Most people called him Chopstick Charley, or just Charley, even though his name in America was John.
The confusion is understandable: after all, John Cheung founded Chopstick Charley’s restaurant in Jacksonville in the early 1950s – when Chinese food was still downright exotic in the city – and he ran it with his family until the middle The company continued under different owners until recently, when the company finally closed its doors.
On busy Philips Highway, Chopstick Charley’s seemed like a throwback to a bygone era, an oddity, with its name spelled in vaguely Chinese letters in a building that looked straight out of the 1950s and never tried to look like anything except that.
Located about halfway between Emerson Street and University Boulevard, the restaurant shared land with an automobile parking lot, first called the Palace Motel, one of several motels that existed there when Philips, US 1, was still the main north-south route before the revolution. the highway has arrived.
Chopstick Charley was born Ming Cheung in Guangzhou, then known as Canton, in southern China. He told his daughter that he grew up on the water, lived on a houseboat, and when he was old enough, he and his brother found employment on a merchant ship. This brought them to Seattle. From there he went to New York, leaving his brother there, and went to Florida.
Mai Choo, 59, is his daughter. She lives in Jacksonville and is retired from AT&T where she was a programmer.
When she was little, she spent many hours at restaurants with her siblings, but her father wanted his children to have a life different from his.
“He always said it was very hard work. He wanted us all to go to school, get a degree, go to college and get good jobs,” Choo said. “I just think about his upbringing and how difficult it was in China, which made him leave and come here to have a better life, and knowing his struggles, he wanted his children to be more successful than him. “
Her father met her mother while visiting a restaurant where a friend worked. Cloteen McCoy, called Clo, was a waitress there. They got along great, and there was no problem that he was maybe a little under 5 feet tall and she was 6 feet 1 inch tall, or that he was born in China and she was part of the famous McCoy clan of the Kentucky hills.
“My grandmother and aunt all accepted my father and loved him,” Choo said. In fact, her grandmother often looked after the family’s children and her aunt Josephine, or Jo, was a waitress at Chopstick Charley’s for years.
“He was very hardworking, dedicated, a family man,” Choo said. “He was at the restaurant 24/7, but he still found time for his kids. He loved his customers, knew them on a first name basis. He was just a happy-go-lucky guy.
His father taught his mother how to cook Chinese food, and once he did, he would often go out front and chat with the customers – regulars, visitors and even celebrities. “Everyone who came to town to do a show ate at my dad’s restaurant,” Choo said.
The first Chinese restaurant in Jacksonville?
Remember that Chinese food back then was exotic and Jacksonville wasn’t exactly overflowing with Chinese restaurants. In fact, Choo believes, and has often been said, that Chopstick Charley’s was the oldest establishment of its type in the city.
So for many Jaxons, Chopstick Charley’s was the place where they first tried such adventurous dishes as pepper steak, chicken chow mein, wonton soup or spring rolls.
“And everyone loved their mandarin duck,” Choo said. “I remember it because it was a special order. It took two days to marinate and prepare it.”
His favorite dish? It was his father’s yaka mein: “Noodles and vegetables, bok choy and shrimp or roast pork or chicken.” Simple. Whatever you wanted to put there.
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Chopstick Charley is “a family affair”
She remembers her father ordering lobsters from friends in New York, and she and her little brother riding with him in a huge station wagon to pick up the creatures from the airport cargo area. “That was my fun part,” she said.
She and her siblings would go to a restaurant after school, then play, indulge and dine there before their grandmother took them to the family home a mile away. Her grandmother, Ora McCoy, watched over them until their parents came home.
“It was just a family affair. It was always fun for us to go there,” Choo said.
His father died 27 years ago and his mother 17 years ago.
Choo remembers such affection for their children: their sons Garry and Larry, both deceased; May, the third born; Tommy and his daughter Patricia. The Cheungs adopted Patricia when she was a baby after her mother, Clo’s sister Jo, died of cancer.
The Cheungs were active parents: They took their children to Disney World in 1971, the first year it opened, and made numerous trips back and forth. They loved traveling with their children and took them to places like New York and Miami.
“Even though they worked hard, they never neglected their children,” Choo said.
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She believes her parents have the legacy of introducing Chinese cuisine to the city about 70 years ago. And it was, she said, very good Chinese food.
“Honestly, I think about how much I miss them and their food,” Choo said. “It’s a sad disappointment to walk into a Chinese restaurant. The food may be good, but it’s not my mom and dad’s food.”
This article originally appeared on the Florida Times-Union: Iconic Chopstick Charley’s was Jacksonville’s first Chinese restaurant.