The first known Chinese restaurant in America, Canton Restaurant, is believed to have opened in San Francisco in 1849. Today, according to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, more than 45,000 Chinese restaurants operate across the United States, more than all the McDonald’s, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy’s combined.
Their story begins with Chinese immigrants to California in the mid-nineteenth century — mostly from Canton province — drawn by the Gold Rush of 1849 and fleeing economic problems and famine in China. Though some headed to the gold fields, most Chinese immigrants to the San Francisco Bay area provided services for the miners as traders, grocers, merchants and restaurant owners.
Eating houses run by Chinese sprang up around town and won a reputation for high-quality food and unusually low prices. An all-you-can-eat meal could cost as little as $1 – less than half the price of what was available elsewhere. “The best restaurants,” one patron recalled, “were kept by Chinese and the poorest and dearest [most expensive] by Americans.” Chinese dishes were offered but much of what they served was western. One early menu lists “Grilled Dinner Steak Hollandaise” and “Roast California Chicken with Currant Jelly,” with “Fine Cut Chicken Chop Suey” presented as just another option.
The next wave of Chinese immigrants found work on the railroads, and Chinese “restaurants” – victualing stalls and houses – grew along the railway, spreading across the country. In 1855, 38 Chinese people were recorded in the city of New York, all males. Some early Chinese New Yorkers were sailors and traders who arrived directly at New York Harbor and decided to stay, but many of the city’s early Chinese residents arrived not from China directly, but from the Western United States, particularly after anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco in 1877. In the mid-1870s, the New York Times counted around 500 Chinese immigrants, most of them men, half living in what we now call Chinatown – the area defined by three streets that still form its heart: Mott, Pell, and Doyers.
At this point, the story becomes confusing. The Chinese Exclusion Act forbidding Chinese immigration was passed in 1882 and the flow of Chinese migrants halted. At this point, there were only about 100,000 Chinese people living in the United States – and no more could arrive legally until 1943 when the Exclusion Act was revoked. So, the number of Chinese entering the U.S. was low: 14,800 in the 1890s and a record low of 5,000 in the 1930s.
But the number of Chinese restaurants in New York City seems to have increased – indeed, in 1903 an exhibit at the Museum of the Chinese in America said, “over 100 chop suey houses existed between 14th and 45th Streets, from the Bowery to Eighth Avenue” and the number of Chinese restaurants in New York City quadrupled between 1910 and 1920.
The Museum says that late-1800s versions of New York hipsters headed into Chinatown seeking new tastes for their adventurous palates. They discovered the novel flavors of Americanized Chinese dishes like chop suey and egg foo young, popularizing them to the point that they spread throughout the city. Chinatown was teeming with people in the 1880s.
Was this “Chinese” food? And what is Chop Suey?
Different kinds of Chinese restaurants appeared in the City. Some were fancy, upmarket places. In 1897 Port Arthur Restaurant opened, the largest Chinese restaurant in the city. It became a magnet for “slummers” – American tourists looking to do something exotic in the evenings. They sat at mahogany tables inlaid with mother of pearl, listened to music played on a baby grand piano and congratulated themselves on their spirit of adventure.
When the Port Arthur became the first Chinese restaurant in the city to obtain a liquor license, it became even more risqué and fashionable. (Port Arthur was a Manchurian city that served as a base for the neutral Russia Imperial Navy. It was seized by Japan in 1904, beginning the Russo-Japanese War.)
“A man might wish to treat his wife or a friend to a dish of chop suey after a theatre, but could not eat the stuff himself. He must either go hungry or be satisfied with tea and rice. Consequently he lets his wife have her chop suey, while he orders, from the American side of the bill, broiled ham or broiled chicken, according to how much money he wishes to spend.”
In contrast, some Chinese restaurants were very Chinese indeed. Nom Wah Tea Parlor first opened at 13–15 Doyers Street in 1920 as a bakery and tea parlor. For most of the 20th century, Nom Wah served their neighbors fresh Chinese pastries, steamed buns, dim sum, and tea. Tourists came later.
In the 1920s American eaters were “shocked” when they were told “the average native of any city in China knows nothing of chop suey.” One food critic called chop suey “the biggest culinary prank one culture has ever pulled on another.” Others argue chop suey is indeed of Chinese origin. Where exactly its roots lay has been debated; but it was probably first cooked in Taishan, in Guangdong, where most early immigrants had grown up. More properly written tsa sui (Mandarin) or tsap seui (Cantonese), its name means something akin to “odds and ends.”
Was this an Americanized Cantonese cuisine? Anyone who has dined in a Cantonese restaurant knows that the cuisine is heavily seafood. Throughout the early 20th century, “Chinese” dishes became sweeter, boneless, and more heavily deep-fried. Broccoli, a vegetable unheard of in China, started appearing on menus; and fortune cookies, a sweet originally thought to be from Japan, finished off a “typical” Chinese meal. Hardly Cantonese.
What is important is that an Americanized Chinese cuisine did emerge in the 1920s-30s – of various roots, but always looking to the customer’s tastes – and flowered after the Second World War when the doors to immigration were reopened. Regardless of its authenticity, the adaptation of Chinese cooking to American palates was a key element in the proliferation and popularization of Chinese cuisine in the United States.
This version of Chinese cuisine became the generic model – the Chinese restaurant menu in Buffalo was the same as in Detroit or, for that matter, in Winnipeg (and even, truth be told, in Lagos). Some restaurants were more upscale, some much less. But the cuisine was almost entirely the same. There were few surprises, no matter where we found a Chinese restaurant, it would taste the same.
From generic to regional specialization
In the 1960s and 1970s, that generic Chinese menu underwent dramatic change. The Chinese restaurant community rapidly diversified its menus. One reason was newcomers from different regions. The liberalization of American immigration policy in 1965 brought new arrivals from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the northern provinces of China, who in turn brought with them the foods they had enjoyed in areas like Hunan, Sichuan, Taipei and Shanghai.
I think another reason was that younger, more educated Chinese saw that a key to success was differentiation, and developed more focused products. Finally, and a bit later, many better-off young people from China began coming to the United States for education or jobs. To them, the generic American-Chinese cuisine made no sense.
The result in New York was grand – the opening of new Szechwan restaurants on the Upper West Side and then, hooray, Hunan on Second Avenue. Shanghai, Beijing. All sorts of new tastes. And then, Flushing.
But note, a recent GrubHub survey finds that old standards are still among the most often ordered: General Tso’s Chicken (also the 4th most popular dish of all), Crab Rangoon, Egg Roll, Sesame Chicken, Wonton Soup, Fried Rice, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Orange Chicken, Hot and Sour Soup and Pot Stickers. Not completely Old Timey, I guess, but hardly the cutting edge of Chinese food today.
What about Take-Out? Is that a Chinese invention?
First of all, people in cultures all around the world have long bought cooked food to bring home (see Pompeii for example). Certainly this was true in China, where domestic cooking facilities were modest for many. So, doing the same in Chinese communities here did not mark a change. What is interesting is that non-Chinese joined in – and take-out became identified with Chinese food, and that Chinese restaurants adopted take-out as a brand. And long before today’s food delivery services, New York’s Chinese restaurants delivered.
The little paper box? Some say the boxes resemble the old pails used to bring home oysters. It’s certainly an American invention. Patented by inventor Frederick Weeks Wilcox in 1894 in Chicago. He called it a “paper pail,” a single piece of paper, creased into segments and folded into a (more or less) leakproof container secured with a wire handle on top. It’s not found in China. Why this particular container became so closely associated with Chinese food in the United States is unclear.
A version of this essay by Stephan Blank was first published by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.
Photos, from above: Canton Restaurant; Manhattans Chinatown; Port Arthur Restaurant; a high class “Chinese” restaurant; Nom Wah Tea Parlor; Nom Wah Tea Parlor today; Ultra-Americanized advertisement; and Chinese takeout.