Chinese American Cuisine: Americanization as Marketing
I wrote this for a class called immigrant America. I believe it was a broad assignment to write about how the absorption of immigrant culture.
In the summer of 2008, I stayed in the town of Centerville, Iowa for over a month. While all of Iowa has a heavily white population, this is especially true in the small towns. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Centerville has a population 5,294, of which 0.37% is Asian. This works out to twenty-two individuals. Centerville also has two Chinese restaurants. Presumably, some of the Asian residents are children. Therefore, in order for these establishments to be open twelve hours a day, six or seven days per week, all the Asian adults in the town must work at one of the Chinese restaurants with perhaps one or two exceptions. For the white, black or Hispanic residents of Centerville, Chinese restaurants are the main context in which they will interact with Chinese people. This is not a unique situation and was true of an even larger portion of the United States in the past. In 1920, when the Chinese restaurant boom was still fairly new, not a single state in the U.S. had even a 1% Chinese population. More than a quarter of Chinese-Americans at the time worked in the restaurant business in some capacity, making this the second largest profession after laundry work. While there were certainly a few cities such as San Francisco with sizeable Chinese populations, most of the U.S. had little real interaction with Chinese people outside of laundries and restaurants. Laundries were not a specifically Chinese service, but restaurants were the front lines in presenting Chinese culture to the rest of America. However, the culture and cuisine presented in American Chinese restaurants are not authentically Chinese, to the extent a monolithic Chinese culture can even be said to exist, but rather are original creations by Chinese entrepreneurs, who combined influences from China and other portions of Asia and gave adapted them to American tastes and expectations while simultaneously presenting them as ancient traditions.
In the mid 1860s, white perception of Chinese was shaped by a rather different sort of tourism. Chinese restaurants existed, but there were only a handful between New York and San Francisco. They catered mainly to the Chinese residents of Chinatown who were typically not allowed in other restaurants and also desired food approximating what they ate in China. While they may have attracted the occasional white man who had acquired a taste for Chinese cooking while working on the railroad or in the mines, this was not their primary market. White customer general did not care for traditional Chinese serving style, where meat was served in identifiable pieces with head and such intact and the whole party shared a single serving bowl.  As Chinatowns enjoyed relatively little attention from law enforcement, they were notorious havens for criminal activity. Opium dens, brothels and casinos were ubiquitous. In place of police, crime syndicates kept order and demanded protection money. While these industries catered to largely Chinese clientele, they also had significant numbers of white customers.
These largely external criminal elements cast a pall over all of Chinatown and American Chinese. Despite the fact that white and black people not only were customers for vice, but often owned or even directly ran these illegal Chinatown businesses, media portrayals focused on Chinese criminals corrupting white men rather than white demand for vice driving crime into Chinese neighborhoods. In fact, the Chinese residents of these neighborhoods faced some of the worst consequences of crime. The customers of the various vice dens were frequently intoxicated, violent and seeking prostitutes, making it dangerous for anyone, especially women, to venture out after dark. Merchants were forced to pay protection money to criminals even though their businesses were legal and theoretically did not need underworld protection. When conflicts arose between the various organizations, merchants were high-profile and vulnerable targets for violence. The resulting ill-reputations of Chinatowns for being crime-and-disease-ridden scared away many potential customers. Even the white johns, gamblers and addicts who did visit Chinatowns did not usually eat at the restaurants because of rumors the food was made from rats and other things repulsive to Westerners. Thus removing the criminal element was in the best interest of Chinese restaurateurs.
At the end of the nineteenth century, merchants started gaining the necessary leverage to actually change their situation and elevate their standing. In both New York and San Francisco, Anti-Chinese activists portrayals of a squalid, dangerous Chinatown began attracting middle-class white tourists, or “gawkers” as they were sometimes called. These tourists came to see the criminal element, but not to participate. This meant the criminal organizations, while providing the attractions, did not actually profit from this new presence. The tourists were, however, ideal customers for Chinese restaurants as they had significant incomes, caused little trouble and had come to Chinatown in search of the exotic. In fact, as Chinese were increasingly unwelcome in the main labor market, again due to anti-Chinese activism, they needed new sources of income. Profits for vice dens fell as tourists displaced the rowdies who had formed the old clientele and the presence of middle-class whites brought increased police attention, making it increasingly difficult to run a criminal operation. Many of the protection outfits reorganized as commerce associations and opened their own restaurants, which increasingly was where profits were to be found in Chinatowns. The invention of American Chinese cuisine had allowed restaurants to fill the economic vacuum.
While much of Chinese American cuisine, meaning the food served in Chinese restaurants in the United States, is derived from traditional Chinese foods, in many respects it has been created by Chinese American restaurateurs. Early attempts made minor changes to traditional Chinese dishes such as adding American and European fruits and vegetables such as corn and pineapple and thickening sauces with corn starch. These dishes proved still too intimating for white American tastes. The first successful example, which appeared in roughly the 1890s in San Francisco, was chop suey. Chop suey was a pseudo-Chinese food. It did not exist in China, but rather was created by Chinese-American chefs looking to create a dish that would maintain foreign, exotic appeal, but unlike the more authentic Chinese dishes, were familiar enough that Americans would easily accept it. Chop suey is a mix of chopped vegetables such as bell peppers, onions, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, onions and celery with meat, which is cut into small, unidentifiable pieces. It is stir-fried and served with soy sauce. While essentially a hash of inexpensive ingredients, it retained a Chinese character through inclusion of a few ingredients such as bean sprouts and soy sauce not found in mainstream cuisine and by its cooking method. Chinese-American chefs popularized the dish by perpetuating a story it was a favorite of Chinese Minister Li Hongzhang, one of the few Chinese white Americans at the time would have been familiar with. While Li was actually unfamiliar with chop suey and the story was a complete fabrication, this apparently was a quite effective tactic. This was another method of selling a romantic “Oriental” view rather than the more mundane reality.
Chop suey soon brought Americans into Chinatowns and Chinese residents out, greatly increasing contact between the two groups. Americans could not get enough of this new dish. Demand for chop suey and similar dishes such as chow mein, which is essentially chop suey with the addition of crunchy fried noodles, or egg foo young, which is chop suey mixed into a omelet, led to amazing growth in the Chinese restaurant industry. Between 1903 and 1923, Los Angeles grew from five Chinese restaurants to twenty-eight despite a decline in its Chinese population. By 1920, there were over ten thousand Chinese restaurant workers whereas fifty years earlier there were well under two hundred. Of course, not all of these were in New York City and San Francisco. Demand drew Chinese entrepreneurs outside the traditional cities for Chinese immigrants and into suburban and rural areas that had, in all likelihood, not previously had contact with any Chinese people.
While chefs experimented with foods suited for American consumption, Chineseness itself, at least in the popular imagination, was also being altered for American consumption. Chinese, rather than competing for American jobs were seen as providing a new, uniquely ethnic service. Restaurant workers were subservient and therefore non-threatening. As restaurant operators displaced criminals in the Chinatowns, they also displaced them in the public eye. However, many negative stereotypes remained. Eating Chinese food was a way for whites to experience Chinese culture on their own terms. It did not mean these “chop suey addicts” were ready to accept Chinese culture in the broad sense. Popular attitudes about Chinese did not significantly change for many decades. Hostility and isolated attacks on restaurants continued as late as 1963, even in Missouri, a state with little historical resentment of Chinese immigrants due to their very low numbers.
Chinese businessmen remade the décor of the Chinese restaurants, as well as Chinatowns themselves to meet American expectations. Chinatowns were originally essentially slums and were not architecturally distinct from the rest of the city except perhaps for their disrepair. As Chinatowns were increasingly turned into tourist attractions, this changed. After the 1906 earthquake, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Pagoda-styled fronts replaced crumbling facades and dragons supported street lamps to keep visibility high at night. Since merchants could now operate in relative safety, they were free to hold Chinese New Year parades and other assorted festivals, not just for the Chinese residents, but for white sightseers. Local businesses advertised throughout the city, hoping to bring new white customers to their shops and restaurants. Like many of its contemporaries, “new Chinatown,” which opened in Los Angeles in 1936, was an artificial construct, aimed at tourists. While Chinese ran the businesses, few actually lived there. Light compares the effect to a theme park. Outside of Chinatowns, restaurants were decorated in a similar fashion. Restaurants picked eye-catching themes with arches, temple awnings, tapestries and bright, often red, color schemes.
As Chinese entrepreneurs found new ways to promote their culture and adapt it for American audiences, they also had to keep ahead of American attempts to make it their own, which would have cut into one of the few good business opportunities available to Chinese. Brands such as La Choy in 1920 and Chun King around 1940, neither of which were Chinese-owned, put chop suey and chow mein on the menu in white-owned restaurants and even at home. Soy sauce and bean sprouts were on grocery-store shelves after World War II, normalizing these as part of the diet and eroding chow mein’s exotic appeal. Additionally, white restaurant owners played off stereotypes of unsanitary conditions in Chinese restaurants to suggest, sometimes unsubtly, that Chinese-made food was dangerous but you could get safe chop suey from them.
Chinese-American restaurateurs were able to maintain their culinary dominance, however through continued innovation in presentation of their culture. First, while people could recreate the food at home, they could not recreate the experience of a Chinese restaurant. White Americans could only co-opt Chineseness in part. Also, the development of American Chinese cuisine did not end with the creation of chop suey. Chefs continued to adapt aspects of traditional Chinese cooking to local tastes. Circa 1930, in Fall River, Massachusetts, a town with little historic Chinese population, an enterprising cook got the idea to take chow mein, a pseudo-Chinese dish to begin with, and serve it between two slices of bread with gravy, a distinctly Western concept. The Chow Mein sandwich is still a local favorite there.
One of the early innovations, the fortune cookie, is inextricable from American Chinese food in modern conception, but is in fact a uniquely American Chinese dish, designed to meet American expectations of what Chinese culture should be like. This a sweet, thin cookie folded around a piece of paper on which a fortune is printed. Like many foods, its origins are unclear. It originated in either San Francisco or Los Angeles in the 1910s where it may have been invented by a Japanese cook and copied by local Chinese restaurants or have been created by a Chinese noodle vendor. Either way, the cookie definitely has a relatively modern, American pedigree. The fortunes themselves are generally not literally a fortunes, but a “Confucius say”-style proverb, designed to sound Chinese through use of stereotypical imagery and speech patterns. As with other dishes, promoters gave it a fictitious, Chinese origin tying it to ancient tradition. In this case, they claimed it was descended from the moon cake, a pastry allegedly used to smuggle messages during Mongol rule in the fourteenth century. The supposed secrecy of the contents only served to enhance the cookies mystical appeal.
By 1930, Americans knew chop suey was not a genuinely Chinese food, but it had whetted America’s appetite for Chinese, making more authentic Chinese cuisine the new exotic ideal.  Post-World-War II, most of the legal barriers that had been forcing Chinese to a handful of industries were removed, meaning Chinese-Americans now had many opportunities for careers beyond restaurants. However, discrimination still prevented advancement in other fields and American demand for Chinese food meant that restaurants were still incredibly lucrative, so the industry marched on. A successful capitalist was also insulated from accusations of communism, a major problem for cold-war Chinese. In many ways, suspicions of Communism were a replacement for earlier negative ethnic stereotypes. With increased capital, owners were able to create new, high class restaurants. These were spotless, focused on service and generally made an effort to avoid all the bad associations of the early chop suey joints. Charlie Low, owner of the Forbidden City, a popular San Francisco nightclub in the 1940s further developed a tourist-focused version of Chinese culture with floor shows. These shows incorporated the sorts of elements seen in earlier décor like fans and gongs, further promoting the idea of a genuine Chinese experience for his customers.
Some local dishes caught on beyond their town of origin and spread to other restaurants, becoming part of the new national American Chinese Cuisine. Cashew Chicken was invented by David Leong in Springfield, Missouri in 1956 when he combined cashews, Chinese oyster sauce, which is traditionally used on pork, and American favorite fried chicken. It is now a staple on Chinese menus across the U.S. and has spawned several variants. This has created the ironic situation that new Chinese immigrants must learn to cook Chinese food in order to operate a restaurant in the U.S.
Due to incorporation of other cuisines, some foods in Chinese restaurants became entirely foreign to Chinese origins Crab rangoons, despite their ubiquity in Chinese restaurants and the fact they are named after the capital of Burma, are an American dish originating in American Polynesian chain restaurant Trader Vic’s. It is based on a wonton, a traditional Chinese dumpling, but instead of the usual filling it has a mixture of crab meat and cream cheese. Crab is a staple of Polynesian cuisine and cream cheese is another case of a popular American ingredient being worked into ethnic cuisine. The name merely gives a dash of the exotic. Ironically, this modification made the dish inedible to the vast majority of Chinese (and Burmese), 95% of whom are lactose intolerant. There is no tradition of using cheese or dairy products of any kind in Chinese cooking.
Within the last few decades, Chinese immigration has started flowing again and new immigrants are bringing new local dishes to adapt for American diets. While early Chinese immigrants were from Manchuria, many of the new arrivals are from Szechuan and Mandarin. These new dishes were frequently spicy and incorporated strange vegetables. For instance, General Tso’s chicken is a Szechuan-style American dish originating in the 1970s. While it includes American touches, such as containing large amounts of meat and sugar, unlike earlier American Chinese foods, it has a lot of very spicy peppers. The name suggests a link to China’s legendary past, but again is just a marketing tool for a new dish.
While restaurateurs had not set out specifically to reform and shape American perceptions of Chinese, but merely to make a living, this is in fact what they did. As Chinese entrepreneurs reshaped their culture for American consumption, they essentially were reshaping themselves to fit into American society. The popularity of Chinese food encouraged the geographic spread of Chinese, bringing them into contact with whites who may have otherwise never even seen a Chinese person. While this vehicle delivered Chinese culture in a distorted form, Chinese Americans controlled this process. This was Americanization through a unique route and to date, American Chinese is one of the U.S.’s few original cuisines.
Bibliography: Secondary Sources
Barbas, Samantha. “”I’ll Take Chop Suey”: Restaurants as Agents of Culinary and Cultural Change.” Journal of Popular Culture, 2003: 669-686.
Davis, Netta. “To Serve the “Other”: Chinese-American Immigrants in the Restaurant Business.” Journal for the Study of Food and Society, 2002: 70-81.
Hsu, Madeline Y. “From Chop Suey to Mandarin Cuisine: Fine Dining and the Refashioning of Chinese Ethnicity During the Cold War Era.” In Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture, by Sucheng Chan and Madeline Y Hsu, 173-193. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.
Kretchmer, N. “Lactose and Lactase.” Scientific American, 1972: 71-78.
Light, Ivan. “From Vice District to Tourist Attraction: The Moral Careeer of American Chinatowns, 1880-1940.” The Pacific Historical Review, 1974: 367-394.
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