By Alec Kong
Think of Chinese food and for most Americans, artfully arranged platters of Peking Duck come to mind, or perhaps the ubiquitous Kung Pao chicken or chow mein. Although only a small percentage of Americans are of Chinese descent, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United State’s than major fast food joints combined. This means that for most Americans, food is the most immediate avenue from which an acceptance or even an appreciation of Chinese culture occurs.
Food is inherently personal, and embedded within each culture’s cuisine is its story. We value food for sustenance as well as for the the emotions and connections it provokes. A bite of perfectly salty-sweet duck is more than a mouthful of umami, for Chinese food in America is born from both diaspora and resilience. A look back at the history of Chinese-American food reveals the inner-strength and character of Chinese immigrants who found a means to thrive against discriminatory laws and wide-spread nativist sentiment.
During the California Gold Rush in the 1840s and 50s, Chinese immigrants, pushed away from their ancestral homeland by the economic depression caused by the Opium Wars, flocked to America hoping to “strike it rich”. These immigrants left behind a nation ravaged by addiction; British and American merchants alike had been smuggling opium into China despite imperial edicts banning the drug, causing addiction on epidemic levels and driving a large percentage of native Chinese to leave ancestral lands. Unable to reclaim its economic sovereignty from Western powers. For the first time in over a millennium, China had lost its title as the wealthiest nation in the world and the nation was plunged into a depression and a human rights crisis inflicted by Western powers.
Chinese immigrants were pulled to America, more so than other country, because of the high wages and bountiful work opportunities from the rapidly growing railroad, farming, and mining industries. When they first immigrated to the west coast in the middle of the nineteenth century, Chinese laborers were welcomed because demand for cheap, unskilled labor remained high. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, demand for cheap labor had decreased and the competition for jobs fomented bitter antagonism toward Chinese laborers.
Chinese food first appeared in America as a coping mechanism for struggling immigrants — an intimate link to their culture that reminded them of home and gain them a sense of continuity in a new land. Although limited by Californian foodstuffs, early Chinese workers maintained a Chinese diet consisting of rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters, dried abalone fish, pork, and some poultry. They also often continued to use opium and drank heavy amounts of tea and hot water. In fact, due to boiling their drinking water, Chinese workers experienced fewer outbreaks of dysentery and other diseases when compared to their fellow white workers. Yet, the health benefits of this cultural habit, along with many others, were ignored as other facets of Chinese culture were mocked following the beginning of anti-Chinese sentiments.
Despite escaping tragedy in ancestral homelands, Chinese immigrants were met with hostility from white Americans who, blinded by their belief in Manifest Destiny, forced many Chinese workers out of mining jobs with political measures — the Foreign Miners Tax that explicitly targeted Chinese miners, for example — and often resorted to violence.
Violence between whites and Chinese immigrants was precipitated by the economic competition and the nativism it created, which resulted in vulgarized perceptions of Chinese culture and reduced its people in the media to inhuman caricatures. Much of the tension surrounded the work ethic of the Chinese immigrants, toiling to find some semblance of success in a new land. For instance, in his novel Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain observed a distinction in the resolve and effort between the white and the Chinese workers:
“They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries … So long as a Chinaman has strength to use his hands he needs no support from anybody; white men often complain of want of work, but a Chinaman offers no such complaint; he always manages to find something to do. He is a great convenience to everybody — even to the worst class of white men, for he bears the most of their sins, suffering fines for their petty thefts, imprisonment for their robberies, and death for their murders … As I write, news comes that in broad daylight in San Francisco, some boys have stoned an inoffensive Chinaman to death, and that although a large crowd witnessed the shameful deed, no one interfered.”
Although Twain highlights the drive of the Chinese workers, he maintains a somewhat patronizing tone that shows an unwillingness to fully accept Chinese people into America. Twain comments on them as secondary people rather than equals, surprised by their lack of rough and disorderly characteristics. Being described as a “convenience”, the Chinese are essentially am opportune tool, used for their labor, in the white man’s pursuit of the American Dream. The condescending attitude downplays much of Twain’s positive observations, perhaps making the piece more perceptible to Twain’s white audience.
Chinese culture places tremendous emphasis on filial piety; thus, in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants were predominantly male and came to the “Land of Opportunity” with the intent to make money as they could to send back to their destitute families. With this common motivation, many Americans, such as Mark Twain, noted the uncompromising work ethic of the Chinese workers. Coming from a country that had few economic opportunities if any, they were more concerned about getting paid than about how much they were getting paid. Chinese workers willingly let businessmen exploit their labor and subjugate them to a dehumanized level within society, as long as they had the means to provide for their families.
For many Chinese in America, the struggle to find a foothold within the American Dream was intensified by nativist sentiments. When miners at Rock Springs, Wyoming began to join the Knights of Labor — a major labor union for both skilled and unskilled workers — to strike against Union Pacific’s lowered wages, mine managers only hired Chinese miners who were all willing to work for impossibly low wages. In being strike breakers, the Chinese miners were blamed for the tribulations and tensions that culminated into the Rock Springs Massacre. The other miners, themselves exploited and ignored by the mining corporation, went on strike to better protect their livelihoods and provide for their own families. Thus, they responded to Chinese workers with violence, releasing their fears and frustrations. Numbering 100 to 150, the white miners surrounded Chinatown and drove nearly 500 Chinese miners away, killing 28. In fact, federal troops were stationed between downtown Rock Springs and Chinatown for thirteen years to prevent further violence. As the white workers at Rock Springs were predominantly immigrants themselves, the massacre also highlights how general disdain towards immigrants prompted white immigrants to redirect the contempt and blame into anti-Chinese sentiment.
The violently competitive economic situation of the time period, as evidenced by Rock Springs, brought about the early Chinese restaurants. Originally they were located in the Chinese communities to only serve other Chinese workers. These restaurants tried to be as authentic as they could despite California’s limitations on the availability of certain ingredients. These early restaurants did not have an expansive clientele so they were not as desired as other labor jobs. Chinese cuisine was a byproduct of the growing competition for jobs that incited racism especially within high immigrant populations.
In the image to the left, Nast, a more progressive political cartoonist, emphasizes the irony in discriminating a group of people within America — a nation built upon freedom and equality. The attack of Chinese immigrants is glaring when also considering how all white Americans are immigrants who similar to the Chinese came for better lives away from strike back home.
Racial tensions between white and Chinese communities took such a hold in the nineteenth century due to the drastically different Chinese culture. Along the lines of other journalists who commonly noted how easily the Chinese population was labeled as outsiders relative to other ethnic communities, Henry Kittredge Norton described how the Chinese immigrants’ “peculiar dress and pigtail marked them off from the rest of the population. Their camps at the mines were always apart from the main camps of white miners”. By referencing the “pigtail”, Norton depicts the queue, a hairstyle consisting of a long braid with shaved front and sides. Beyond the resemblance to pigtails — a name that dehumanized the Chinese in alluding to a dirty farm animal — the queue was a fashion anomaly and a element of racist, stereotypical characterizations of the Chinese. As Norton notes, the physical isolation of the Chinese from white camps and cities furthered the social cleavage as well. Living in a separate Chinatown, they were easily attacked and condemned for all kinds of social issues. They represented a threat to community solidarity in the way they kept to themselves.
For many Americans the racist assumptions of the Chinese appearing dirty and uncivilized translated to all aspects of their culture. Chinese food was first brought to the United States as a source of comfort for Chinese immigrants thrust into a demanding life thousands of miles from home. Food has been central to Chinese culture, but China’s culinary exploration of texture confused Americans unfamiliar with food being slimy, gristly, or rubbery. During the nineteenth century, Chinese food especially was not regarded highly. For the early Chinese restaurants, chefs and owners had to fabricate new dishes that retained an exotic feel, yet presented flavors and textures that appealed to the Western palate. The assimilation that began was a necessity for a restaurant’s survival within a Western consumer base and began the divide between authenticity and American acceptability that exists to this day. John David Borthwick in his memoirs of three years spent traveling among mining camps in California, harps on the common disgust associated with food from Chinese camps during the mid nineteenth century:
“[They] were eating the same dubious looking articles which excite in the mind of an outside barbarian a certain degree of curiosity to know what they are composed of, but not the slightest desire to gratify it by the sense of taste. I was very hospitably asked to partake of the good things, which I declined; but as I would not eat, they insisted on my drinking, and poured me out a pannikin full of brandy, which they seemed rather surprised I did not empty.”
Much of what Borthwick highlights in his memoirs of Chinese camps was probably true. As most Chinese immigrants were from the coolie class — unskilled laborers hit particularly hard by the economic depression following the Opium Wars — they didn’t have access to proper sanitation and worked double shifts late into the night, resulting in the crowded and filthy conditions. It is also important to note that these conditions were indicative of all mining camps, regardless of race, and only discussed in the context of Chinese miners due to racism. The undesirable characteristics of this demographic of Chinese society was easily generalized to the entire nation. These generalizations supported the racism and common animosity, further entrenching the immigrants as lesser inhabitants of the territories. While the “dubious” aspects of Chinese communities were emphasized and publicized throughout the nation, the attractive qualities were not — depicting the flaws of people forced out of their homes for financial collapse, rather than the truth of an ancient, enduring culture. It is important to note that the conditions of these camps and mannerisms of the immigrants are not fully known because no first-hand memoirs of the Chinese experience in nineteenth century California have survived, testament to the suppression of the Chinese voice in America.
Many Chinese workers excluded from well-paying mining jobs were forced to assume work in industries typically associated as feminine: restaurants and laundries. This economic movement was seen as a subversion of the roles of white women in America and was framed as evidence of the inherent femininity within all Chinese men. The perception of Chinese immigrant men as effeminate, subordinate beings relegated the Chinese community into the bottom tiers of American society. However, in the emergence of Chinese immigration, laundry became the only viable way for Chinese families to make a living within a discriminatory society. As American tastes and preferences changed, Chinese restaurants would follow the early trend of Chinese laundry.
An outcome of the degraded perception of Chinese in America, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was oppressive in barring the immigration of Chinese laborers. It was the first federal law that prohibited entry of a specific ethnic group into the United States on the basis of them being a threat to local industry. As most immigration agents automatically assumed Chinese immigrants were lying, it was almost impossible for Chinese immigrants to prove they were not laborers, resulting in them rarely entering the US. According to the national census, the Chinese population in the U.S. dropped from 105,465 in 1880, to 61,639, in 1920. Another factor of immigration decline on the West Coast is the Angel Island Immigration Center, established in the San Francisco Bay, in 1910. There, Chinese immigrant hopefuls could be detained for weeks or even years before being allowed entry to the US — if at all. At Angel Island Chinese hopefuls were detained, abused in physical examinations, and interrogated relentlessly, each fearing that a verbal mistake at any moment could jeopardize their chances at being released to America. The mental and physical abuse at Angel Island is one of many oppressive instances along the United States’ complex history with immigration and detention centers.
The anti-Chinese immigration laws meant that Chinese culture was perceived as being inferior, preventing the spread of Chinese food along with the number of chefs coming over from China. The notion that Chinese immigrants had to be examined closely while Europeans entered without much regard began to seep into America’s social fabric. The acts essentially allowed Chinese culture and food to be attacked without consequence. In this cultural isolation, Chinese Americans lost their understanding of their ancestral cuisine. With the majority of the population being male and from a society that relegates cooking to the feminine sphere of domesticity, Chinese cooks lost culinary authenticity as they tried to replicate dishes they had eaten when they were young. With a need to make money to provide for families and a decreased attention to accuracy of the food, Chinese restaurants became easily influenced by American consumers, beginning a trend of the Americanization of Chinese food and culture that would continue to the present-day.
The late nineteenth to early twentieth century experienced an unexpected shift of the impression of Chinese food from repulsion to enthusiasm, mostly precipitated by an improving American economy that curbed the fear of the Chinese threat to America.
Increasingly, white Americans — no longer feeling intense anger towards Chinese for their impact on labor demands — exhibited curiosity with Chinatown and its exotic seeming cultural elements. For many middle-class white Americans, Chinatowns became tourist attractions and opportunities for stereotypical, exotic entertainment. Although Chinese culture was not quite respected, there was a definite tolerance that at times meant accepting it as a part of the American social fabric.
The curiosity of middle-class tourists initially bridged the social gap between Chinatown and the non-Chinese neighborhoods. Restaurants and grocery stores had always existed within the Chinese communities. More so than in many other cultures, food is the centerpiece by which people of Chinese descent find meaning in their identity and community. Thus, the first immigrants had brought their food to America, using it to transplant memories of their ancestral homeland and find comfort.
Although the middle class is given credit for the introduction of Chinese food to the larger white American narrative, minority groups were the ones to make it known to national perception and cause it to be consumed on a larger scale. For these poor whites, African Americans, and New Immigrants, Chinese food was inexpensive and filling, making it instantly popular for its nourishment rather than its amusement. In California, the support that destitute whites gave to Chinese restaurants made it possible for them to spread outside of Chinatowns, following a national trend. Chinese food was an inexpensive luxury that served to establish a common culinary experience for all social classes and groups. The importance of these restaurants is embodied within Prentice Mulford’s 1889 book Life by Land and Sea that recounts his adventures in California:
“Chinese Camp meant restaurants, where we could revel in the luxury of eating a meal we were not obliged to prepare ourselves, a luxury none can fully appreciate save those who have served for years as their own cooks … the limited stir and bustle of such a place as Chinese Camp assumed an increased importance and interest.”
Surprisingly, the rise of Chinese restaurants was also fueled by later anti-immigration laws intended to stem Chinese influence.
The Chinese Exclusion Acts had special provisions that allowed Chinese businessmen to receive a merchant status and bypass common immigration laws — thereby enabling them to travel to China to bring employees who were often relatives. A 1915 court case officially granted these merchant privileges to restaurant owners, making the restaurant industry one of the few avenues for legal entry into the U.S. The flood of Chinese into the industry is reflected in the sudden surge of Chinese restaurants; from 1910 to 1920 the number of Chinese restaurants in New York City nearly quadrupled and then doubled in the next decade. By 1930, the focus of Chinese labor shifted from laundries to restaurants. Chinese family life soon came to revolve around and be dependent on the restaurant.
However, merchant status was difficult to obtain, assigned only to the major investor of a high end restaurant who managed the restaurant for one year without doing any menial work — cashiering, waiting, cooking. To use the loophole, Chinese formed partnerships within restaurants, pooling resources to open luxury culinary establishments — chop suey palaces needing upwards of $150,000 for startup in today’s money. All acting as major investors and rotating managerial duties between themselves, many Chinese were able to qualify for legal merchant status, enabling them to bring back family from China to work in these restaurants.12 This system made it possible for Chinese communities to diverge from the predominantly male, bachelor community to the family oriented community.
Restaurants, as tools for chain migration, became synonymous with the families’ livelihoods. Familial duty was now to work in the restaurants. In a typical Chinese restaurant waiters and cooks were all related, working to benefit their family. Each family member was expected to work long, demanding hours with low wages — an extension of the resolve displayed by Chinese miners and railroad workers of the 1800s.
As the success of the restaurant dictated the success of the family, Chinese chefs altered dishes to please the white palate. Rather than responding to any shame for their culture, these chefs wanted a chance to benefit from the opportunity of a larger consumer base. Traditional dishes such as shark’s fin, bird’s nest, chicken feet, and sea cucumber were disregarded for americanized dishes such as chop suey and General Tso’s Chicken.
Chop suey has enigmatic origins in Chinese American culinary history. There are two origin stories for chop suey. In one, Li Hung-chang, a prominent minister to the Chinese Emperor, was served the dish on a visit to the Mayor of San Francisco in 1896. Li had a weak stomach and was advised not to eat anything rich but the chef presented him a dish of leftovers which he named chop suey, meaning“odds and ends”. In another story, a Chinese cook served a last-minute meal of leftovers to a group of white Californian miners in the 1860s. These stories, changing constantly, all express how Chinese cooking has revolved around the principle of not wasting anything.
Li was never in San Francisco, but since he was recieved like royalty, the story of him eating chop suey was enough to send Americans into Chinatown in pursuit of an exotic dish. Thus, chop suey became synonymous for Chinese food and the era of chop suey palaces began. Chop suey faded from being an American staple after its was thought to be unauthentic in the mid 20th century, despite chop suey having ties to Chinese dishes. Chop suey exemplifies how authenticity is largely determined by the many voices of America, rather than the Asian and Asian American.
The adaptive quality of Chinese restaurants has made them a cornerstone of the American diet. Open later in the night, they cater to a wider number of people and more demographics. When the fortune cookies were invented in California during the early 1900s, they were popularized by Chinese restaurants to the point when they became synonymous with the food served. Fortune cookies created the expectation at most Chinese restaurants that in place of dessert, a sweet pastry with an enigmatic saying would be offered. The excitement of the fortune cookie made Chinese restaurants an experience that interested customers. Like the fortune cookie, Chinese delivery and takeout services exploded onto the scene during the post-WWII suburban era. Being open on Christmas Day meant that Chinese restaurants were the only places open for families who did not celebrate Christmas, often creating traditions centered around Chinese food. Offering delivery, Chinese restaurants saw increased orders from the middle-class. As an other example of Chinese-American restaurants as cultural crossroads, the white cardboard containers with red decals that have come to symbolize Chinese food resulted from an American invention with Japanese origami ties. Just as Chinese food had to adapt to fit Americans, the restaurants themselves adapted to stand out and compete with other restaurants.
The expansion of Chinese food deeper into American tastes gained momentum with the 1965 Immigration Reform Act that undid the 1924 racial quota system. With this act, Chinese immigration was unobstructed, paving the way for greater numbers of Chinese in the restaurant industry. From 1970 to 2000 the Chinese American population increased from 435,062 to 2,432,858.10 Along with President Nixon’s visit to China — a move that softened tensions between the nations — the Chinese communities improved their standing within American society through assimilation and a national decrease in tensions. By 1980 Chinese restaurants comprised 30% of all ethnic restaurants.10
Increasingly towards the late 1900s, Chinese food in America became even more different than the food in China. Americans lived in ignorance of authentic Chinese cuisine, thus, they accepted the food in americanized Chinese restaurants as genuine. In 1973 the Panda Restaurant Group was formed and would soon create Panda Express — the fast-food restaurant chain ubiquitous throughout the United States. Panda Express spread Chinese food in all corners of the nation with heavy American influence by emphasizing aspects of Chinese restaurants that Americans loved: open late night, fast service, cheap, flavorful, takeout, and fortune cookies. Although the impact Panda Express has had on the perception of Chinese Americans is too recent to be understood, the restaurant has has offered a cheap, easy meal that replaces authenticity with comfort. In areas without a Chinese community or typical Chinese restaurant with more authentic dishes, Panda Express with orange chicken, kung pao chicken, teriyaki chicken, and chow mein becomes the standard for Chinese food. This is just as disheartening as Taco Bell being confused for authentic Mexican cuisine.
As understanding of Chinese food has centered around Panda Express, many local Chinese restaurants have also served americanized Chinese food — reflecting the decades of culinary adaptation before. Alterations in dishes are what enabled Chinese restaurants to number around 40,000 in America. However, they have also created ignorance. Immigrant families bring their food with them, but first-generation Americans grow up with the sense of shame surrounding their family’s cultural heritage. Jonathan Wu, a Chinese American chef at Nom Wah Tu, remembers how he was always “that kid, with farty-smelling food.” Food found in immigrant families differed greatly from the transformed food labeled as Chinese, causing many first and second generation immigrants to have painful memories of neighbors complaining about foreign smells or classmates blanching from homemade lunches.
As a child of Chinese immigrants living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have similarly felt ashamed of my family’s food. Growing up, one of my favorite parts of fish were the heads. However, my friends and classmates rarely understood when I described the tenderness of the meat. Feeling ostracized, I began choosing meals that were more familiar to my friends such as burgers, pasta, and pizza. Only after successive trips to China as an English teacher did I realize how wrong I was to avoid authentic Chinese food — each time I left I become more nostalgic for the food and the people I grew to appreciate. With a cultural emphasis on cuisine and a large population, restaurants in China are relatively safe businesses, creating a wide range of dishes and flavors in each establishment. Finding a love for everything I ate in China, from Chinese barbeque to hot pot to noodles, I am part of a new wave of Asian Americans who now embrace and have pride in their ethnic cuisine.
As Ligaya Mishan elucidates, “Among the children of immigrants, Asians in America seem most caught in a state of limbo: no long beholden to their parents’ countries of origin but still grasping for a role in the American narrative.” In restaurants, Asian Americans have created a contemporary cuisine of their own that represents the intersection of Western and Eastern culture. Perhaps the most famous is Korean American chef David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in New York in 2004.15
Today, the gentrification of Chinese food in America has made Chinese food, as it appears in China, uneatable for Americans. Chinese-American food has brought about misconceptions of what Chinese food is, so much so that American find Chinese food to be unpleasant. One of my friends on a recent athletic trip to China told me how she was unable to eat anything served at the hotel — except rice. Her experience shocked me. My experiences visiting and eating my way through China have never brought me to the same place as my friend. Food has the power to bring people together, but this can only happen if we make the effort to approach new experiences with an open mind, as it is easy to cast people aside for their differences.
Chinese food adapted to Western preferences in order to survive in a racially charged climate, yet, it is this very discrepancy that now helps to further divide China and America, particular impinging Asian Americans. Stereotypes of Chinese eating dogs are the new norm, and they represent another obstacle for Chinese food to be globally accepted. While many Americans are aware of certain cities practicing this, many people I encountered in China were unaware of it, surprised that a few cities have festivals for eating dogs. Additionally, while regionality is known in cuisines such as Italian, Americans tend to generalize all Chinese food together as one indivisible body. Some Americans have heard of Szechuan, Hunan, or Shanghai, but this list ignores all 23 provinces in China that have distinct traditions, cultures, and foods. Over China’s ancient history it has diversified itself with certain provinces specializing in noodles and each urban city, no matter the size, having a set of dishes that defines it.
Today racism in Chinese food often comes from a misunderstanding of cultural norms. Some may feel that the lazy susan implies laziness, but in Chinese culture it is simply the most effective serving tool for a nation that emphasizes an intimate style of eating based on sharing. Another commonly used argument against Chinese food is monosodium glutamate (MSG). Although MSG is often associated with Chinese food, it is actually quite common, hidden everywhere under different names. In fact, snacks and processed foods have higher levels of MSG than a typical Chinese dish with it, but there are much fewer complaints about MSG allergies from processed foods. Often, the perception of Chinese restaurants as dirty and gross creates a lack of acceptance of culture that causes the questioning “why am I not white?” amongst children of immigrants. The belief that Chinese restaurants are not fancy enough to be deemed worthwhile comes from a white lens that, contrary to Chinese culture, maintains the importance of decor and service as indicators of quality.
By appreciating Chinese food we open a dialogue to appreciate Chinese culture. In an increasingly polarized world, culinary appreciation can fight racist assumptions about China and break the ceiling that prevents Chinese culture from being widely accepted. Moreover, it can create a general acceptance of Chinese people, leading Chinese Americans to rekindle their pride in their racial identity and self-confidence. Chinese food lost its authenticity due to the hardships early Chinese Americans faced to realize the American Dream. However, by understanding the many characteristics within the ancient cuisine we can avoid the mistakes of the past. An act as simple as ordering a unusual dish at a Chinese restaurant goes a long way in the appreciating what Chinese culture really is; you may even find a new favorite dish! The world lacks sympathy, but by resisting our innate urges to judge and criticize others for their differences, we can bring inclusiveness to society.