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Lets Eat Chinese Tonight

July 2024
13min read

Americans have been doing just that since the days of the California gold rush—and we’re still not full

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!”

Even those who were not particularly anti-Chinese found Chinese restaurants and the food served there to be disturbingly different from their usual fare. Benjamin Taylor, in his 1878 book Between the Gates, described a meal that cost him “four bits” in San Francisco’s Chinatown: “Pale cakes with a waxen look, full of meats, are brought out. They are sausages in disguise. Then more cakes full of seeds as a fig. Then giblets of you-never-know-what, maybe gizzards, possibly livers, perhaps toes.…” Four decades later Alice A. Harrison was even more critical: “The man of timorous spirit or sensitive stomach who survives the ordeal of a Chinese dinner should be awarded a chopstick badge for courage…. It may be water chestnut Chop Suey, as the bill of fare declares it is. Then again it may be, as the taste swears it is, a few old shoes, brass buttons and a wornout pipe. At any rate it swims about in a bedragoned bowl, and you eat it if you can.”

But it was not the ingredients of the dish that determined the fate of Chinese restaurants; it was the status of the Chinese themselves. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Chinese and their Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York, and other American cities were considered strange, exotic, and vaguely threatening. American popular literature abounded with tales of hatchet men and tong wars, opium dens and gambling parlors, and until the 1906 earthquake and fire revealed otherwise, many San Franciscans actually believed in a sinister underground city hidden far beneath the streets of Chinatown. Respectable people might venture into Chinatown on a tour, but the restaurants there found their regular non-Chinese customers, according to an overheated 1898 guidebook by Louis J. Beck, among the “laboring classes and outlaws”; out of every five hundred dollars taken in by the restaurants, Beck said, two hundred came from whites, two hundred from Chinese, and twenty-five “from negroes, who seem to delight in frequent-ins the lower class places.”

“Through a narrow hall and up a dirty stairs,” wrote John Hubert Greusel of an 1893 meal in Manhattan’s Chinatown, “brings one to the Chinese Delmonico restaurant. A good dinner consists of nine courses, served on bare wooden tables and eaten with chop sticks. The meal begins with sweets, half a dozen bits of sugared ginger heaped on a small eggshell compote; the ginger is dyed a brilliant scarlet…. tea is offered in cups no bigger than a thimble; a tin teapot is at hand, from which the diner replenishes his diminutive cup as often as need be. Some of the patrons have before them huge bowls of steaming rice, which they eat by bringing the dish to their lips, and then literally shoveling the food into the open mouth…. The odor of fuming cigarettes fills the air; an incessant babble prevails; every few moments you will see a Chinese pick up a bone or a bit of refuse food and deliberately send it flying under the table to the dirty floor! A greedy cat munches away under one of the tables. Were it not for the red banners on the walls, the eating-house would be as bare as a barn; and, assuredly, it is as uninviting as a pig-sty. Yet the visitors to Chinatown love it dearly, and laugh and chatter there in a corner; the ladies, especially, on their first visit, cannot prevent themselves going into ecstacies over the tiny teacups.”

But while many writers took a similar tone and some liked to hint that Chinese dishes included such unwelcome exotica as dogs, cats, and rats, at least a few others differed. Not only was the food good, they said, but the kitchens were clean. One visitor, writing in 1898, described them as being “kept with scrupulous cleanness,” while a review of Chinese restaurants published in the New York Daily News in the 1920s said that “the kitchens, without exception among those investigated were found immaculate. The utensils were shining, the metal work shone and the tables were scrubbed. Even the scraps looked clean.”

And as early as 1903 the journalist Harriet Quimby said: “The American who enters one of these restaurants for the first time may be surprised at finding that the way to the tables leads through the kitchen…. The idea is to give the patron evidence that everything is done in a cleanly manner.…In Chinatown good cooking is a part of religion—the cook is a priest.”

Yet what attracted non-Chinese diners to Chinese restaurants most of all was a dish that never saw the coast of China. There are several stories about how it was introduced to Americans, although no one is absolutely sure. One version takes it back to goldrush San Francisco. Closed for the night because it had run out of food, a Chinese restaurant was nonetheless invaded by a group of hungry miners who refused to be put off. Deciding that it was the better part of valor to feed them, the cook stir-fried whatever scraps of meat and vegetables were left in his larder. The miners hailed the result as delicious, and the relieved proprietor, seizing on the Chinese word for “a miscellany,” dubbed it “chop suey.” 

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.

“The menu is very much like that in other Cantonese restaurants, which means most of those in New York, with the difference that the egg rolls contain less dough and more shrimp, the pork is rather like that described by Charles Lamb, and the vegetables younger and sprightlier. Whatever else you order, include a dish of chicken with walnuts and the shrimp with Chinese vegetables.”

Thus the standard Chinese menu of the era. But a revolution was coming. Kate Simon hinted at its approach when she wrote, “In recent years, however, northern Chinese cooking (also called ‘Peking,’ ‘Shanghai,’ ‘Mandarin’) has become increasingly popular.” It came on with a vengeance in the early 1970s, about the time President Richard Nixon’s visit to China spurred interest in the country. Almost overnight eating chop suey became a faux pas, and people were full of authoritative chatter about the lamb dishes of Hunan Province. American tastes became more cosmopolitan, and the ever-adaptable Chinese restaurateurs moved to serve them.

Quite a few Americans harbored the suspicion that Chinese restaurants in this country had been, well, putting one over on them, that they had been deliberately hiding the range, variety, and quality of regional Chinese cuisine. Despite appearances, it was not some vast conspiracy to deny Americans the best that Chinese kitchens had to offer. Not only had virtually all the pre-1940 Chinese immigrants to the United States come from one place, but most of them had been farmers, laborers, and small businessmen. Cooking was an honored profession in China, and a qualified chef would neither need nor want to travel to the Golden Mountain. In any event the balance was redressed in less than a decade, and although the storm of fashionable interest in regional Chinese cuisine died down after a few years, it is apparent that genuine appreciation has remained. Small wonder: the diversity of offerings mirrors American tastes.

The southern regional style, of which Cantonese is a part, does not emphasize sweet and sour dishes as much as many Americans have come to believe. Like many classic Chinese styles, southern dishes do make use of contrasting flavors, textures, and colors, but the sweet and sour dishes known to us are usually applied only to certain types of fish and pork dishes.

The Cantonese are credited with perfecting the art of stirfrying, and they are also known for their love of rice. If this latter seems too obvious for mention, it should be remembered that rice is not universally eaten in China; much of the country is too cold or too dry for its cultivation. But the semitropical south yields up two and even three crops per year, and the southern Chinese emphasize it so much that their common greeting “Ch’ih fan la mei yu? (“Have you eaten?”) can more literally be translated as “Have you eaten rice?”

Finally, the southern Chinese are famous for their dim sum, small, delicate buns, dumplings, and pastries that have been a traditional afternoon snack since the tenth century. Restaurants in New York and San Francisco’s Chinatowns are the scenes of large-scale dim sum feasting on weekend afternoons, when waiters push around carts stacked with little plates, each with a few of the steamed, pan-fried, or deep-fried delicacies on it. “Some are fish patties,” says Kate Simon, “some are little hobo-bags of shining dough which enfold shrimps and vegetables, some are frilled dough cases holding chopped pork or beef mixtures; some are square, some round, and others oblong.” The carts keep circulating, and customers keep pointing out what they want until the table is stacked with small, empty plates; then the waiter figures the bill through the simple expedient of counting the number of dishes and multiplying by the price per dim sum serving.

Other regions of China have their own styles and specialties. The east, which includes Shanghai and Nanking, is famous for its duck, seafood, and fish, and the people there, unlike the Cantonese, prefer slow-cooked dishes. Between Canton and Nanking the mountainous province of Fukien is known for its soups and for dishes eaten with a thin pancake of bean curd bread into which a portion of the food is rolled.

In the dry, cooler north, where rice will not grow, wheat is used as the base for noodles, dumplings, buns, pancakes, breads, and cakes. Roasted and barbecued dishes, among them the world-famous Peking duck, are a specialty here, and the food is less spicy and oily than in the western provinces and contains fewer fruits than in the southern ones. Northerners like their food light and mild, often using vinegar as a seasoning. Sweet and sour sauce had its origins here, as a mixture of vinegar and sugar; the Cantonese adopted it, adding fruit or tomato sauce to suit their taste.

In the west the hot, tropical inland provinces of Szechwan and Hunan produce red and green peppers, which are used fresh or dried, and the famous Szechwan peppercorns. The cooks from the region believe that the spicy peppers stimulate the palate, thereby sensitizing it to the subtle range of flavors that follows.

Whatever the theory, Americans have embraced this region’s cuisine with particular fervor, even though most restaurants tone down the dishes for American consumption. A friend of mine, a Mexican-American who grew up on the fiery food of the Texas border country, often argues with waiters at Szechwan restaurants, trying to convince them that he really does want the dishes he has ordered to be authentically spicy. At least once the cooks came out of the kitchen to watch him as he joyfully ate their most ferocious offerings, tears streaming down his face.

As this brief tour suggests, the Chinese are a very adaptable people, particularly where food is concerned. When the first Chinese restaurants opened in America, they used local fish, meats, and vegetables, even incorporating sweet potatoes, squash, beans, and pumpkins into their diet.

Although Chinese gardeners and fishermen were able to furnish enough to the restaurants, one crucial ingredient was not available: rice. In 1874, as much as 34,586,287 pounds of it was imported to California; in 1915 more than 68,000,000 pounds came into the port of San Francisco alone. By the second decade of this century, large-scale rice farming had begun on the West Coast, and although an immense selection of canned, dried, pickled, and prepared ingredients is still imported, a wider variety of Chinese vegetables like Tientsin white cabbage is now being grown here.

Today there is a Chinese restaurant in nearly every town in the United States. Even the South, perhaps the last frontier for Chinese food in America, has its share. My wife, who was a teen-ager in Kentucky in the 1950s, never ate in a Chinese restaurant until she went on a trip to Ohio. Now her hometown of Louisville boasts at least eighteen of them, along with three Oriental groceries.

With the Chinese-American population nearing the one million mark, their contributions to our society are as great and as varied as those of any other ethnic group. But their most generous contribution, the one that touches us all the most warmly, is their food. After more than a century the Chinese restaurant has become as American as…chop suey.

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