Historical notes on Chinese restaurants in Portland, Maine.

Author:Libby, Gary W.

According to the 2000 Census, Maine was the "whitest" state in the country. (1) While Portland, Maine's largest city is somewhat more multiethnic than Maine as a whole, it is not thought of as having had a historic Chinese community. However, Chinese people have called Portland home since 1858 and have owned restaurants there for 125 years. Since Portland has had a only small Chinese population, (2) its Chinese restaurants have had to cater to the taste of the general community by offering strictly "American" fare along with heavily Americanized Chinese food based loosely on the Cantonese cuisine familiar to the early Chinese immigrants who most frequently originated in or near the Toishan District of Kwangtung (Guangdong) Province in southeastern China.


Portland's early Chinese restaurants were often referred to by the non-Chinese community as "chop suey joints" after their most popular dish. (3) "Chop suey" can be loosely translated as "leftovers" or "hash" and usually consisted of a mix of stir-fried vegetables and meat in a brown sauce. Other American Chinese dishes served up in the early twentieth century included chow mein, fried rice, egg foo young, and egg rolls. Chow mein, that second staple of American Chinese restaurants, was a one-dish main course most often consisting of fried noodles with chopped chicken, mushrooms, and onions.

An October 8, 1884, newspaper article on the Portland Chinese community's celebration of the Moon Festival contained the earliest known local description of a Chinese food item, reporting that moon cakes were "made of rice and wheat flour, and filled with a mixture of watermelon seeds, almonds, walnuts, and a Chinese aromatic seed called gee ma, made into a thick paste with quince jelly." (4) This delicacy was consumed by Portland's Chinese community members and not served in Portland's earliest Chinese restaurant.

When Ar Tee Lam opened what is believed to be Maine's first Chinese restaurant at 1 Custom House Wharf in 1880, Portland's population of 33,810 included nine Chinese men. At that time Ar Tee Lam was twenty-five years old and single, although his census return indicated that he lived with a twenty-one-year-old white servant woman named Lizzie Barbarck. (5) When he registered to vote on November 28, 1891, he said that he had lived in Portland for thirty-three years, making his year of arrival approximately 1858. (6) He first appeared in the Portland directory as "R. T. Lamb," a cigar maker, in 1873. (7) From 1875 to 1879 he was listed at addresses on Federal Street where he was a tobacconist. He lived at the 1 Custom House Wharf premises while he ran his restaurant.

Nothing is known of the specific cuisine offered, which most likely consisted of the types of Americanized Chinese dishes described above, along with types of American food more familiar to the fishermen, longshoremen, sailors, and warehouse laborers of Portland's waterfront. Similarly, nothing is known of the restaurant's staff, which likely consisted of Mr. Lam and Ms. Barbarck and perhaps a few others. The restaurant's name is not known. All references to it in the Portland City directories merely used Mr. Lam's name.

When Mr. Lam opened his restaurant, the Portland directory listed 39 "eating houses" and "oyster and lunch rooms" including a lunch room operated by Joseph E. Conway in the Island Steamers ferry house a few doors away at 5 Custom House Wharf. Among Mr. Lam's other neighbors on Custom House Wharf were a billiard saloon, a sailmaker, four fish dealers, a truckman, and a combination tea store and meat market. (8) Mr. Lam's restaurant closed in about 1893.

About a decade later, Charlie Sing opened Portland's second Chinese restaurant, the Oriental, located on the second floor at 23 Free Street just around the corner from Monument Square, the heart of downtown Portland. (9) Like Mr. Lam's restaurant, nothing is known of the cuisine served by the Oriental although it too probably served typically New England-style food along with heavily Americanized Chinese dishes. Mr. Sing and his employee lived in a room on the third floor.

That block of Free Street was an eclectic place. The Ancient Order of Hibernians meeting rooms were at number 10 and the Socialist Party's headquarters were at number 14. Quong Chong's laundry was at number 29. Also on that block were a furrier, two furniture stores, a hardware store, three artists, four tailors, a print shop, two plumbers, the James Bailey Company, which manufactured carriages and automobiles, the James Bailey Company's saddlery, a carpet dealer, a harness maker, a wholesale druggist, a hairdresser, a machinist, a non-Chinese laundry, a grocer, an upholsterer, and thirteen residential units. (10)

Mr. Sing's restaurant, which was popular with soldiers and sailors stationed at the various forts around Portland harbor, generated significant controversy; the presence of that many servicemen attracted Portland's lewd women and encouraged the restaurant's reputation as a place for rowdy behavior. On August 31, 1903, Mr. Sing asked two soldiers (one who had been a frequent customer) to leave because they were making too much noise and causing a disturbance. The soldiers returned, one holding a revolver and the other carrying a brick that he threw through the door glass, fragments of which struck Mr. Sing in the face. He received approximately a dozen stitches from Dr. Leighton, the police surgeon. A crowd of probably two hundred gathered outside. More than two-thirds of them were soldiers, sailors, and their lady friends who "seemed to feel deeply hurt that they were not to be permitted to patronize this place last evening as usual." (11)

A few days later the Portland municipal officials, who were said to have personally observed the place, directed the police department to close the restaurant. The newspaper report observed that the proprietor had run the place with the best of intentions but did not have the physical ability to enforce propriety and that the place had "been used for purposes that even the most hardened rounder would balk at" with the "result there has been nothing that the frequenters of the place would stop at." (12)

Mr. Sing hired an attorney and challenged the closure. The restaurant reopened with its hours restricted to an 8:00 p.m. closing time pending a license revocation hearing before the Board of Aldermen. The hearing stretched over three separate weekly meetings. The city solicitor opened by relying on a provision of the victualer's license ordinance that allowed revocation based on "reveling or riotous conduct or drunkenness and excess therein." (13) The Portland police officer assigned to the daytime Free Street beat testified that he often saw drunken soldiers, other citizens, and "bums" there, especially on Sundays. He also testified that he never saw any disturbances there during the day and that he had never seen any liquor sold or given away at that restaurant. The officer testified that, although he did not know of any lewd women being kept by Mr. Sing, Mr. Sing's room on the third floor had two beds set up for use by himself and his employee and two mattresses on the floor.

An Alderman objected to Mr. Sing's lawyer's attempt to demonstrate that the soldiers bought their liquor elsewhere and brought it to Sing's. The lawyer said that he wanted to show there were many other places where liquor was openly and illegally sold and that the effects of their lawbreaking were being blamed on Mr. Sing. (14) The officer said that people went up to Mr. Sing's drunk and disorderly, did whatever they pleased with Mr. Sing, and smashed things up. Later testimony showed that when Mr. Sing attempted to keep order, his patrons put him in the back room and kept him there.

A neighbor woman complained that there was often a crowd around the restaurant's street-level door in such number and using such foul language that decent people did not pass up or down the street, particularly on Saturday nights. She also complained about soldiers and very young girls going into the restaurant at night. The police officer who had the night beat testified that he generally found drunken soldiers, common street walkers, and other dissolute characters there. That officer said that one evening he went in and found Mr. Sing, who appeared to be dead, lying on his back on the floor with his head cut and bleeding. That officer responded to a question by Mr. Sing's lawyer by agreeing that since the restaurant had been closing early, you would not know it was the same neighborhood.

At the second week's hearing, a police officer testified that he was at the restaurant in plain clothes every other Saturday night to keep order and that he frequently ejected people who were drinking or troublesome. That officer described Mr. Sing's restaurant as the worst place on his beat, but he attributed most of the trouble to the crowd's desire "to have fun with the Chinaman." (15) He expressed his opinion that if there was someone who could stay in the place every night, there would be little trouble. Another officer testified that the beat officers made more complaints about that restaurant than any other. When asked why the police made no arrests at the restaurant, he answered by claiming that the way to correct complaints about people congregating there late at night making excessive noise was to drive the people outside and close the place rather than to arrest them.

The final night's hearing took place on November l, 1903. Mr. Sing's lawyer explained that Mr. Sing did not testify because he could not speak English. His lawyer then pointed to a fight that had taken place at a Free Street billiard hall and argued that it deserved to be closed just as much as Mr. Sing's restaurant. The lawyer argued that the city's license revocation was persecution of Mr. Sing based on his race. One Alderman, Mr. McDonald, agreed, stating his opinion...

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