Inquirer Editorial: Our palates are still discriminating

Workers remove the old sign from Chink's, now Joe's Steaks and Soda Shop.
Workers remove the old sign from Chink's, now Joe's Steaks and Soda Shop. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: April 04, 2013

Like its country, Philadelphia is proud but prone to racial strife, even when it comes to cuisine. Consider how persistently - and strangely - the city's signature dish, the sandwich, has become a source of ethnic tension.

There was the infamous demand that English be spoken at a cheesesteak shop run, somewhat ironically, by a man named Vento. There were the Vietnamese hoagies moving in on the Italian ones. (To paraphrase Rodney King, can we all get a long . . . roll?) And then there was Chink's.

Last week, owner Joe Groh announced that Chink's Steaks would become Joe's Steaks and Soda Shop. This seemed like a reasonable if overdue exercise in discretion. But the defenders of the old name persisted, reminding us that the long-running Northeast cheesesteak joint was not named after the racial slur against Asian Americans. It was named after the original owner, Chink Sherman.

Wait, his mother named him Chink? Well, no, his mother named him Samuel. But as his widow explained to the Daily News back in 2004 - after Asian American activists first began publicly objecting to the name - Sherman's childhood pals nicknamed him Chink because he had "slanty eyes."

In other words, the cheesesteak joint was named after the racial slur.

Of course, the connection between the epithet and the by-all-accounts-excellent sandwich shop was indirect and innocent enough. But the name required a certain heedlessness of the very existence of Asian Americans, or at least of their prospective sensitivity to such a term.

And once the sporadic controversy began nearly a decade ago, retaining the name could no longer be defended as a matter of mere obliviousness. Whether its defenders liked it or not, Chink's had become an affirmative statement in defiance of prevailing standards of tolerance.

Not that statements in that vein don't have a popular following. Prevailing standards are not universal standards. And Chink's had its backward-gazing defenders even as it was being consigned to history. Thousands signed a petition urging Groh to keep the name, and as the old sign was being taken down, one local cried of the owner, "He's giving in to political correctness!"

What's interesting, though, is that Groh was actually giving in to the marketplace. There were no would-be speech police gathered outside his shop with bullhorns and pickets and press releases last week; the organized protests had subsided years ago. Groh said he feared the name had hindered his past expansion efforts and would continue to harm the business. "I worry that . . . I wouldn't be able to succeed," he told The Inquirer.

When it comes to enforcing tolerance, there's no substitute for numbers. And in the end, Chink's fans weren't outmaneuvered. They were simply outnumbered.

comments powered by Disqus