing next to the sign before it was installed. I am holding a to-go box filled with chop suey.

Me and Harry Chan, the owner of Tai Tung, standing next to the sign before it was installed. I am holding a to-go box filled with chop suey.

All in all, this has been one whopper of a project to coordinate. I will be taking its lessons with me for many more projects to come. Thank you to everyone that helped us on this project. It truly took a village and I am forever grateful for this community's resilience, spirit, and support.