Living in Philadelphia nearly my entire life, I’ve been to just about every cheesesteak dive in the city. That’s why I found it so surprising that I only recently heard of a popular cheesesteak place in Wissinoming, a Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood minutes from my own.
From the outside, the shop is modest, sandwiched in between several other businesses on an obscure street, clad in a uniform of tan on Torresdale Avenue, north of Harbison. Stepping inside is like going back to the 1950s: vintage wooden booths, fountain soda and authentic steaks without the bright lights or pretentious tourist bait of Geno’s, Pat’s or Jim’s in South Philly. You’re sure to be greeted with hospitality that can only be found in such a homey neighborhood eatery.
This is Chink’s Steaks, a restaurant with a reputation of great food and an infamously controversial name. Samuel Sherman founded the restaurant in 1949 and bequeathed upon it his nickname, one earned by his Asian-like facial features. Current owner Joseph Groh bought Chink’s from Sherman in 1999 and refuses to change the name for the sake of tradition, despite complaints from the Asian-American community.
“Chink,” a bastardization of the term Chinese and a derogatory racial epithet for anyone of East Asian descent, is undoubtedly offensive. In 2004, Asian American groups began protesting in an attempt to get Groh to change the name of the eatery, citing the term’s hateful nature. The campaign’s popularity eventually died down and ended unsuccessfully.
Being Chinese-American, a racial minority in my city, state and country, social justice has always been an important issue to me. I believe that simply dismissing Chink’s Steaks as a harmless name would only further tag Asian Americans with the model minority stereotype, setting us years backwards in the fight for social equality. While I agree that the restaurant’s name is insensitive, though, it isn’t necessarily unjust. Being Chinese, I am self-assured that no trivial, invented insult can degrade me to the point where I am no longer proud of whom I am.
After a lifetime of enduring prejudice that any minority would experience growing up, I’ve learned that some types of racism cannot be irreconcilably imposed. Only you can allow yourself to be a victim of internalized, social forms of racism. And the fight for justice does not always equate with political correctness.
It’s hard to admit that while many people within my community strive for institutional and systemic social change, the primary culprits of casually throwing around the slur “chink” are my own Asian-American peers, a phenomenon mirrored in other U.S. minority communities.
It would be a shame for Chink’s Steaks to gain notoriety as an establishment based on hate and racism rather than enjoy the reputation it deserves as a long-standing and honest local business.
Doanh Nghiem can be reached at email@example.com.