Let’s Read Old Menus, featuring Lau Yee Chai and House of P. Y. Chong, Honolulu, HI, 1945!

Hello, everyone and welcome to Let’s Read An Old Menu! This is a somewhat irregular column in which I, your humble LibraryLass, look at restaurant, hotel, and lunch counter menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. Sometimes things will be familiar, sometimes they’ll be weird. But one thing you can count on is that they’ll almost always have cottage cheese on the menu, and they’ll almost never actually explain what’s in anything.

Before we begin I’d like to include an advisory: this article includes stereotypical transcriptions of a Chinese accent that were racist at the time and are racist now. I do not intend to endorse any racist sentiment by including them, but merely to educate about immigrant cuisine in America by offering the example of a notable example of a notable Chinese-American restaurateur and how he navigated the racism that he encountered.

The sumptuous exterior and famous interior mural of Lau Yee Chai in 1949, as depicted on a postcard.
Image sourced from ebay seller Spinach-Eater, currently on sale for $3.99.

What’s For Lunch?

Today we’ll be looking at the culinary empire of pre-statehood Hawaii’s foremost Chinese cook, P. Y. Chong, as it stood at the end of the second world war.

Is The Restaurant Still There? If not, what can we find out about it?

Lau Yee Chai’s second and most famous location, at the intersection of Kuamo’o Street & Kūhiō Avenue was sold to Honolulu business mogul Willam KH Mau in 1948 and demolished in 1968. Beginning in 1978, Mau continued to operate under the Lau Yee Chai out of a storefront on the fifth floor of his Waikiki Shopping Plaza at 2250 Kalakaua Ave until sometime in the 2010s– it has a Doordash page! Alas, even the modern incarnation of Lau Yee Chai is no more as of 2021. Was it a victim of the pandemic, or was it already gone by then? Hawaiicados, please let me know if you know! I was unable to determine the side of the street the famous Kūhiō location was on, but today there stands the famous Ambassador Hotel. Chong’s other restaurant, House of P.Y. Chong, stood on the site that is today the Ilikai Hotel, which TV fans will recognize from the opening credits to the original Hawaii 5-0. (And maybe the new one? I haven’t watched it.)

The Ambassador Hotel Waikiki, which today stands on the site of what was once called the largest and most beautiful Chinese restaurant in the world.
The Ilikai Hotel, located on the former site of the House of P. Y. Chong. Image sourced from Wikipedia

The son of a notable scholar, Pang-Yat Chong– or as he publicly touted himself, “Me, P. Y. Chong!” immigrated from Shekki, Guandong province to Hawaii in 1917. Though the interiors of his menus displayed an impeccable command of the English language, in advertisement– including postcards, souvenir menus, newspaper inserts, and radio commercials– Chong affected a stereotypical pidgin with the intent of putting American customers at ease by playing to their expectations of a Chinese restaurateur.

One of Chong’s newspaper ads, from 1946, demonstrates how he felt he had to perform a stereotypical identity for his customers. I was initially unsure whether to include the advertisement, but have chosen to out of a commitment to providing a historical record.

Chong chose to set his brand apart not only by the quality of his food, but by the atmosphere he cultivated. Lau Yee Chai’s premises included a rock garden, a koi pond, and a large collection of Asian art for the perusal of Chong’s customers, many of them imported by Chong himself, who started an importing company specifically to supply his restaurant with decor. By 1936, Lau Yee Chai’s dining room could sit over 1400 diners (and by 1951, pamphlets boasted of its ability to take reservations for special parties up to over 1500!), and it was regularly full. At its peak, Chong estimated that nineteen out of every twenty visitors to Hawaii ate at his restaurant at least once during their trip.

Image 1 - Postcard Hall Waikiki Lau Yee Chai Hawaii, World's Beautiful Chinese Restaurant
Lau Yee Chai’s interior, from an undated postcard. Image sourced from eBay seller ourtreasurecove, currently on sale as of this writing!

During the war, Chong opened a second restaurant– a Hawaiian-style steakhouse. This was the House of P.Y. Chong, located near to what was at the time a military base. At one time war rationing became so severe that Chong apparently bought several calves and grazed them behind the steakhouse, until the health department forced him to move them elsewhere. The end of the war, however, led to a decline in customers for both restaurants, leading Chong to cash out. Regrettably, later in life it appears he was swindled and lost most of his money, before passing away in 1959. The restaurant industry’s stories, as we have seen before in this column, don’t always have happy endings.

File:Dish, about 1929, from the Lau Yee Chai restaurant in Waikiki, Hawaii - National Museum of American History - DSC06255.JPG
An authentic plate from Lau Yee Chai, circa 1929, from the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Sourced from Wikimedia commons.

Let’s Eat!

1945 is before a lot of the Chinese-American menu items we expect today really got on the map. This is just as fortune cookies and egg rolls are taking off– you won’t find either on this menu. We were still 30 years out from Szechuan and Hunan-inspired flavors, so no Kung Pao, mapo tofu, or General Tso’s. In 1945 Chinese food in America meant Cantonese food. You’ll see a lot of things you recognize, and probably a few you won’t.

$1 in 1945=$15.37 in 2021.

This is a fairly pricey place to eat by that standard, but more or less on-pace for Hawaii, which is a fairly expensive place to eat even for the locals. Lots of old classics here like egg foo yung, cha siu, broccoli beef, and fried rice. But also things you don’t really see on Chinese-American menus anymore, like frog’s legs. The Olive Nuts referred to are actual olive kernels, which I didn’t even know were edible until I started researching this. Wonder if they’re any good. “Si-Yau sauce” is just soy sauce in which the meat is braised!

Let’s eat more!

The front cover of the House of P. Y. Chong menu. The affected pidgin returns. Menu images sourced from reddit user /u/Urban-Archaeologist

I initially mistook the USSR flag there for a PRC flag and thought placing it and the RoC flag side-by-side was a nice sentiment about peace and unity during the Chinese Civil War– and maybe it still is to have the American and British flags alongside the Soviet one. Of course the PRC flag we know today didn’t even exist until 1949. At that time the People’s Liberation Army used a flag that had both the yellow star and a hammer and sickle on it. Both the exterior and interior menu make it clear that the House did not have a liquor license and did not allow customers to bring your own booze– which is how you know it was mostly feeding soldiers who were off base. Other copies of this menu have a back cover showing a rare image of Mr. Chong in western attire, encouraging diners to buy war bonds.

The rear cover of the menu– unfortunately the highest quality of it currently available. Image sourced from Worthpoint.
Wonder what that stain was…

The House offered a mix of Chinese and American fare, and looking at those prices you can tell his clientele were people who had a couple months of paychecks they hadn’t had a chance to spend. The “OPA ceilings” the menu refers to were federal price controls implemented during the war by the Office of Price Administration. That was dissolved in 1947, and boy, don’t you miss it?

I’d like to close this article out by expressing my solidarity with the Hawaiian people and their ongoing struggle for greater autonomy and the sovereignty that was always theirs by right. Hawaii is a beautiful, wonderful place… but it is theirs, not ours, and the rest of the world should not treat it as their personal resort.

If you liked this article and want to see more Old Menu content, please subscribe to my partner Lovely Bones on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/lilytina

Thank you also to Avocado user Pachylad, with whom I consulted on issues of sensitivity in my discussion of anti-Chinese racism and how P. Y. Chong interacted with it, and whether to display the two examples of Chong code-switching to play to white expectations.