Friday, October 15, 2021

A Chinese Restaurant in Mayberry?

The core of the story centered on Sheriff Andy Taylor, a widower, raising his son, Opie, assisted by his Aunt Bee, all in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina

The Andy Griffith Show, which aired from 1960-1968, with 249 episodes, is a beloved and iconic comedy series. It always did very well in the ratings and is commonly listed as one of the best TV series ever. It was considered a wholesome show, generally upholding strict moral values. As a child, I watched the series and I’m sure many of my contemporaries did the same. 

However, nowadays, the series receives some criticism as there was almost no diversity in the show. For example, there was only a single black actor, Rockne Tarkington, who had a speaking part on the show and he only appeared in a single episode, as Opie's football coach. A few other black actors and actresses appeared as non-speaking extras, although none of them were listed in the credits.

Thus, I was recently surprised to learn that one of the episodes centered on a Chinese restaurant in Mayberry! I didn’t remember that episode from my childhood, and wouldn’t have imagined such an episode existed. Fortunately, the episode, from 1967, presented a very positive image, which would have reached many households all across the country, helping to break erroneous preconceptions and prejudices against the Chinese. Such positive depictions are absolutely necessary, so let's take a deeper look at this fascinating episode.

The episode, “Aunt Bee’s Restaurant” (Season 7, Episode 21) aired on February 6, 1967. At that time, in the fictional town of Mayberry, there were a few restaurants, primarily diners, including the Mayberry Diner, Bluebird Diner, and Snappy Lunch. There was a more upscale spot, Morelli’s, which was located just outside of Mayberry. All of these restaurants provided basic American fare, and most were relatively inexpensive. 

As the episode began, Andy and his friend, Gomer Pyle, were discussing what they would eat for lunch when Aunt Bee arrived. She mentioned that she might stop by the Spare Ribs Tavern and bring some home for dinner. However, Gomer mentioned that the restaurant had closed the day before, as they couldn’t succeed. 

Aunt Bee commented that Mayberry wasn’t really a spare rib town, which is very curious as North Carolina is well known for its barbecue, including its ribs. Aunt Bee then finished, by stating,  “The restaurant business can be so treacherous.” This was intended to mean the restaurant business was very difficult, and didn't refer to any betrayal or deception. 

Next, Aunt Bee stopped by the Spare Ribs Tavern, to speak to the owner Henry. The signs in the restaurant were interesting, providing insight into their menu. One signs mentioned, “Complete Lunch” including items like beef stew, meat balls, roast beef, roast pork, chicken fried steak, ham & lima beans, and hamburger steak (all priced $1.25-$1.35). The lower part of another sign mentioned Cole Slaw and Homemade Soup. A prominent third sign promoted Barbecued Ribs, To Go, for 85 cents. A fourth sign mentioned hot dogs, pizza, French dips, and chile. Interestingly, the sign also mentioned beer for 25 cents, even though Mayberry was a dry town. 

The Spare Ribs Tavern probably served a menu similar to many of the other existing restaurants in Mayberry, except for possibly the barbecued ribs. So why wasn't it able to compete with the other local restaurants? The tavern had far more variety on their menu than just barbecued ribs.  

Henry wasn’t present so Aunt Bee spoke with Charlie Lee, the chef, and the old her that he planned to return to Pittsburgh to work at Wong Soo’s Canton Palace. Bee was disappointed, as she felt he was an excellent chef, and Charlie then told her that he felt a Chinese restaurant in Mayberry would have been a great idea, a relative gold mine. Charlie began learning how to cook Chinese cuisine when he was 17 years old, and stated he knew how to prepare items like chop suey, chow mein, and egg rolls

However, Charlie noted it would take money, about $400, to renovate the tavern and turn it into a Chinese restaurant. Charlie lacked the needed capital so he needed a partner to invest that money, but he didn't know no one who would do so. As Bee left the restaurant, she found a penny on the floor, and Charlie told her it was her lucky day. 

Later that day, Bee was at home with Andy, and she began to sing “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” a popular song written by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz back in 1906. She had already made up her mind to invest in the Chinese restaurant and was slowly trying to tell Andy about it. She asked him, “Everybody likes good wholesome food, don’t they?” This was a clear indication that she considered Chinese cuisine to be “good wholesome food.” She finally then told Andy, who was skeptical of her plans. 

Andy didn’t think she knew anything about running a restaurant, although she claimed it would be like serving a lot of company, although Andy replied that she didn’t serve sub gum to her guests. Andy’s friend, Howard Sprague, showed up at their home and Andy asked for his opinion on Bee’s plans, hoping he would be on Andy’s side. Howard though was a fan of Chinese cuisine, and especially fond of water chestnuts, and thought having a Chinese restaurant in Mayberry would be a good idea. 

Andy remained doubtful but Bee went forward with her investment. So, at least some of the people of Mayberry had some familiarity with Chinese cuisine. Had they visited a Chinese restaurant in another part of North Carolina? That information isn't provided in the episode. However, it's good to see that none of them had a negative image of Chinese cuisine. 

Charlie Lee’s nephew, Jack, arrived in Mayberry to be the waiter in the new Chinese restaurant. He was currently attending the University of North Carolina, studying for a Masters in Psychology. Charlie, Bee and Jack, helped decorated the restaurant, with large Chinese screens, lanterns, and other similar items. 

The Grand Opening of “Aunt Bee’s Canton Palace” was held and the restaurant was packed. One of the guests raved about the Moo Goo Gai Pan, a dish he’d never eaten before. Andy, his girlfriend Helen, Howard, and Gomer, ate together. Howard caught an error on the menu on the name of a chicken dish, Ling Chi Chi, which he ordered along with a bowl of something like a Chinese matzoh ball soup. Andy, Helen and Gomer ordered the $1.95 chow mein dinner, although Gomer was going to get the smaller $1.65 chow mein dinner until Andy mentioned that he was treating. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their meal and couldn’t wait to return. Gomer wanted to try their fried rice. 

At the end of the night, when the restaurant was essentially closed, Bee sat down with Andy and friends, and a plate of fortune cookies was brought to the table. Bee was pleased that they had a revenue of $80 (about $633 in today's dollars) for the night, which might mean they had about 40-60 customers that evening. When Bee opened her fortune cookie and read her fortune, she seemed nervous and wouldn't tell anyone what it said, merely claiming it was silly. 

Later that night, she couldn't sleep and sat in the kitchen, looking at her fortune. Andy woke up and saw her in the kitchen. He picked up her fortune from the table and read it, which said, “Beware of new business ventures, they can prove costly.” Bee, who was superstitious, was greatly concerned about the fortune, stating, “The Chinese are very intelligent people." 

The next day, Bee tried to get Charlie to make some changes to his restaurant, from adding more seasoning to the chow mein to expanding the menu to include steaks, chops and spaghetti. Charlie wasn’t happy with such changes and, with Jack, went to speak to Andy. Charlies was worried that the changes would quickly put them out of business. Jack eventually tried to use his knowledge of psychology to convince Bee not to worry about her fortune cookie, but was unsuccessful. Rationally, Bee understood she shouldn't be superstitious, but she couldn't stop her feelings. 

In the end, Jack opted to buy out Bee, giving her back her $400 investment. The Chinese restaurant remained open, although it’s unknown if they changed its name, or at least removed “Aunt Bee’s” from the name. Jack had previously not wanted to buy out Bee's investment, but he got a fortune cookie which helped changed his mind. The restaurant wasn’t mentioned again in the series so its ultimate fate was unknown, although it seemed very popular and likely would have remained in existence. 

Charlie Lee was played by Keye Luke, a native of Guangzhou, China, born on June 18, 1904, but who was raised in Seattle, Washington. His lengthy acting career began in 1934, and some of his roles included “Number One Son” in the Charlie Chan films and Kato in the Green Hornet film serials. He would also play the blind Master Po in the Kung Fu series, as well as Mr. Wing in the Gremlin movies. He was the first Chinese-American contract player signed by RKO, Universal Pictures and MGM. He died of a stroke in 1991. In 2012, he was also the subject of Keye Luke, a short documentary and bio-pic, directed by Timothy Tau, about his early life and career. 

Jack was played by Lloyd Kino (Kinoshita), who was born on May 18, 1919; in Seattle, Washington. He too had a lengthy acting career, appearing in numerous television series during from McHale’s Navy to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (as well as one episode of Kung Fu), as well a number of movies from Mortal Kombat to Godzilla, The Cable Guy to The Last Tycoon. He passed away in 2012. Interestingly, in the Andy Griffith episode, Jack was a college student but the actor was actually 47 years old at that time.

This 1967 Andy Griffith episode depicted Chinese restaurants in a very positive manner, and due to its immense popularity, likely was influential in persuading Americans to dine at such restaurants. With Chinese restaurants receiving so much negative publicity over the years, it's always good to see a more positive depiction. And it's cool to imagine the Canton Palace having a lengthy and successful history in Mayberry.

1 comment:

galacticjourney said...

That's fascinating. I wonder if research will determine that the episode spurred Chinese food popularity or if it simply reflected the wave of growing interest in foreign food.

Thanks for the piece!