The Oriental Café was Springfield’s most popular Chinese restaurant for more than 40 years – and, when it closed in 1955, the only one.
The café, on the second floor of the buildings at 424 and 426 E. Monroe St., was operated by the extended Lum family. Although the Lums’ roots were in China, many of those who worked at the Oriental had been born in America.
The Oriental got its start at 418 E. Washington St. in 1921, when Jack Lum, a Decatur restaurateur, bought out King Jim Lo, who had run his own Chinese café at that address. However, the restaurant was forced to move in 1924, when the Myers Brothers family decided to rebuild and expand their department store, which had been destroyed by fire in March 1924.
The new Oriental opened on Monroe Street that September, calling itself “Springfield’s finest café.” Both American and Chinese dishes were on the menu, with chop suey and chow mein the house specialties. The restaurant occupied the entire second floor at Fifth and Monroe streets. Members of the Lum family lived on the third floor.
The restaurant’s sign, with “chop suey” in big neon letters, for some years was topped by an eagle outlined in light bulbs that flashed intermittently to suggest the eagle’s wings were flapping. (In the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration was symbolized by a blue eagle, the lights were changed from white to blue.)
The restaurant proved especially popular with legislators from the Chicago area, who were used to Chinese food, according to an Illinois State Journal article written in 1955, when the Oriental closed. It also was a regular eating place for Illinois’ “bachelor governor” from 1933 to 1940, Gov. Henry Horner.
Local residents, however, also patronized the Oriental, holding club meetings, wedding luncheons and similar events there. The Oriental also advertised itself as an after-theater dining option and as a dancing spot. W.A. Bohnhorst’s Orchestra was the house band for several seasons.
“The latest in dance numbers will be played by this well known orchestra and through the dinner hour both syncopated and semi classical numbers will be played to meet the tastes of all lovers of music,” the Oriental promised.
A younger member of the family, Raymond Lum, discussed the later years of the Oriental with State Journal-Register reporter Kathryn Rem in 2012.
I remember it was quite elegant. There were cut-glass decanters and linens on the tables, silverware, fans on the walls, both open tables and booths and a dance floor. There may have been a juke box, too.
Meanwhile, local newspaper reporters frequently turned to the Lums when seeking reaction to events involving China and the Chinese. (Many of the Lums had Anglicized nicknames, and it’s not always clear which nickname applied to which family member.) The Lums held China relief fundraisers at the restaurant after the country became involved in World War II, and Springfield’s Oriental Forum held its annual meetings there in the late 1930s and ‘40s.
The Journal reported on local fundraising efforts in 1937:
“More than twenty local Chinese are contributing almost daily to a war chest to aid the cause of their people oppressed by the Japanese,” Jack Lum, American-born Chinese, and owner of the Oriental café, said last night. …
“We are contributing money to buy American planes and munities and precious food supplies for our people.”
Lum is a polite and soft-spoken host who … spoke last night on behalf of Chinese in Springfield, more than half of whom are American-born, and full-fledged exercisers of the franchise to vote and sundry other time-honored privileges accorded citizens and taxpayers.
When the Oriental closed, Illinois State Journal writer Albert Mayer bemoaned the loss of its 90-cent steak dinner.
For 90 cents – in these inflationary times – one would be served a small steak garnished with parsley and lemon slices on a platter. In addition, there would be half a head of crisp lettuce with one’s favorite dressing, two hot rolls (the kind mother used to make with bread dough), butter, a side dish of some vegetable, beverage (the Chinese tea was the best) and a choice of a wide variety of desserts. Verily, those of us who must “eat out” will miss the Oriental.
‘Frozen sleep’ treatment
The Oriental Café received its widest media attention when Jack Lum underwent an experimental “frozen sleep” treatment for lung cancer. Lum was anesthetized on Aug. 17, 1939. With Lum unconscious, his body was put into a porcelain tub and covered with ice.
For five days and nights he lay as though dead. His pulse apparently had vanished. Breathing was barely discernible. All body functions ceased. No food or drink was required. Then, Monday night (Aug. 21 – ed.), by removal of ice, the gradual awakening process was begun. It required about eight hours. Body temperature was restored to normal by one degree an hour.
Lum’s doctors, Alex Jones and James Graham, said they hoped freezing would kill the cancer cells. Lum reportedly was the third person in the world to undergo the experimental process.
The doctors stated that if the cancer has been arrested an X-ray picture would show the growth diminished in size.
“… (W)e expect the cells to have been killed by the ‘hibernation’ experiment,” they explained.
“The cells, according to our analysis of the experiment, will have been destroyed. They then are absorbed by the blood and eliminated from the body.
“In such a manner we hope to have destroyed the cancer cells in the patient’s lungs.”
Lum suffered no aftereffects of the freezing process itself – he was taking liquids and looking forward to playing chess (Lum “was known as quite a chess player,” the Illinois State Journal reported) the day after awakening.
Lum also became a nationwide celebrity because of the treatment. In addition to numerous wire-service stories, Life magazine published a photo of Lum encompassed in ice in its Sept. 11, 1939 issue.
However, Lum’s frozen sleep had no effect on his cancer. He died on Feb. 26, 1940.
Chinese restaurant confusion
Older newspaper stories misstate the history of both the Oriental and of Springfield’s early Chinese restaurants in general. The recent availability of a searchable newspaper database, however, has made it possible to pin down some details.
Mayer stated in 1955 that the Oriental had opened on Monroe Street in 1919. In fact, stories at the time make it clear the move from Washington Street was forced by Myers Brothers’ expansion in 1924. Mayer also asserted that the Lums’ entry into the Springfield restaurant business took place about 1914, but that statement isn’t supported by any other evidence.
Rem repeats Mayer’s error about the Monroe Street move. Also, relying on Raymond Lum, she states that the Oriental was Springfield’s first Chinese restaurant.
City directories and newspaper ads, however, suggest that distinction belongs to the Hong Fong Low restaurant, which opened in January 1903 at 729½ E. Washington St. Other early Chinese restaurants included the Hang Kang, 431 E. Jefferson St., owned by Sam Vick, which was operating in 1904; Long Wing, 701 E. Washington (rear); and Yee Wah Low, 621½ E. Washington St.
And then there was the multiethnic Edelweiss, operated by T.J. Moran on the southeast corner of Fifth and Jefferson streets. A Sept. 22, 1905, news story reported:
“The Edelweiss Chinese and American restaurant is now open and kindly solicit (sic) the patronage of the public. Genuine Mexican chili con carni a specialty.”
Note: The Lum family did boast one local first, however. A baby girl born to Gus and Lee Shee Lum at St. John’s Hospital on Feb. 11, 1925, is believed to have been the first Chinese infant born in Springfield.
More information: Kathryn Rem’s 2012 story includes more reminiscences from Raymond Lum, as well as a photo, courtesy Raymond Lum, of four members of the Lum family at the Oriental in 1949.
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