Carlin’s Cherished Chef-Artist

By Dianna Troyer

Chin’s Café owner and artist Li Ju Chin
Chin’s Café owner and artist Li Ju Chin painted this cowboy portrait. Li says she enjoys painting subjects that reflect western American and Chinese cultures.
Photos by Lonny Brown

In 1983, Chin’s Café opened its doors in Carlin. Since then, the popular Chinese restaurant that doubles as an art gallery has become a revered
institution in the small community of 2,400 people.

Li Ju Chin, the café’s 64-year-old matriarch and co-founder, coupled her love for Chinese cooking with her passion for oil painting to create a unique establishment that’s rich in Chinese- American tradition.

Li and her husband, Johnson, cook six days a week for their loyal customers at Chin’s Café.

“Their food is amazing,” says Carlin City Council member Margaret Johnston. “They could do a lot of business with tour buses in summer, but Li always tells them to go to Elko because her local customers come first.”

Charlie and his mother Pat Kendrick, customers for two decades, take their out-oftown visitors to Chin’s.

“I love bringing them here for her food, artwork and hospitality,” Charlie says. “Her paintings are vibrant and full of life and seem to have movement. I get a radiant and peaceful feeling looking at them.”

When Charlie and Pat’s longtime friend and Carlin High graduate Kim Weighter makes her annual trip home to Carlin from California, the Kendricks always meet Kim at Chin’s for a meal.

“Li is a most gracious host, serves excellent food, and is an exquisite painter,” Kim says. “Her Chinese heritage and commitment to Carlin are equally important.”

Several of Li’s paintings are on display at the café, including a diving eagle grasping its prey, a lynx, a Chinese girl walking her Pomeranian dog, and birds in flight. She often gives paintings to customers and friends.

“Giving away paintings is my way to thank customers for coming to our café,” she says. “Sometimes they ask me, ‘Will you do a painting of my dog?’ Even though I’m not perfect or professional, people seem to like my paintings.”

Li paints in her spare time, usually in the mornings before coming to work.

“I like to paint everything— people, scenery, wildlife and children,” she says. “Painting makes me feel peaceful and patient and relaxed. It makes me look at the whole world and see how beautiful it is. After taking lessons, I began to notice colors in nature— the different shades of blue in the sky or greens in the grass and trees. I don’t know why I never noticed those things before.”

Chin’s Café occasionally serves as a place for Li to meet with civic leaders and plan community events. One of her recent community projects is still attracting national and international media attention.

Portrait of a Chinese child.
Li’s portrait of a Chinese child.

Last summer, Li and Margaret coordinated a team of volunteers to rebury 13 Chinese residents who lived in Carlin between the late 1800s and early 1920s and had been buried in an unmarked cemetery. Now known in media circles as “the Carlin 13,” the Chinese residents helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, ran local businesses and sold vegetables they raised.

Their caskets were found during a routine backyard excavation project in 1996, and researchers from universities and federal agencies exhumed the caskets to study the remains and artifacts inside, which included opium pipes, coins and dishes.

The Carlin 13 were eventually taken to the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Twenty two years after the remains were found, Li and Margaret led a community effort to have them returned to Carlin, where they were buried last summer during a ceremony that coincided with the town’s sesquicentennial celebration July 3.

“I thought they should have a traditional Chinese burial so they could finally be at peace,” Li says. “My husband and I were honored to cook food for the ceremony.”

While running Chin’s Café and serving her community, Li says she often thinks of ideas for paintings.

“If I ever retire, I’ll paint even more,” she says. “But for now, I’m happy cooking at our café, painting when I have spare time and helping our community. We hope someday someone will take over the café and continue serving our food. Then I’ll have more time to paint and do other projects in town.”