Steinbeck introduces Lee Chong, a grocer who runs a well-stocked store, which opens early in the morning and doesn’t “close until the last wandering vagrant dime ha[s] been spent or retired for the night.” A fastidious man, Lee is not necessarily greedy, but won’t turn away from potential profits, either. However, almost everyone in Cannery Row has at one point in time owed him money, though he doesn’t make a habit of chasing them down. That said, he will stop giving them credit if their debts become too large. Lee is a good businessman, adding that when he makes mistakes in his calculations or dealings, he still manages to “turn” these “errors” to his “advantage,” though sometimes his profit comes in the form of “good will” instead of money.
In Cannery Row, Steinbeck is often interested in how greed manifests itself in his characters’ lives. By beginning the novel with a portrait of Lee Chong—a money-minded businessman—he alerts readers to this thematic preoccupation. However, he also makes it clear that Lee’s desire to make money isn’t necessarily an indication of his greed. After all, Lee understands that the value of “good will” frequently outweighs the value of money. As such, Steinbeck presents readers with a man who is capable of thriving in a capitalist, money-hungry system without sacrificing his moral values.
One night, Lee Chong stands in the grocery store in front of the pints of whiskey (called Old Tennis Shoes). This is his customary place in the shop because he doesn’t want people like Mack and his friends to steal the liquor. On this particular evening, he contemplates a business deal he made earlier in the day, when Horace Abbeville—who has “two wives and six children” and an enormous outstanding debt at Lee’s store—walked in and said, “I guess I owe you plenty dough.” He then added, “I hate to have my kids with that hanging over them. Why, I bet you wouldn’t let them have a pack of spearmint now.” As such, he gives Lee ownership of his fishmeal storehouse, which is across the street. Lee accepts this deal and agrees to clear all of Horace’s debt.
Again, Steinbeck indicates that Lee is a moral and just man even when he’s dealing with financial matters. Although Lee is a businessman who wants to earn as much money as possible, he’s also willing to compromise with his fellow community members when they’re unable to pay him. In turn, it becomes clear that he’s an empathetic man who would rather help the people around him than greedily prosper off of their misfortune.
After Lee and Horace strike this deal, Lee gives him a flask of Old Tennis Shoes, at which point Horace walks to the storehouse and shoots himself “on a heap of fish meal.” “And although it has nothing to do with this story,” Steinbeck writes, “no Abbeville child, no matter who its mother was, knew the lack of a stick of spearmint ever afterward.” Lee, for his part, feels as if a man has a “right to kill himself,” but he can’t help but think that “sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.” Feeling guilty in this way, he pays for Horace’s funeral and gives both his wives free groceries.
Unfortunately, Lee’s compassionate willingness to accept Horace’s compromise doesn’t stop Horace from killing himself. This ultimately suggests that, although Horace’s financial woes must have troubled him, they were not at the root of his unhappiness, considering that he no longer has to worry about repaying his debt to Lee. In this way, Steinbeck infers that money and financial stability are not capable of giving people true happiness.
Having heard that Lee now owns the fishmeal storehouse, Mack comes into the grocery store to make a proposition regarding the building. He is “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who [have] in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.” Despite these qualities, though, Mack and his friends don’t “destroy themselves” in their “search for contentment,” but rather pursue happiness “casually” and “quietly,” and when they attain it, they “absorb it gently.” As soon as Mack enters the grocery store, Lee scans the place to see if any of his cronies have entered with him to steal produce, but Mack comes straight up to him and asks if he and his crew can move into the storehouse since it’s empty anyway.
Mack is a complex character, as made clear by the nuanced introduction that Steinbeck gives him. On the one hand, Lee sees Mack as something of a thief, someone he must watch. On the other hand, though, Steinbeck makes a point of underlining the fact that Mack is a “gentle” person who only wants to chase “contentment.” In fact, he even says that Mack and his friends’ search for “contentment” isn’t destructive, thus rejecting the stereotype that vagrants are dangerous, unhealthy people. As such, Steinbeck manages once again to imply that virtuousness doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the qualities society normally associates with goodness.
“We’ll keep up the property,” Mack says to Lee, insisting that he and his friends won’t let anyone “break in or hurt anything” in the storehouse. “Kids might knock out the windows, you know—Place might burn down if somebody don’t keep an eye out,” he adds. For a moment, Lee considers this request, realizing that he has no choice but to allow Mack and his gang to move in. After all, if he says no, he knows they’ll covertly break the windows themselves so that they can emphasize how important it is that Lee find someone to “watch over and preserve” the place. As such, Lee decides to grant Mack his wish, but since he must maintain his image as a businessman, he sets the rent at five dollars per week—a sum he knows Mack and his friends will never pay.
Once more, it’s evident that Lee Chong is a virtuous man who—despite his desire to make money—is driven not by greed, but by kindness. Though it’s true that he doesn’t want Mack and his friends to break the storehouse’s windows, he also seems to want to help these men—after all, he clearly feels bad about the fact that his acquisition of the property came along with Horace Abbeville’s death. By letting Mack and his gang move in, then, Lee can feel like he’s doing something good to counterbalance the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the deal he made with Horace.
“And that was the way it was,” Steinbeck writes about Mack and Lee’s deal, adding that, although Lee never receives any money, he doesn’t feel as if he has “suffered a total loss,” for this is not the way his mind “work[s].” After all, the place doesn’t catch fire, none of the windows break, and Mack and his friends make a point of spending all their money—when they have it—at Lee’s grocery store.
Steinbeck suggests that one good deed leads to another. Indeed, Lee makes a financial sacrifice by letting Mack and his friends move into the storehouse, but he ends up financially benefiting from this decision in the long run. In turn, Steinbeck implies that greediness isn’t the only kind of attitude that can make money, for kindness and empathy can, too.
Slowly, Mack and his friends begin to turn the storehouse into a functional—albeit unconventional—home. Dubbing it “the Palace Flophouse and Grill,” they decorate it with furniture that they find or steal, always making a point of painting the pieces a new color so that no one will recognize them as stolen items. “The Palace Flophouse and Grill began to function,” as Mack and “the boys” take to sitting in front of the house and looking across the lot into the windows of Western Biological, where Doc works and lives. And when Doc leaves the laboratory to buy beer at Lee Chong’s, Mack says, “That Doc is a fine fellow. We ought to do something for him.”
Although Steinbeck hasn’t yet revealed what, exactly, Mack means by the fact that he wants to “do something for” Doc—a character who hasn’t yet been introduced in any substantial way—it’s worth considering the fact that these men are thinking about how they can be kind to their neighbors even as they’re preoccupied with setting up the Palace Flophouse. Steinbeck intimates once again that they are virtuous despite their rough appearances.