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Fusion cuisine traced back to assimilating immigrants

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Sam Choi's Kingman Cafe served American and Chinese food from 1912 to 1945. [Oklahoma Historical Society]
Sam Choi's Kingman Cafe served American and Chinese food from 1912 to 1945. [Oklahoma Historical Society]

Chigama Asian Mexican Fusion opened late last year, serving a menu inspired by cuisines South of the Border and the Far East.

The restaurant has ties to the city’s Chinese and Japanese dining roots, including Steven Ha (Dot Wo) and chef Jeffrey Kwohwong (Sushi Neko), and its success could shed light on the future of local dining.

Their inventive new concept got me thinking about the city’s ethnic restaurant pioneers and how they accidentally invented fusion in an attempt to assimilate and commune with their new neighbors.

The first name in local Mexican restaurant lore is Luis Alvarado, founder of El Charrito. Alvarado wasn’t the first Hispanic immigrant to sell the food of his culture, or some variation on it, in the Sooner State, but he did it longer and louder than his contemporaries.

Of course, Asian cuisine is broad. The first to be sold on this patch of prairie was Chinese, usually mixed in with Anglo fare, at places with names like Wing Shing, Joy Boy, Imperial and Kingman cafés.

Few purveyor names endured through history, in part because of the common the use of aliases. One name that did endure is Sam Choi, whose time here was short but memorable thanks to a prescient marketing acuity and audacity for days.

Assimilation and underground

Oklahoma City’s first Asian restaurateurs came to town shortly after the first transcontinental railroad was completed. A few hundred arrived in the Oklahoma Territory, where they most commonly opened laundries and cafes. Thanks to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, no amount of hard work could help them from being treated as third-class citizens.

Early cafes served coffee with cream, regular meals and chop suey for a quarter and short orders offered day and night. They were regularly raided on suspicion of dealing in “illicit wet goods.” Police routinely confiscated beer and whiskey from places “serving in American and Mandarinic style.”

This was the setting Sam Choi found once he arrived in 1912, and it wasn’t long before he began making headlines of his own as owner of The Kingman Café. He was quick with a quote about selling war bonds for what would escalate into World War I or explaining, in his broken English, the problems all-night cafes faced.

Choi was operating on today's social media principles at a time when broadcast radio was in its infancy. What's true of today's social media, was true of operating print media then: it cut both ways.

Sam's days as a media darling were numbered after a Jan. 10, 1918, headline that read: “Sam Choi Will Go 10,000 Miles for His Chinese Bride”

The tongue-in-cheek column that followed was about Sam's imminent plans to sail home to China for an arranged marriage. The day before the story ran, Choi bundled a letter of recommendation from LeRoy M. Gibbs, Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, in the packet of paperwork turned in for a new passport.

Unfortunately, the process revealed Sam Choi's true identity was Sheung Wah and that he’d used a “clever forgery” to gain his initial passport. Before too many more questions arose, Sam gathered up the $30,000 he’d saved and fled. Choi never returned, though he might've visited because he did maintain a stake in The Kingman Café until it closed in 1945.

The rest of the story

In the years after Choi fled Oklahoma City, the local Chinese population went underground. Much of the Chinese population lived in a single apartment complex at the intersection of Robinson Street and what is now Sheridan Avenue. Once occupancy filled, the immigrants hastily built a hive of rooms lit by lanterns and candles in the basement in what would be called “China Street.”

In 1943, the Exclusion Act was repealed by Congress, and by 1948 witnesses say the Chinese underground was abandoned, leaving behind torn signage emblazoned with Chinese scripts, and tattered and abandoned equipment.

The legend of the Chinese underground grew into a myth by the time urban renewal crews began tearing into the downtown landscape in the spring of 1969, unearthing what had been left behind by Oklahoma City’s first Chinese residents.

While Oklahoma City’s Chinese community was digging itself out of the shadows, Sam Choi had his own ups and downs.

He used his U.S. fortune to build a two-story home called The Red Mansion in Hong Kong, but civil war broke out in China. A cannonball through his roof was enough to convince Choi to pack up the family and return to the U.S. where he found a permanent home in Seattle.

Choi and the bride he returned home for would raise 11 children together, first under the Choi name but eventually using the surname Eng.

Sam’s youngest child, Roger Eng grew up to first be a chemist then a dentist before turning to local politics. Roger was elected mayor of Los Altos, California, in 1980 and used his position to reach out to officials in Oklahoma City in 1984 to set up a visit. He said in a story in The Oklahoman, the trip was an attempt to account for about two decades of missing family history his father rarely spoke about before his death.

Asian District and beyond

Between the time Sam Choi left town and his son returned to recover the family history, Chinese restaurants had steadily grown into fixtures at places like The Golden Pheasant, Hoe Sai Gai, Chow's and August Moon.

Up and coming was a quiet little place on the northeast corner of Classen Boulevard called Grand House, a tiny dining room known for its dim sum. Today it sits across the street in an old The Village Inn converted into a spectacular Asian bistro still known for dim sum but also for authentic Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, sushi, live jazz and huge wedding parties.

Korean immigrants have built a community in Del City, most of which have dined regularly at Korean House for the past three decades.

But the biggest change to local Asian dining was triggered by the fall of Saigon. If you’ve lived in the 405 any time at all, you know local churches offered refugees safety and shelter, which ultimately led to work.

It’s impossible to believe Oklahoma City’s dining culture would be as vibrant as it is without the Asian District residing on and around the stretch of Classen between NW 36th and 23rd streets.

Today, the influence of the Asian District reaches Edmond to Norman and Shawnee to Yukon. And while Sam Choi/Sheung Wah/Sam Eng isn’t personally responsible for it, I still choose to raise a Lycheetini in his honor now that I can find Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai cuisine across the metro.

Related Photos
<strong>Guests gather at the bar inside Chigama Asian Mexican Grill in Oklahoma City. [Dave Cathey/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Guests gather at the bar inside Chigama Asian Mexican Grill in Oklahoma City. [Dave Cathey/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-714649ad5bc183f8c7d268a824a43909.jpg" alt="Photo - Guests gather at the bar inside Chigama Asian Mexican Grill in Oklahoma City. [Dave Cathey/The Oklahoman] " title=" Guests gather at the bar inside Chigama Asian Mexican Grill in Oklahoma City. [Dave Cathey/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Guests gather at the bar inside Chigama Asian Mexican Grill in Oklahoma City. [Dave Cathey/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-5bc4a9811fcb51edb80a71150c2ee331.jpg" alt="Photo - Grand House was known for dim sum even before it was an Asian bistro. [The Oklahoman Archives] " title=" Grand House was known for dim sum even before it was an Asian bistro. [The Oklahoman Archives] "><figcaption> Grand House was known for dim sum even before it was an Asian bistro. [The Oklahoman Archives] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-1e57f006b3cc76d1b96f526b066c9e29.jpg" alt="Photo - Max Chow was co-founder of Chow's Restaurant in Oklahoma City. [Oklahoman Archives] " title=" Max Chow was co-founder of Chow's Restaurant in Oklahoma City. [Oklahoman Archives] "><figcaption> Max Chow was co-founder of Chow's Restaurant in Oklahoma City. [Oklahoman Archives] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-b7c60f6d9ddda131f067f9a3c2e0e895.jpg" alt="Photo - Chow's Restaurant has operatated in Oklahoma City since the 1970s. [Oklahoman Archives] " title=" Chow's Restaurant has operatated in Oklahoma City since the 1970s. [Oklahoman Archives] "><figcaption> Chow's Restaurant has operatated in Oklahoma City since the 1970s. [Oklahoman Archives] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c4c7bc553bf214c25285d9366893a3c2.jpg" alt="Photo - Sam Choi's Kingman Cafe served American and Chinese food from 1912 to 1945. [Oklahoma Historical Society] " title=" Sam Choi's Kingman Cafe served American and Chinese food from 1912 to 1945. [Oklahoma Historical Society] "><figcaption> Sam Choi's Kingman Cafe served American and Chinese food from 1912 to 1945. [Oklahoma Historical Society] </figcaption></figure>
Dave Cathey

The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene. Read more ›

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