Historic shots of Lonnies 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, Lonnies sister in law; Jan Lee, Lonnies nephew; and Peter Wong, co-owner of U-Choose, which has restored the Lonnies sign and is about to open at the same 21 Mott St. location.
Preserving Chinatowns 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 Lonnies 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 Citys oldest immigrant neighborhoods.
For more than two decades, Lonnie and her brother Shung ran Chinatowns 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 Lonnies.
Jan Lee, the youngest of Shung Lees five children, has long held a passion for preserving Chinatowns past. For Christmas last year, he used an old photograph of the Lonnies 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.
Its 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, Jans brother, said of the U-Choose owners.
The tradition of Lee family businesses runs deep on Mott St. Geoff and Jans 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, Shungs 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, Shungs 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, Lonnies opened and quickly became a hang-out for the areas 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 Lonnies 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 Lonnies. 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.
Thats how it survived, said June. The whole family worked.
Missing out on Woodstock aside, Geoffs memories of Lonnies are overwhelmingly happy ones. And he is not alone. Jan Lee started up two blogs this summer, one about Lonnies and one about historic Chinatown, so that folks from the neighborhood could share their photographs and memories.