I've been told some people actually enjoyed reading my post about Grasshopper. If you didn't like that, what follows will probably just be Chinese restaurant torture. Read on if you like for an informal genealogy of some of Durham's Chinese restaurants, and consider this a companion piece to my Grasshopper post.
When I first came to Durham, the only Chinese restaurants I knew about were the China Inn on Hillsborough Road (now defunct), the still extant Shanghai (farther west near Kroger), and what I believe was called Mandarin House at South Square Mall (restaurant and mall both defunct). China Inn seemed to be a Duke staple: it was much easier to get to from Duke at the time, as 147 (designated I-85 at the time) didn't go so far northwest, and Trent Drive went all the way from Duke's West Campus to China Inn and Jim's Party Store, right across the street. China Inn even survived a fire sometime in the mid-80's, in the sense that the building was totally rebuilt from the ground up and the restaurant re-opened.
Mandarin House was farther away and tougher for me to get to: I believe it moved across 15-501 into a non-South-Square space, then later changed its name, then closed.
Shanghai had an all-you-can-eat buffet on Sunday mornings when I first encountered it back in 1980 or so. I can remember repeatedly going there and stuffing my face. I don't know if they still have a buffet, but they still serve really good, straight-up, main-line Chinese-American food, and I'm never embarrassed to take someone there. For some reason, the place has passed into disfavor among my friends, which I can't understand at all. I much prefer Shanghai to places like Mount Fuji or Pao Lim. As for my friends, all I can respond with is de gustibus non est disputandum.
Around 1985, I started living in Trinity Park -- about one good Frisbee throw from Hunam on Main Street. (They were in the location that later became Rainbow -- a different restaurant that's cheap and OK, but nothing special.) Hunam was a good, inexpensive Chinese restaurant at the time. I was probably there once a week, stretching my budget by ordering the dinner special, eating half of it -- the soup, the eggroll, and some of the entree and rice -- and taking the rest home. It's true that most Chinese food is best appreciated freshly cooked. It's also true that poor people will eat about anything. Further, it seemed to me that leftover spicy Chinese food was a good hangover cure: it seemed you'd either get better or worse, and I never got worse. Hunam was essentially my local bar at the time. You can understand that I was in there a lot.
In fact, I was in Hunam so much that I got to know folks. The proprietor was named, IIRC, Oliver. I can't remember his wife's name, which pains me, as she was very friendly. Almost everyone there was unfailingly nice to me. Maybe that's because one of them thought I "looked like Jesus." I even started being comped stuff -- usually the occasional Tsingtao. And I enjoyed the place thoroughly. Sometime in (IIRC) the 90s, I asked after Oliver, not having seen him for a while. I was told that he'd gone to Hong Kong to sell an advertising business there of his before the mainland Chinese government reasserted control over the island. Sometime after Oliver got back, he left Hunam and started the first Neo-China.
Neo-China, IMO, was the best Chinese restaurant in Durham at the time. One nice thing about the place was the use of fresh, seasonal, local vegetables in traditional Chinese-American restaurant dishes. The place was also decorated with Oliver's own artwork. It definitely didn't look like a typical Chinese restaurant. Neo-China did well enough that it expanded into the space next door. Later two more locations were opened: one in Raleigh, and another in Cary. Oliver followed that up by opening a non-Chinese restaurant in the new (at that time) New Hope Commons. Alas, the new venture, dubbed Neo-Renaissance, didn't last long. I saw little of Oliver after that. Sometime around then, Neo-China was (I believe) sold to someone else who I'd seen working there. Neo-China is still quite good, and still owned, I believe, by the guy who took it over when Oliver left.
Meanwhile, after Oliver left Hunam, Leo stepped up to be the proprietor. (Actually, I was never sure who actually owned the place or made the operational decisions. I'm just making guesses based on what I saw in the place.) Leo was also very kind, almost to the point of obsequiousness. I continued getting good food, good service, and even an occasional free Tsingtao, up until Leo left to start his own place. After Leo left, I didn't keep up with Hunam closely, except to notice that it went downhill, eventually closed, and re-opened as Rainbow.
Leo's new restaurant was called Chopstix, at K-Mart Plaza (now called Avondale Plaza), near the intersection of Avondale Drive and Roxboro Road. At the time, I felt maybe Leo had been motivated by Oliver's ventures. Chopstix was a much more traditional Chinese place than Neo-China, though, and was also less expensive. I imagine the business got harder after a Chinese buffet opened just up the street; Leo added a small buffet of his own at the time. I'd started driving by then, and I ate a whole lot of take-out from there. Leo stayed at Chopstix until a few years ago, when he sold the business to someone else.
That's about all I can come up with in this bastard genealogy of Durham Chinese restaurants. But I do have one observation: While most of these restaurants have had their ups and downs, and while some other small (and large) operations have been mediocre to bad, I still prefer taking a chance on any independent Chinese operation over a chain. At one time, there was no such thing, but now Chinese restaurant chains exist; in my experience, they're always aggressively mediocre. The risk of eating poorly is the risk one takes in order to eat well. Eating at a chain dooms one to lowest-common-denominator, un-exciting food. I urge you all to think about that the next time you go out to any sort of chain restaurant. If you love the place, great. But think about trying that funky little non-chain place you've seen -- you might otherwise be missing out.