Frank Lem and Chinese Food in Racine

I had run across references to there being a Chinese restaurant at Park and 7th Street, but I didn’t get confirmation until I talked to people on the Facebook Group “Retro Racine of the 50’s and 60’s.”

Frank Nelson has vivid memories of going to House of Lem:

As a VERY young boy, I remember they were on Main St. next door to Sears. When I was a little older, my dad would drive from the South Side to Park Ave. for carryout. On special occasions we would actually eat at the restaurant. I remember so well the chimes when the front doors were opened. It was a pretty small place, and when you ate one of the Lems was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for another order. Mr. (Frank) or Mrs. Lem (Fannie) would ALWAYS give us kids a treat from the unused fireplace behind the counter. They were such wonderful people. Our first home, after I was married was on Wisconsin Ave., and Mrs. Lem always went for walks when she was very old, and I would see her from time to time.

From 1954 Racine phone book: Frank Lem ran this restaurant at 704 Park Avenue in what was a residential house.

From 1954 Racine phone book: Frank Lem ran this restaurant at 704 Park Avenue in what was a residential house.

They lived in the building. They grew the bean sprouts that they used so many of in the basement. They may have also grown mushrooms also? The restaurant proper was really styled as such, but the kitchen was in the back, with just one door to enter. I imagine they lived upstairs. [from Frank Nelson]

704 Park Ave., Racine, occupied by House of Lem restaurant

704 Park Ave., Racine, occupied by House of Lem restaurant

This is an old time memory, and I have always wondered about It, since it closed. Racine didn’t have a Chinese restaurant for many years after Lem’s closed. I believe the one that opened on Durand Ave. was the 1st to open. [Frank Nelson]

I really don’t remember too much color in the restaurant, but it was almost like the inside of a regular house. I seem to remember a almost sun room area at the front, and a living room, and dining room type areas. I don’t remember it being a wide open area like most are now. It certainly was not a brightly lighted place inside. I do believe the two front doors were BRIGHT red. I believe when you entered you stepped left into the restaurant, and the foyer had stairs leading up. [Frank Nelson]

Frank Lem's restaurant on Main Street in 1940. Was "Renew Republic" its name?

Frank Lem’s restaurant on Main Street in 1940. Was “Renew Republic” its name? Yes.

More information about Frank Lem and the Lem family:

Frank Yu Lem. Birthdate: 1877 Birthplace: Guangdong, China. Death: Died 1968 in Racine, WI, USA. Immediate Family:
Son of Chai Sou and Unknown Chai. Husband of Fannie Vanette Lem and Sooshee Lem. Father of Charles Lem; Friederich (Lem); Jean Yu Sin Smith; Lem; Ming Lem and 2 others. Brother of Unknown Chai; Jim Chai and Unknown Chai

Some union trouble in 1936

Some union trouble in 1936

Advertisement for Renew Republic in the 1920 Kipikawi

Advertisement for Renew Republic in the 1920 Kipikawi

I grew up eating there often as they were members of our church and good friends of my parents. I have several keepsake treasures from the restaurant as well as a few recipes. I can still hear the chimes the front door had and smell the sandalwood incense burning! [Robin Cook]

Figurine from House of Lem

Incense burner from House of Lem

"This cleaver could easily cut a tree down!" (Robin Cook)

“This cleaver could easily cut a tree down!” (Robin Cook)

Frank Lem would get on the North Shore line and shop in Chicago to get supplies not available in Racine. I remember seeing the beansprout growing operation in the basement when I was quite young. I now have one of the old Redwing crocks that had a hole purposely punched out in the bottom for draining & rinsing the sprouts as they grew. [Robin Cook]

Fannye Lem, a crafty octogenarian. Racine Journal Times, by Sue Harcus.

Fannye Lem

Fannye Lem

Fannye Lem is never without a project. She’s constantly seeking new mediums for her artistic abilities, she’s an inveterate traveler and she leads a busy social life.
This may not sound unusual except for one fact. Fannye is 82.
Her craft projects range from dyed pressed flower pictures to the same flower arrangements under clear contact paper for note paper. She also does needlepoint and quilling and makes figurines from shells, butterfly pictures, fish mobiles out of ribbon, flowers from egg cartons and big bird puppets. She also has made silver jewelry but no longer does so because arthritis prevents her from using the necessary tools.
“I never throw anything away and my friends and relatives know about my crafts so they save things they think I might use,” she explained. Her grandchildren in Germany have even caught butterflies and sent them to her.
In one of her framed butterfly pictures, Fannye decided rhinestone chips around the butterflies would enhance the picture. She admitted, however, that while trying to get them out of old jewelry, “I smashed more than I got.”
Another evidence of her saving habit is a ribbon bell pull with tiny snapshots of her 15 grandchildren. She had originally collected used eyeglasses for a local doctor who had a mission project, but had some left over and used the lenses to cover each of the pictures.
Her apartment on Main Street reflects her oriental heritage with silk embroidered pictures of Chinese scenes. Her dining room light fixture is a large carved wood lantern with oriental scenes on the four sides. She said it had come from their restaurant, The House of Lem, Park Avenue which closed in 1967 after 54 years of business in Racine. Her husband, Frank, with whom she ran the restaurant, died in 1968.
Where ever she goes, whether it’s to visit her daughter Nancy in Germany, daughter Jean in California, son Donald in New York, or son Charles in Madison, she said she is constantly looking for new craft ideas. A fifth son, Ming, died of a heart attack three years ago.
And, Fannye is constantly on the go. She said that in the last three weeks, for example, she had only spent one day at home.
“Well, take last week as an example. On Monday, a friend and I went to Chicago to the Water Tower shopping mall. We covered five of the seven floors of shops.”
On Tuesday, she was off at 9 a. m. to help make fruit cakes at the First United Methodist Church. That night she went out to the dinner. Wednesday night she went to the Altrusa Club dinner meeting. On Thursday, she went to another church group activity. Friday she went shopping in Milwaukee and Saturday she “had a day off.”
On Sunday morning, she went to church and then stayed to help wrap and decorate the fruit cakes for the church fair. When she was finished with that, she went to Memorial Hall to work the rest of the day in the Altrusa booth at the Holiday Fair.
“A friend offered to give me a ride home but I said it was only three blocks so I would walk. I think if it had been even one more block, I don’t think I could have made it. I was so tired.”
Fannye not only makes crafts for the church fair, but has also taught at five senior citizen centers. “I usually take three or four samples of the work and let the class select the one they want to do.”
And on one of her trips to visit her daughter in Germany, she taught a class of elementary school children how to make flowers out of egg cartons. She said her granddaughter acted as her interpreter. Each child proudly went home with a flower he or she had made,” she noted.
On another occasion, the pastor of her daughter’s Lutheran church in German invited her to talk to a women’s group at the church. She said she brought samples of her handicraft that she had given to her daughter. As a result, the women began to make articles of their own for church bazaars.
Fannye said she loves to go shopping and loves to eat out. “I’m ready to go any time. If someone called me at midnight with a good idea, I’d probably get ready and go.”
“You can probably tell, I love to eat,” she laughed as she patted her ample waistline.
What probably keeps Fanny going at her remarkable pace is her boundless enthusiasm, her interest in people and places, and her good natured philosophy.
For example, she says that if she wakes up at 1 a. m. and can’t get back to sleep, she refuses to lie in bed worrying about it.
“I get up, make myself a cup of coffee and a piece of toast and work on one of my crafts. When I’m tired, it may be 3 a.m., I return to bed and sleep until 8. I get enough sleep.”
The walls, shelves and tables of Fannye’s apartment are covered with her crafts and artwork and she confessed she’s got enough untouched projects around to keep her busy for three more years.
One of her most recent projects was a “flusterated woman” pencil or pen. It was an idea she picked up from a craft class while visiting a friend at the Masonic Home in Dousman. The top of a pencil or pen gets a yarn head complete with tiny eyes, eyebrows and mouth. The hair is tied with a contrasting yarn string. When the pencil is whirled between the hands, the hair separates and flies in all directions.
Crafts, church, club work, and social activities are not all this octogenarian does. One of her volunteer duties is telephoning for the Republican Women, a Christian Women’s group, and the Altrusa Club. “The trouble is that I know so many people that I get to talking to friends and then get behind in my calls,” she said.

House of Lem's 47th anniversary in 1960

House of Lem’s 47th anniversary in 1960

Frank Lem, 1957

Frank Lem, 1957

7 thoughts on “Frank Lem and Chinese Food in Racine

  1. This article was so interesting because I learned about Chinese emigrants who made a success of their transition and their business. What a lady, artist, representative of her church and so on was Mrs. Lem! Had I known her I am sure I would have joined her doing some of her activies. Would I have been able to keep up with her, I’m not sure.
    I love it that they grew their own bean sprouts in the basement of the building where they worked and lived. Thanks for sharing the story.

  2. I remember the Lems very well. They were good friends of my aunt. We went there often, as we lived on Park Ave. About 8 blocks away. I was little when i first remember, but the food was always delicious. Mrs Lem used to make sure my drink had an umbrella and would give you a small chinese toy when you behaved. Such great memories!

  3. This is lovely. I am the grandchild of Frank and Fanny, my mother is Jean Lem, now Smith. Thank you for this article.

  4. Thank you for the fun memories. I am Vivian Lem, Don’s daughter. Don is Fanny and Frank’s youngest and only child alive in 2023. All of my Aunts and Uncles have sadly passed away.

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