Volume 20 Issue 19 | September 21 - 27, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Historic shots of Lonnie’s Coffee Shoppe on Mott St., top, owned by Lon (Lonnie) Ying Lee, left. Her daughter, Pat Kuramoto, top right, was working the counter in 1958. Above (L-R): Ivan Chan, co-owner of U-Choose noodle shop; June Lee, Lonnie’s sister in law; Jan Lee, Lonnie’s nephew; and Peter Wong, co-owner of U-Choose, which has restored the Lonnie’s sign and is about to open at the same 21 Mott St. location.

Preserving Chinatown’s doo-wop era

By Skye H. McFarlane

It was a family-run soda shop, with burgers on the grill and cherry lime rickeys served to diners on swiveling counter-side stools. The local teenagers met up there after school and the boys sang doo-wop in the hall. In the back, one of the owners kept a workbench, where he tinkered with a wood lathe and old copies of Popular Mechanics magazine.

The scene at Lonnie’s Coffee Shoppe in the late 1950s could have taken place in any small American town — except that “Lonnie” was Lon Ying Lee, and her customers were the Chinese and Italian kids from one of New York City’s oldest immigrant neighborhoods.

For more than two decades, Lonnie and her brother Shung ran Chinatown’s only all-American burger joint, but by the summer of 2007, the shop had faded to a fond but distant neighborhood memory. But when the new storeowners at 21 Mott St. went to attach their name above the door this August, the past came rushing back. There, preserved beneath the marquee for a Chinese tea parlor, was the long-hidden sign for Lonnie’s.

Jan Lee, the youngest of Shung Lee’s five children, has long held a passion for preserving Chinatown’s past. For Christmas last year, he used an old photograph of the Lonnie’s sign to create retro t-shirts and hats for his family. So when he saw that the original sign was intact, he knew it had to be preserved. He was prepared to donate it to a museum, along with old photographs and other artifacts that his family had collected throughout the years. But the new merchants at 21 Mott had an even better idea — to preserve the sign and photos right inside the new store.

“It’s good [luck] to keep it in the original space,” said Ivan Chan, one of the operators of the U-Choose Express noodle shop, which is set to open at 21 Mott St. by the end of the month. “The family can come by any time to see it.”

The honoring of the old sign was particularly touching to the Lee family since the U-Choose owners are “new” Chinese, from Hong Kong, part of the large, diverse group of newcomers to enter the U.S. after the loosening of immigration restrictions in 1965. They therefore do not share the Lees’ historic and ethnic connection to old Chinatown (the majority of pre-1965 Chinese families, including the Lees, trace their roots to the same deep-south area of China, called Toi Sahn or Taishan).

“These people are really in the money as far as tradition goes,” Geoff Lee, Jan’s brother, said of the U-Choose owners.

The tradition of Lee family businesses runs deep on Mott St. Geoff and Jan’s grandfather, Foon Sing Lee, was the first to emigrate to the U.S. He lived at 21 Mott and ran a laundry business at 19 Mott. June Lee, Shung’s wife, operated a small boutique at 21 Mott. Jan has carried on the tradition with his own store at 19 Mott — Sinotique, an art and antiques store.

A 1930 census of 21 Mott, which Jan found online, recalls a time when lower Mott St. — once part of the notorious Five Points Irish slum — was first becoming part of Chinatown. Crammed in alongside the Lees and an Ng family were apartment after apartment of Bozzos, Rebettis and other folks who listed “Italy” as their nation of origin. Old photos show Shung Lee and his friends, a mix of Italian and Chinese boys, playing stickball by the Manhattan Bridge.

In part because of his diverse friendships, Shung’s family often mixed non-Chinese cuisine into their home cooking. So, when Lonnie decided to open her own coffee shop, the family thought it might be fun to do something a little different. In 1956, Lonnie’s opened and quickly became a hang-out for the area’s American-born Chinese teenagers, as well as Italian kids from the Transfiguration Church and school down the street.

“We were too young, really, but we got in because we knew the owners and we got to play in the back,” said family friend Henry Chang of Lonnie’s early days. “A lot of kids grew up in this place.”

Chang recalls pestering the older kids, including a local teenage gang called The Continentals. Some of those memories informed his crime novel, “Chinatown Beat,” which was published last winter. Eventually Chang and Geoff Lee, friends since the second grade, became teenagers themselves. Geoff joined the long list of Lee family members who worked behind the counter at Lonnie’s. When his friends drove upstate for the Woodstock concert in 1969, a 17-year-old Geoff was forced to stay home to work his shifts at the coffee shop.

“That’s how it survived,” said June. “The whole family worked.”

Missing out on Woodstock aside, Geoff’s memories of Lonnie’s are overwhelmingly happy ones. And he is not alone. Jan Lee started up two blogs this summer, one about Lonnie’s and one about historic Chinatown, so that folks from the neighborhood could share their photographs and memories.

U-Choose’s sign.

Even though Lonnie’s closed in 1977 or ’78 (no one in the family can quite remember), the Lonnie’s blog has already attracted 15 commenters. The visitors have shared memories ranging from first hamburgers and cube-shaped ice cream cones — the result, June said, of a good pricing deal with the company that sold the pre-wrapped ice cream cubes — to dating and music.

“Wow, what a site, love it,” wrote Tony Chin on Aug. 30. “I often wondered why there couldn’t have been another ‘Lonnie’s’ in or around C’town, but things change, and so have I. I remember hanging outside with my mohair sweater on and just being there to watch the ‘parade’ on the weekends [of] all the new faces and the girls. Everyone knew to meet at Lonnie’s.”

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