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Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:28 am

With 772 you get eggroll

The immigration issue in Springfield in the 1980s


As part of Illinois Times’ 40th anniversary observances, we will revisit in light of more recent events columns from James Krohe Jr.’s Prejudices series that ran from 1977 to 1994. Minor errors have been corrected and the pieces edited for length. The original, much longer essay can be read in its entirety on Krohe’s blog, Second Thoughts, at illinoistimes.com.

In this column, which appeared in our paper on Sept. 3, 1981, I explored the immigrant question as it was then understood in the capital city. Looking back, I was mistaken in assuming that today we would be arguing the Buddhist question the way Illinois used to argue the Catholic question. We are not exactly arguing the Muslim question – some of us are just shouting about it – but Islam is the question of the day.

Oh yeah – I’m pretty sure I took that girl to Taft’s before the dance, not after. Sorry, Georgialyn.

Which came first? The sweet and sour chicken or the egg roll? Springfield now boasts no fewer than nine Chinese restaurants. Those restaurants, like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, prompt certain speculations about the evolution of local populations. Did Springfieldians not eat Chinese 10 years ago because there were no Chinese restaurants? Or were there no Chinese restaurants because Springfieldians did not eat Chinese? Or (most likely of all) was it because there were no Chinese?

According to the U.S. Census, there were 772 Asians of various nationalities living in Springfield in 1980. The city’s Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese thus compose only 0.6 percent of its population, which makes them collectively an even smaller minority than aggregate-demand Republicans. But the Asian presence in the city is out of proportion to their numbers, in part because of their color, in part because of their costume, and in part because it sometimes seems that every single one of them cooks.

It is true that restaurants have long served as high-water marks by which one can chart the ebb and flow of ethnic subcultures in U.S. cities. I assume there were scone shops in colonial New England; the Chinese aren’t the first new arrivals who learned that the most mundane native skills acquire a profitably exotic appeal in this country. For those whose ambition is thwarted by handicaps of language or education, the skillet is as good as a college degree. Thus the fact that Stevie’s Latin Village in Springfield now houses the China Inn is a socioeconomic datum of considerable significance. So is the opening of the House of Hunan in a defunct Burger Chef, and the conversion of Taft’s (a hamburger joint on the east side where I took my first-ever date after a dance) into Chishing and Pam Ming King’s Hong Kong Garden.

How, then, does one explain the fact that although roughly half the Asians living in Springfield are Indian, there is not a single Indian restaurant in the capital? One must remember that restaurant-keeping among Asians is not, like black hair, a genetic predisposition. It is circumstance, not chromosomes, that put so many Chinese in the kitchen in Springfield, and it is circumstance that has kept Indians out of it. The Indians are the WASPs of the local Asian community. Because it remains one of India’s two official languages, immigrant Indians usually speak English. They are schooled in democracy, and, like early Americans, were molded in part by the British colonial experience. They are well-educated and ambitious, and arrive here not as refugees but as physicians, engineers and teachers. It took the Italians of Springfield three generations to make it from the ethnic enclaves on the north side to the affluent subdivisions of the west side; it took the Indians only as long as the drive from the airport. ...

As noted, the Indians have already risen, economically speaking. But their social progress may be stickier. Springfield is a small Midwestern town, after all, even if it does have nine Chinese restaurants. If it took the Illini Country Club 75 years to admit a Jew, for example, how long will it be before it admits a Hindu? There is always the chance that Indians may choose to organize their own counter-country club, much as local Jews did in 1956 when they founded the Lake Shore Club. ... I confess I look forward to that night when the first Asian-American is crowned queen of the Beaux Arts Ball. She will doubtless bear a name like Traci Ting, and she will march from the podium to the rhythm of old-line members beating their gray heads against the walls out in the lobby. There may even come a day when the girls of the Junior League get together to swap curry recipes. Brave new world, indeed. ...

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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