Close to the location where Busch Stadium stands today was once a thriving Asian community of people and businesses. From 1869 to 1966, the area between 7th and 8th streets from Walnut to Market was known as “Hop Alley” – St. Louis’ Chinatown. Although the neighborhood no longer stands, its history and legacy hold many lessons about immigration, food culture and displacement in the metro area.
AN IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY
Beginning in the mid-19th century, people from China (mainly men) began to immigrate to the United States in large waves, according to Magdalene Linck, assistant librarian for the Missouri Historical Society. The first Chinese immigrant came to St. Louis in 1857, and the Chinese population gradually increased over time. By 1890, there was a population of 170 Chinese people in the city and, by 1910, there were 423 people. One might think that a population of hundreds in a city with a population of hundreds of thousands might not have a significant impact, but Hop Alley and its many businesses proved otherwise.
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Hop Alley was home to a variety of shops, merchants and businesses, especially laundries. By 1914, there were more than 12 Chinese grocers in the few blocks that comprised Hop Alley. These businesses offered fresh vegetables and imported ingredients from China that residents couldn’t source anywhere else, like dried shrimp, fish and noodles. These small stores and grocers were not only a source of foodstuffs, but also, a reminder of home for many. Annie Leong owned one such grocery store, Asia Food Products, along with the popular Hop Alley restaurant Asia Café. Her brother Wing Leong shared his memories of the area in an oral history for the Missouri History Museum. “People – especially the natives that grew up in China that moved to the United States – wanted something that reminded them of their home,” Leong said.
Initially, restaurants in Hop Alley catered to single male immigrants by offering them authentic food and a taste of home. Over time, Chinese restaurants shifted to cater more toward an American palate, Linck explains. By the 1920s, food like chop suey had become the in vogue cuisine for the general American audience. “In those days, the popularity was chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young,” Leong said.
Restaurants like Asia Café attracted a bevy of non-Chinese customers, from local policemen and government officials to singers and performers. An ad for The Orient Restaurant in a 1917 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reads, “We take pride in announcing to the public the opening of our beautiful Chinese Chop Suey and American Restaurant, where you can enjoy good things to eat, prepared by the most famous Chinese chefs in the country.”
The Orient served dishes we recognize today as Chinese American classics, from fried rice to war mein (stir-fried noodles with mushrooms, bok choy, bean sprouts and meat). Another restaurant, Chu Wah, served egg rolls, wonton soup, pineapple chicken and sweet and sour shrimp. Over time, Chinese restaurants conformed to American palates by embracing more meat and fried dishes to attract more business.
ENDINGS AND NEW BEGINNINGS
Asia Café operated until 1965, when residents had to move to make way for the creation of Busch Stadium and other construction. The development project might have been the last straw for Hop Alley and may have shut down Asia Café, but the area had been losing residents for years beforehand. The children of the area’s immigrant residents had gradually moved away to other parts of the city. “The children were so Americanized; they went to college, they moved to the suburbs,” Leong said. “In the end, [by the time] Chinatown totally disappeared, all of the old folks [had] died and all of the offspring moved away.”
This displacement, however, was definitely not the end for Asian-owned businesses in St. Louis. By the 1990s, a new sort of Chinatown was developing in St. Louis along Olive Boulevard near Interstate 170. Today, it hosts restaurants offering a wide variety of Asian cuisines, including Korean, Sichuan, Cantonese and Vietnamese food, plus bubble tea, dumplings, hot pot and more. Cate Zone Chinese Cafe, ChiliSpot and Soup Dumplings STL have all become fan-favorite restaurants.
Xin Wei, owner of Corner 17 in University City, says Chinese restaurants today still walk a tightrope of balancing between American audiences and traditional ingredients. For instance, Wei might tone down the spiciness of a dish but will continue to make fresh noodles by hand through traditional techniques. “If you only served authentic Chinese, yes, you would get customers, but it’s just unlikely for you to make money in the long term to be sustainable,” he says.
Today’s Asian-owned businesses face challenges similar to the ones in Hop Alley did: forced displacement and generational change. In 2022, Olive Boulevard became home to a new Costco wholesale retailer; developers and U-City officials worked in conjunction to compel residents and businesses owners to move or close up shop using a variety of tactics, including buying properties and changing policies on leases. Other recent challenges have included rising food costs and labor shortages. Wei also notes that the children of some area Asian-owned restaurants want to embrace different careers. “My friends’ parents own a Chinese, small carryout restaurant that’s really busy, but my friend doesn’t want to take it over … so their parents have to close down the restaurant,” he says.
Although the business landscape on Olive Boulevard is full of obstacles, there are bright spots. The area near Washington University in St. Louis has been a boon for these restaurants. “When school is in [session], you see Asian students come to your restaurant,” Wei says. International students comprise nearly 24 percent of Wash U’s student body; this diverse student population has embraced the wide array of cultural cuisines close to their campus. “International students bring you more business, and that way, it’s possible to keep more traditional dishes,” Wei adds.
Take a drive down Olive Boulevard or visit one of the many restaurants there, and you’ll see why the legacy of Hop Alley has never truly left St. Louis. From tasty Americanized takeout and St. Paul sandwiches to traditional, family-owned spots, a variety of Asian-owned businesses have made their home in this city, and they’re here to stay.