Houston Hip-Hop and Chinese ChickenBreaking News
tags: African American history, Texas, immigration, urban history, Houston, Asian American History, hip hop
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On my now-husband’s first visit to Houston, my parents took him to see all the “sights.” Sights for us anyway: Chinatown, our favorite dumpling spot, the strip mall where I took ballet lessons. On one car ride, my mother casually mentioned that she had managed a couple restaurants with my grandparents. And after my grandparents had sold their restaurants in the 1980s, the restaurant had become a well-known quick service chain that served fried chicken and rice.
As a child, I’d heard all this before. But this time, she elaborated, telling us that she’d heard a “rap person” talk about my grandparents’ restaurant in one of their songs. That maybe it had been in a music video? My husband’s interest was piqued. All he had to do was a low-key Google search and was shocked to find an Urban Dictionary entry:
Timmy Chans is a chain of restaurant[s] in Houston, tha land of the playas and pimps. The restaurants are a good place to go when you are broke and don't have enough dough. They can be found throughout the great land of Houston and they have become an integral part of the city. The food is not the highest quality but it is the experience of going and getting mountains of rice and chicken at rock bottom prices.
Writer Shea Serrano put Timmy Chan’s famous chicken wing dinner in the Rap Food Reference Hall of Fame. And that “rap person” my mother was referring to was actually Bun B of the group UGK, one of the most well-known rappers from Houston. In the Paul Wall song “They Don’t Know,” we hear the lyrics, “Down here we got ghetto grub / Like Williams Chicken or Timmy Chan’s.”
Timmy Chan’s was a familiar name in our household, but only because it was the restaurant my grandparents started when they moved from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. Before its entrance into the Hall of Fame, Timmy Chan’s was a restaurant that served Chinese American staples like egg rolls or fried rice and where my mother and her family spent their days.
Like Houston itself, the story of Timmy Chan’s has become larger, intertwining itself with other cultures, urbanization, and hip-hop.
My mother’s parents, Larry and Lily Chu, or to me, Gong Gong and Po Po (the Cantonese terms for maternal grandfather and grandmother), knew a very different Houston. In reading through both of their autobiographies (which they wrote for their Southern Baptist church class) I learned what Timmy Chan’s used to be and of their common struggles.
Born in Canton, China, my gong gong arrived in the United States to reunite with his father in 1937. According to family lore, Gong Gong’s father, my great-grandfather, first came to the United States by way of a barrel on a boat. He arrived in New York where, true to the stereotype, he began a laundromat in Chinatown. The man remained an enigma; my mother recalls gambling in the back and a strong, stolid man. My gong gong must’ve inherited the swagger of his father, this man who floated the seas in a barrel to find his fortune, and to become a man whose funeral turned into a public parade in New York City’s Chinatown.
When Gong Gong Larry arrived in the U.S. for the first time, he was immediately detained in a detention camp in Boston for six months. In his autobiography, he recalls, “I was a young man then, and it was the first time for me to experience discrimination. I resented the way I was being treated.” He “saw no future for me in the United States” so he returned to China but came back in 1946, this time landing in New York where he met my grandmother — where else but working in a restaurant.
In 1949, they married and in a story straight out of a Western, or maybe just a soap opera, my grandfather met “the real estate man from Texas.” Gong Gong and Po Po and a few other friends decided to move to Houston and invest in a restaurant. At the last minute, one of their friends, a professor named Fook Tim “Timmy” Chan, pulled out to return to New York. But my grandparents forged ahead.
Upon arriving in Houston in the 1950s, they opened their first restaurant, naming it after their friend, Timmy Chan. They recall moving to Houston and struggling for years as business was slow. As my grandfather wrote, “With the building of the space center and the development of the oil industries, Houston had became a very active city, hence, our business gradually improved,” and they opened several other locations.
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