Jim Dey: Suburban Express owner goes to China

Jim Dey: Suburban Express owner goes to China

Fresh from a controversy in which critics alleged that he was prejudiced against Chinese students who attend the University of Illinois, local businessman Dennis Toeppen decided to calm his nerves with an unorthodox choice of vacation locales.

He decided to visit China, spending six days there in late December and early January.

The sometimes-controversial owner of the Suburban Express bus company that ferries UI students from campus to the Chicago area and back used the opportunity to check out modes of transportation in several Chinese cities, including Beijing.

"My life is about transportation. So when I travel, I tend to be less interested in art and sculptures and gravitate toward transportation modes," he said.

Toeppen, 53, who started Suburban Express when he was a UI undergraduate, said he found the Chinese people very friendly, to the point that they asked him to pose for selfies and practice speaking English with them.

He said the smog in the big cities was "stifling," noted that new Starbucks coffee shops and other American chain businesses are opening "all over the place," characterized the subway system in Beijing as "great" and expressed the desire to go back because there is so much to see.

"I'd like to go back to see China when it has clean air and I have more time," he said.

It is, of course, not unusual for Americans, like Toeppen, to visit China. But his visit will come as a surprise to some because of his involvement in an email-ad controversy in late November that drew unflattering nationwide attention to his business.

Writing a promotional email to potential customers, Toeppen, to his deep regret, commented that his passengers "won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses."

The statement was a reference to the roughly 6,000 Chinese students who attend the UI, few of whom avail themselves of the services of Suburban Express.

Before he knew it, Toeppen was being denounced as a virulent anti-Chinese racist who had issued an intolerable insult to the entire campus community by UI students and administrators.

After the story went viral, he got hit with a subpoena by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, demanding ridership information to see if he refuses to serve Chinese customers. The controversy then morphed into a boycott, though Toeppen stated that he wants as many riders as he can get, no matter their ethnicity, and repeatedly apologized for what he said was his ill-advised joke.

His apologies have been rejected as insincere by his mind-reading critics.

Toeppen said the controversy left him feeling "uneasy and conflicted."

He said he's uneasy about the future of his business and confused because of at least one demonstrably false statement aimed in his direction by a UI administrator.

Toeppen posts notices about his bus service on campus, just as many private businesses do. A UI spokeswoman indicated her unhappiness with that practice and publicly stated that the UI had sent Toeppen numerous "cease and desist" notices.

Toeppen said he didn't recall any such notices and filed a Freedom of Information request with the UI to obtain copies that might refresh his recollection.

Thomas Hardy, the UI's chief records officer, subsequently sent Toeppen a Dec. 19 letter stating that "a search was conducted, and no records pertaining to your request could be located."

Even if sent to Toeppen, a cease-and-desist notice would be legally problematic because if the UI allows other private businesses, like the Kaplan test preparation service, to post notices, it would be unlawful viewpoint discrimination to ban Toeppen's postings.

Toeppen, however, has a history of controversies, most of which stem from his efforts to collect payment from riders who bounced checks or canceled credit card payments that prompted him to file lawsuits in small-claims court. That earned him no shortage of critics among students and the administrators who frequently go to bat for them.

That's why one News-Gazette article about Toeppen and his email controversy, which included his side of the story as well as information about his business and personal background, prompted critics to complain vociferously that writing about Toeppen in that way was an effort to "normalize" racism.

(Your humble scribe, the writer of the column, also came in for condemnation for perpetuating the perpetuator of racism.)

At any rate, after all the excitement, it's no wonder Toeppen felt like taking a trip. He took hundreds of photographs and had the experience of having a Chinese police officer question him about why he was taking pictures near Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 slaughter by the Chinese government of student protestors seeking democratic rights from their authoritarian rulers.

He said he also bought some items to commemorate the trip, including a bronze chicken that symbolizes good luck and a jade "money" dragon that symbolizes prosperity. Toeppen said he wanted to buy a jade pig symbolizing hard work, but despite the efforts of a persistent saleswoman, he could not "find a pig that met my needs."

"So I came home pigless," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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Cu1018 wrote on January 14, 2018 at 5:01 pm

I believe this article is mislabeled online. It's showing up for me in local news even though it's an opinion column. Thanks for your attention.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 15, 2018 at 8:01 pm
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But of course, we can tell it's not news. If it were, there would be sources cited for assertions such as "the roughly 6,000 Chinese students who attend the UI, few of whom avail themselves of the services of Suburban Express."

jlc wrote on January 14, 2018 at 5:01 pm

Funny how Dey always forgets to mention some of the other things this guy has done, like banning all customers from a Chicago suburb because one ended up on his "Wall of Shame," or deliberately taking students to court in Ford County so they couldn't get to the courthouse and/or couldn't use U of I legal assistance, or cyberstalking people who complain about him on Reddit. None of those are innocent mistakes or jokes.

Glock21 wrote on January 14, 2018 at 9:01 pm

Part 2 of an ongoing series of rehabilitating the image of local racists by the News-Gazette's staff defender of the white nationalist movement. Can't wait to see what lows he sinks to next week!

Dey continues to keep white people safe from the authoritarian left mobs (college kids) and the child eating Nazis (democrats) he keeps warning us about oppressing him. Pay no attention to the white nationalist threats and intimidation tactics (which is free speech to him) while championing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against undersirables they incite hatred and mockery of (or an academic discussion of capitalism, as he refers to it). Since Charlottesville, Dey has asked us to pay no attention to those hysterical leftists (sane never trumper republicans), and welcome them to rally in our community! What could go wrong?

Trumpism is making our nation surreal. What white nationalist nonsense will it normalize in our community next?

read the DI wrote on January 17, 2018 at 7:01 am

Dey is a conservative ideologue, for sure. But this column is less apologist than it is plain stupid. No wonder more people read the DI.