Most people called him Chopstick Charley, or just plain Charley, although the name he’d taken for himself in America was John.
The confusion is understandable: John Cheung, after all, 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 mid-1970s. It continued under different ownership until recently when the business finally shut down.
Out on busy Philips Highway, Chopstick Charley's looked like a throwback to a long-ago time, an oddity, with that name spelled out in vaguely Chinese-looking letters in a building that looked straight out of the ‘50s and never tried to look like anything but that.
Located about halfway between Emerson Street and University Boulevard, the restaurant shared grounds with a motor court, first called the Palace Motel, one of a number of motels that were there when Philips, U.S. 1, was still the main north-south road before the interstate came.
Chopstick Charley was born Ming Cheung in Guangzhou, then widely known as Canton, in southern China. He told his daughter he grew up on the water, living on a houseboat, and when he got old enough, he and a brother got jobs on a merchant ship. That took them to Seattle. From there, he made his way to New York, leaving his brother there, and went on 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 a girl, she spent many hours at the restaurant with her siblings, but her father wanted his children to have a different life than his.
"He always said it’s very hard work. He wanted us all to go to school, graduate, go to college, and get good jobs," Choo said. "I just think his upbringing, and how hard it was in China, which made him leave and come here to get a better life, and knowing his hardships — he wanted to have his children do better than him.“
Her father met her mother when he was visiting a restaurant where a friend worked. Cloteen McCoy, called Clo, was a waitress there. They hit it off, and there was no problem that he was perhaps a bit under 5 feet tall and that she was 6-foot-1, or that he was born in China and she was one of the famous McCoy clan from the hills of Kentucky.
"My grandmother and my aunt all accepted my father and loved him," Choo said. In fact, her grandmother often took care of the family's children, and her aunt Josephine, or Jo, was a waitress at Chopstick Charley's for years.
“He was very hard-working, devoted, a family man," Choo said. "He was 24-7 in the restaurant, but he still found time for his kids. He loved his customers, knew them by their first name. He was just a happy-go-lucky guy.”
Her father taught her mother how to cook Chinese food, and once he did that, he would often go out front and chat with the customers — regulars, visitors, even celebrities. “Anybody who came to town to do a show ate at my dad’s restaurant," Choo said.
Jacksonville's first Chinese restaurant?
Remember, back then Chinese food was exotic, and Jacksonville wasn't exactly chock-full of Chinese restaurants. In fact, Choo believes, and has often been told, that Chopstick Charley's was the city's oldest such place.
So for many Jaxons, Chopstick Charley's was where they first tried such adventurous food as pepper steak, chicken chow mein, wonton soup or eggrolls.
"And everybody loved his Mandarin duck," Choo said. "I remember that one because it was a special order. It took two days for him to marinate it and prepare it."
Her favorite dish? That was her father's yaka mein: “Noodles and vegetables, bok choy and shrimp or roast pork or chicken. Simple. Whatever you wanted to put in it.”
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Chopstick Charley's 'a family affair'
She recalls her father would order lobsters from friends in New York and that she and her little brother would get in a huge station wagon with him to go pick up the creatures at the airport's cargo area. "That was my fun part," she said.
She and her siblings would go to the restaurant after school, then play and get spoiled and eat dinner there before their grandmother took them to the family home a mile away. Her grandmother, Ora McCoy, would watch them until their parents got home.
“It just was a family affair. It was always fun for us to go up there,” Choo said.
Her father died 27 years ago, and her mother died 17 years ago.
Choo remembers such affection for their children: their sons Garry and Larry, who have both passed away; Mai, the third-born; Tommy and 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 many return trips. They liked traveling with their children and took them to places like New York and Miami.
"As hard as they worked, the thing they never did was neglect their children," Choo said.
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She figures her parents have the legacy of introducing Chinese food to the city, some 70 years ago. And it was, she says, really good Chinese food.
"Honestly, I think about how much I miss them, and I miss their cooking," 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."
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Iconic Chopstick Charley's was Jacksonville's first Chinese restaurant