Lets Eat Chinese Tonight


A photograph taken in New York’s Chinatown in 1933 seems to sum up the special place of Chinese restaurants in American culture. The windows of a storefront are hung with Chinese characters, but there is also a large vertical sign, edged in neon, that proudly proclaims CHOP SUEY. REAL CHINESE CUISINE. Although chop suey is no more Chinese than succotash, it is this mix of the exotic and the familiar that has made the Chinese restaurant a ubiquitous national fixture.

Americans who would hesitate to visit an Ethiopian, a Thai, or even a French restaurant think nothing of going out to eat Chinese food. Like Italian cuisine, it has caped the classification of “ethnic.” In fact, there is a restaurant in the small northern California town of Crescent City that serves Italian food on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and Chinese food on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It’s closed on Sundays.

Chinese restaurants began to appear with the very first Chinese immigrants. The California gold rush brought the first great wave of Chinese immigration into the United States. From 325 in 1849, California’s Chinese population grew to 25,000 in two years. By 1882 more than 300,000 had fled war, natural disaster, and famine to make their fortunes in the place they called the “Golden Mountain.”

Most of them came from southern China, particularly Kwangtung (Guangdong) Province, a coastal area that includes the city of Canton. In fact, all but a fraction of the Chinese who immigrated in the nineteenth century came from just six of that province’s seventy-two districts. The southern Chinese, far from the central administration in the capital city of Peking, were among the emperor’s most rebellious subjects. The resentment that they, as racially Chinese Han people, held against their non-Chinese Manchu rulers sparked a long and bloody revolt in 1850.

A decade earlier the First Opium War had both established Hong Kong as a British crown colony and opened up Canton as a treaty port to Westerners. These ports provided convenient escape valves for the people of Kwangtung, who bore the brunt of the fighting. For the most part the immigrants hoped to work in the Golden Mountain for a few years and amass the five hundred or one thousand dollars that would let them return to lead the lives of landowners in their native villages. They thought of themselves not as emigrants but as sojourners.

The Chinese government did not want its citizenseven rebellious ones—leaving the country. Until 1860, when the laws were changed, anyone caught trying to leave or attempting to return to China was subject to execution. This made it dangerous enough for southerners to leave for America and nearly impossible for anyone living far from Canton or Hong Kong.

Once here the Chinese fanned out across the West to work on the railroads, in the mines, as farmhands, or as fishermen. Many of them settled in San Francisco, naturally enough making their home in Chinatown, a part of the city where they could be with others who spoke their own language, adhered to their own customs, and ate their own food.

San Francisco in those days was a city of transient bachelors who made thrive what we now call “service industries”: hotels, saloons, restaurants, and laundries. Chinese entrepreneurs recognized the opportunities and soon opened their own restaurants. Flying triangular yellow flags, the traditional identifying sign used in China, these “chow-chows” operated on a prix fixe basis: all you could eat for a dollar. No effort was made to cater to Western tastes. The restaurateurs served what they knew how to cook, genuine Cantonese food. The Occidental diners didn’t complain; they were happy to get well-cooked and filling meals for what was, by gold-rush standards, relatively little money. Chinese dishes, wrote the gold miner William Shaw in 1851, “are exceedingly palatable,” although he admitted, “I was not curious enough to enquire as to the ingredients.”

At first the relations between Chinese and Americans were cordial. Viewed by the whites as clean, industrious, and honest, the China Boys, as they were called, were invited to march in the funeral procession held for President Zachary Taylor in 1850 and participated in the celebrations marking the admission of California as a state later that year. But as San Francisco made the transition from a frontier town to the City of the Golden Gate, friction began to develop between the Chinese and white communities. By the 186Os the “anticoolie” movement had taken shape, and soon even diet had become politicized. The labor leader Samuel Gompers wrote a tract titled Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood Against Chinese Coolieism—Which Shall Survive? Chinese food was actually used as a basis for the defense in a criminal court case when the lawyer for a leader of an 1865 race riot explained his client’s behavior by pointing out to the judge, “Why, Sir-r-r, these Chinamen live on rice, and, Sir-r-r, they eat it with sticks!”