- Historic Sites
Lets Eat Chinese Tonight
Americans have been doing just that since the days of the California gold rush—and we’re still not full
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
Restaurant owners, Chinese and otherwise, are pragmatic. If customers demanded chop suey, then chop suey they would have. Adopting it as part of their bill of fare, some restaurants even claimed it as genuinely Chinese, rather than Chinese-American. The same is true of the fortune cookie; it was most likely invented in the United States by David Jung, who founded a noodle company in Los Angeles in 1916. While the concept may be based on the Chinese tradition of sending secret messages in cakes and cookies, the idea of offering snippets of philosophy through the medium of fried cookies is uniquely American.
Cheap, clean, and serving chop suey and fortune cookies along with more traditional fare, Chinese restaurants began to spread across America with the Chinese. Their numbers on the East Coast started increasing about the turn of the century. Growing from only 29 in 1870, New York’s Chinese population had reached 7,000 by 1900; by that year every major Eastern city and a number of Midwestern ones had Chinese populations of anywhere from 300 to 1,000 or more. Where the Chinese lived, so, too, were their restaurants. By 1920 the US. census showed that there were 1,685 Chinese restaurant keepers and 2,810 writers in the country, accounting for 10 percent of the Chinese work force. “All New York gleams at night with chop suey restaurants,” the British journalist Stephen Graham wrote in 1927. “Formerly one had to go to Chatham Square for a Chinese meal, but now in Greenwich Village, or Yorkville, or upper Broadway, or Harlem, wherever you climb up from a subway station the coloured lights of the illuminated letters CHOP SUEY greet you.”
If Chinese restaurants were thriving, the Chinese community itself was not. In 1882 Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese employment in mining, fishing, agriculture, and railroads dwindled during the early decades of this century, and the unemployed drifted into the urban Chinatowns. By 1931, 25 percent of the Chinese in America had no jobs.
Things began to improve with the coming of the Second World War. By then more than half the Chinese in the United States had been born here, and as native Americans and the offspring of our ally in the war against Japan, they enjoyed a turnaround in their former status. In 1943 the immigration policy was revoked. From a 1940 population of 77,504, the Chinese in America reached 237,292 in 1960 and 435,062 in 1970.
When the move to the suburbs became a general trend in the postwar years, Chinese entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunity to establish restaurants in the new business districts and shopping centers. No longer in the strange and threatening Chinatowns, these new restaurants proved immensely popular. Suddenly people who had never had the opportunity to eat Chinese food were able to try it. While it may not have been what a purist from Canton would have considered “real,” it still offered a change from burgers and fries.
The restaurants also benefited from the boom in take-out food, which gathered momentum in the 1950s. Takeout food was not new to Chinese restaurateurs; San Francisco’s had, for decades, delivered multicourse meals, complete with dishes and cutlery, to customers’ homes, and during her meal in New York’s Chinatown Harriet Quimby was fascinated to see “waiters who pass hither and thither bearing trays of assorted bowls … balanced on their heads. They are carrying dinner to merchants who cannot leave their shops….” In her 1932 guide to The Real New York , Helen Worden wrote: “If you prefer to bring Chinatown to your door, call either Mr. Chin or Mr. Lee at Chelsea 3-6840. They will deliver to your apartment for $3.00 a gallon some of the best chow mein I have eaten. This will serve sixteen people.” The author added that neither Chin nor Lee had enjoyed his own “affiliation with chow mein and chop suey”: “They say that real honest-to-goodness Chinese have never tasted chop suey.”
By the mid-1950s the Chinese restaurant had become a familiar, comfortable, and settled American institution, one that served food recognizable to diners whether they were picking up their chopsticks on the outskirts of Sioux City or in the heart of Chinatown. In 1959, writing in her delightful book New York Places & Pleasures , Kate Simon could say, “Chinatown’s restaurants are of almost equal quality and price, varying mainly in size and decor; all serve Cantonese food….” Of the Wah Kee, she wrote: " 'The back’ is reached by sidling past a gallery of silent cooks tamping down tanks of steaming rice and swiftly cleaving through chickens and ducks with huge blades. It contains several small tables surrounded by stacks of canned goods, bags of rice and spices, and hanging overhead, like grotesque lanterns, lacquered ducks burnished with syrups and time. The very dead birds bother some people; others love it. In any case, you won’t be left indifferent.