The Chicago Chop Suey Building Mystery

A few years back my daughter and I were driving up the coast to San Francisco. Along the way, we found ourselves on the streets of Guadalupe Ca, a small town about a hundred and fifty miles from Los Angeles. Driving around town we came upon this sweet little oddity of a place, the Chicago Chop Suey building. I loved it in an instant and we pulled over so I could shoot this picture. And then because I am who I am I tried to find out more about the place from the neighbors but…nothing. So this picture languished, having no purpose to call it to life but too sweet to delete.

We all make pictures like this, pictures made for no particular purpose except they call to you and you respond. In an Instagram world, the easy answer is to post it and move on but I am looking for something more. Not more from the picture but from myself. I think part of being a photographer is to think about the pictures you make, not just to make them. So I am.

It occurs to me this picture calls me because I am from Chicago. And it calls to me because Chop Suey was the Chinese food of my youth. And the thirties lettering style and the older architecture feed my nostalgia while the closed door and drawn shades speak of mystery. The signs on the windows say “Please do not lean your bicycles on the building. Thank you”, the one on the fence says “Please do not lean your bicycles on the fence. Thank you”……but why? Was there an epidemic of bicyclists in this part of town piling their bicycles everywhere without regard? Did something already happen that the owner wants to prevent from happening again? The fire hydrant, a Jones, by the way, sits inches above the curb……why was it too much trouble to install it flush with the cement?

I can go on…but enough, I get it. Like every picture, with careful study, this picture reveals details I never see in real life. One of the beauties of a photograph is that the more you look at it the more it reveals. And sometimes that opens up more questions than it answers…so be it.

Before posting this picture I decided to explore the web a little and see what I could find. Of Guadalupe, Wikipedia told me that “Some of the small-town businesses including El Tapatio, and Guadalupe Restaurant serve traditional Mexican food. For a quick bite you can get pizza at Two Guys Pizza, a burger at King Falafel and Charlie’s Place, Chinese Food at Panda Sticks, or tacos and burritos at Romo’s Market. There is a hardware store called The Guadalupe Hardware Company, Napa Auto Parts, two tire shops, an auto body shop, and three auto mechanic shops in town. Etc, etc,”………..nothing!

A picture on Google search showed me the restaurant had been there unchanged since 2006 but just looking at the building had already told me that. A search for Chicago Chop Suey, Guadalupe, CA revealed “According to a map showing the locations of Japanese American-owned businesses in 1940, this was originally New York Chop Suey. The building was constructed in 1926.” and that led me to a map entitled Guadalupe Japanese American Businesses 1940. It shows a thriving community of Japanese businesses. Where had they all gone? And then I connected that with what I had read on the Wikipedia page; that the current population of the town was 86 percent Latin American and that there were very few Asians.

I’ll spare you all the twists and turns that followed. The Japanese of Guadalupe were removed in 1942 and settled in internment camps. After the war, it seems few came back. So a casual photograph of a little building teaches me about a place where history happened. It reminds me of the buildings I saw in Stawiski Poland and the story it opened up for me there Next time I’m headed up that way I’ll go back to Guadalupe and see what else there is to see.

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