Local restaurant city’s last sign of Phoenix’s Chinatown

Two blocks away from its original location, Sing High Chop Suey House currently exists under the management of founder Fred Lee's family's third generation in Phoenix. (Ashley Provenzano/DD)

After over 80 years of business, Sing High Chop Suey House is the last remnant of the once thriving Phoenix Chinatown of the 1920s.

Sing High, a Cantonese restaurant, was originally down the street from its current location in the heart of what was then Phoenix’s Chinatown that filled the two-block radius from First to Third streets and Madison to Jefferson streets.

Sing High Chop Suey House was built in 1928 by Fred Lee, a chef from Canton, China.

Fred Lee had a passion for cooking and frequently “took over restaurants that were having issues because he was a good cook and he was a smart businessman. Then he decided to open up his own little place,” said Karleen Lee, the current co-owner of Sing High who joined the family business after marrying Fred Lee’s grandson.

According to the Sing High website, when opening the restaurant, Fred Lee wanted to name it “Shanghigh” Chop Suey House. He had such a heavy accent, however, the sign painter heard “Sing High.” Because Fred Lee could not read English, the name stayed.

Sing High serves authentic Cantonese dishes, including “a lot of rice, vegetables and meat,” Karleen Lee said. The traditions have been handed down now for three generations.

“You don’t have that chain of McDonald’s two beef patties, special sauce, lettuce and cheese,” Karleen Lee said. “Each chef has their own little twist to making things.”

Cheak Yee, a descendant of Chinatown residents, experienced the community firsthand as a child after both of his parents met in Phoenix during the last years of Chinatown’s existence.

Yee, now a 63-year-old Phoenix retiree, has spent many years studying the history of Phoenix’s Chinatown in an effort to connect to his ancestry, he said.

Yee said Chinese immigrants stayed together for protection and to preserve their culture after coming to the U.S.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” Yee said. “That is very true in minority group situations.”

Around 1870, Phoenix’s Chinatown began to flourish, according to the Chinese United Association of Greater Phoenix. There were over 200 people living in the small two-block radius, Yee said. Laundry facilities, grocery stores and restaurants, including the newly built Sing High Chop Suey House, filled the area.

“The Chinese wanted staples in their everyday life,” Yee said.

Many Chinatown residents lived in their shops or in houses behind them. This made the community easily walkable, Yee said.

Besides laundries and restaurants, the town also established “congs,” Yee said. The word “cong” translates into party or game. These were places for single men to gamble and club “and be able to do what men do,” Yee said.

Chinatown remained prosperous until approximately 1945. At that point, Yee said, a lot of Chinese shops were being purchased by larger corporations and children of the Chinese immigrants were attending American schools and didn’t need to live in Chinatown any longer to make a living.

Chinatown eventually disintegrated in the 1950s, leaving as a reminder of an older time one surviving shop: Sing High Chop Suey House.

Then they moved, too.

Their current location on 27 West Madison Street is a block away from the original Chinatown and has been open since 1981.

Some of the recipes at Sing High were created by the first family members who opened the restaurant in 1928, such as their most popular dish, the Sing High fried rice.

The menu has also steadily grown to accommodate a modern clientele. All of Sing High’s dishes, for instance, are cooked in vegetable oil to accommodate healthier diets and vegetarian options are also now available.

“We’ve adapted,” Karleen Lee said. “We’ve probably tripled our menu from back in the earlier days.”

Sing High also carries one unique dish called Hom Ha Yuk, or briny shrimp sauce.

“It’s very smelly and salty,” Karleen Lee said. “Only true Chinese people will eat it, or people who really love Chinese food will eat it. I love it but it takes a little bit of getting used to.”

As ASU alums themselves, Karleen Lee and her husband welcome ASU students with a free drink.

“I think we’ve always catered to families and are reasonably priced with good quality food,” Karleen Lee said. “A lot of our customers are multi-generational customers, so people come in and say, ‘My dad used to bring me here,’ or, ‘My grandparents bring me here.’ We’ve been around a long time with a lot of generations.”

Phoenix resident and retired Navy SEAL Jason Leyvas is a frequent customer at Sing High.

“It’s the best place in the Valley,” he said. “It’s been here forever and a day. I’ve been coming here for years.”

An expert in the legacy of Chinese cuisine, Lee gave advice on how to find a good Chinese restaurant, even if it happens not to be Sing High.

“I always tell people if you’re trying to figure out a good Chinese restaurant, get something affordable like the egg rolls because if they skimp on something as inexpensive as egg rolls, they’re going to skimp on everything else,” Lee said. “We don’t skimp on our egg rolls.”

Contact the reporter at aproven1@asu.edu

Clarification: July 10, 2012

The Sun Mercantile Building in downtown Phoenix stands as a surviving piece of Chinese-American architecture, but it is not operated in its historic capacity.

Correction: July 18, 2012

An earlier version of this article had Fred Lee incorrectly referred to as Frank Lee.