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Some Messy History Behind A Fight Over A Restaurant Called 'Chop Chop Chinaman'

The logo of Chop Chop Chinaman restaurant sits on a window outside the dinning area Thursday in Chicago.

Over in Chicago, a restaurant called Chop Chop Chinaman has been getting a lot of heat for its name. In February, Chicago-area resident Jeannie Harrell was arrested for scrawling "F*** this hate crime s***. It's 2015" in lipstick on the restaurant's window, right next to the shop's decal sticker of a rickshaw and a man wearing a triangular hat. Harrell, who is half Japanese and was raised in Tokyo, was charged with criminal damage to property after cops found tweets in which detailed her decision to write the message.

Since then, reviewers on Yelp and many others have come to Harrell's defense, saying the restaurant's name offensive. But Larry Lee, who's Chinese-American and one of the restaurant's public-facing employees, says he doesn't have a problem it.

"It was a name that was catchy for the area, it had no malicious intent behind it," Lee recently told WBEZ's Niala Boodhoo. "People have always referred to Asians in one form or another in things worse than Chinaman," he said. "You know, I'm kinda proud to be Chinese. I'm a man, I'm from China, I'm a man of China. You know, Chinaman. No different than man of Ireland: Irish man."

But like many racial terms that we've written extensively about at Code Switch, both terms — "Chop Chop" and "Chinaman" — have long, dated histories, and we wanted to bring them up again in light of this story.

"Chop chop" can be tracked to the early 1800s to "pidgin English" on ships. In February 2014, Lakshmi Gandhi dug into the origins for Code Switch, writing:

In an 1838 article, "Chinese English," the magazine defined "chop-chop" as "the sooner the better," but made no mention of the phase being rude or curt.

According to Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, the noted Anglo-Indian dictionary published in 1886, the phrase originates from the Cantonese word kap, or 急 (which means "make haste"). In Mandarin, the word is jí, and in Malay it's chepat. This evolved into "chop-chop" and was quickly picked up by the Englishmen who traveled the Asian seas.

And, as for "Chinaman" — the part of the restaurant name that most are taking issue with — Reappropriate blogger Jenn Fang, wrote about the history of the term "Chinaman":

"The history of the term "Chinaman" is telling: it is a word that invokes the 18th and 19th century American idiom "a Chinaman's chance in hell", which refers to how Chinese American coolies were given the most dangerous jobs in the building of the Central Pacific Railroad — tasked with running live dynamite into half-dug tunnels so that mountains might be blasted. Thousands of Chinese American labourers perished in the construction of the railroad; today, their sacrifice is only just earning popular recognition. Subsequently, it was used alone or as part of "Johnny Chinaman" as a generic reference to Chinese coolies; here, it emphasized the dehumanization and lack of individuality of Chinese Americans — we were not even worthy of having distinct names. The phrase "Chinaman" is not ambiguously offensive. It is a relic of a time when Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans lacked most basic legal rights; when the vast majority worked as indentured servants; when rape, beatings and lynching were commonplace; when the life of an Asian American was jokingly worth so little, a common idiom arose around it."

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