LAKEVIEW — For weeks, Jeannie Harrell passed by a restaurant sign emblazoned with what she felt was a racial slur.
"I would describe it as aggressively racist," Harrell said of Chop Chop Chinaman, 3343 N. Halsted St.
The Boystown restaurant — located in the building that housed Mark's Chop Suey for 38 years before it closed last year — features a logo with a figure wearing a pointed hat pulling a cart on its storefront sign and windows.
Larry Lee, who helped open the restaurant in February, said he felt the name was no more offensive than being called an Englishman or Irishman, especially in an area known for its colorful business names, among them Manhole and mEAT.
"That's how we were classified when we were building railroads in this country," said Lee, whose grandparents emigrated from China and who describes himself as "active" in the corporation that owns the restaurant. "It's no more offensive than [restaurant chain] Pink Taco would be to a feminist."
But on a walk home from work last month, Harrell decided to let the owners of Chop Chop Chinaman know how she felt about the name. She grabbed the only thing in her bag to write with — a tube of lipstick — and wrote a message on the window of Chop Chop Chinaman.
"F--- this hate crime s---," she wrote, with an arrow pointing to the logo. "It's 2015."
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Harrell, who is half-Japanese, snapped a photo to post later on Twitter and walked away, figuring that while the lipstick wasn't permanent, at least she'd expressed herself.
"I figured they knew what they were doing, and what they were going to get," Harrell said. "I don't know what they could possibly say about the sign that could change people's minds."
On Friday, police showed up at Harrell's door.
"I'm shaking in my pajamas, and [the officer] was like, 'Well, do you know about an incident of vandalism?' " Harrell told DNAinfo Chicago. "When I hear that, I was like, 'Oh my God, are you serious? That's what this is about?' "
Harrell, 26, was charged with misdemeanor criminal damage to property, Chicago Police said.
"The irony of [the owners] not being able to handle my message and calling the cops is not lost on me," Harrell said. "I own up to the fact that what I did was a misdemeanor — I did write on a business with lipstick — but that is as much as I own up to."
Lee said he never would have called the police if Harrell hadn't posted the photo on social media.
"You're defacing someone's property and you're proud of it?" Lee said. "I find it offensive she didn't take the time to think I could also be Euroasian like her."
While the word "Chinaman" can be used merely to refer to a person of Chinese descent, the word has a contentious history. Negative connotations arose in the late 1800s with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and subsequent discrimination against Asian workers. Most dictionaries now describe the word as derogatory, although it is not considered as severe a slur as others.
A 1998 episode of "Seinfeld" was later edited to omit a reference to opium as "the Chinaman's nightcap" when it was deemed racially insensitive. In 2001, the Chicago Sun-Times was criticized for using the term in two columns.
When Marie Yuen first heard of Chop Chop Chinaman in an online discussion on EveryBlock, though, it was the reminder of her personal history that stung.
"It was a visceral, gut reaction," said Yuen, an American-born Chinese woman who now lives in Bowmanville. "It was sort of like, 'Oh no, this is still going on.' People think this is a fun thing."
Yuen experienced "massive" bullying as a child in the 1970s, when neighborhood children physically attacked her and taunted her for her almond-shaped eyes and dark hair, she said.
Yuen, a writer, later penned a short story based on her experience, in which a fellow kindergartner yanked on her hair while chanting, "Ching chong Chinaman, chink chink chink."
"It was because I was different. So it definitely influenced a lot of who I am," Yuen said.
While Lee said he has had several calls complaining about the name — some from as far away as San Diego and Ohio — he said he wanted his food "to speak for itself."
As someone who grew up in Chicago around his family's restaurants, Lee said Lakeview was lacking great, traditional Cantonese and Szechwan food. His restaurant goes "back to the basics" with fresh, made-to-order food.
"It's very frustrating when you're trying to open a new business and you have to deal with these people," he said. "Let people think what they want. I don't infringe on anyone's way of living, so please respect my business and do the same."
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