|From the Supplement to the 123rd Annual Meeting
"Have You Eaten Yet?"
A Short History of Chinese Restaurants
Chinese restaurants, the first introduction to Chinese culture for many Americans, have been an important influence in American dining over the past 150 years, becoming a major economic force among Chinese Americans and a common sight in communities across the country. Food is such a large part of Chinese culture that people commonly greet one another with the question, “Have you eaten yet?” rather than “How are you?”
America’s First Chinese Restaurants
The immigrants who first transplanted Chinese cuisine to the New World were not experienced chefs or restaurant operators. They fed an overwhelmingly young, male immigrant population in Chinese settlements, offering familiar food to members of the “bachelor society” created by exclusionary immigration laws. During the period of anti-Chinese violence and institutionalized discrimination, as Chinese were driven out of rural areas and more lucrative occupations, the restaurant business remained as one of the few labor-intensive, low-paying ways to make a living. Once the Chinese population was reduced by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and perceived as exotic rather than as a threat, entrepreneurial immigrants responded by opening Chinese restaurants that catered to the curiosity and tastes of the dominant culture. A visit to Chinatown and its restaurants, with their opulent interiors, was considered a convenient and inexpensive trip to “the Orient” by a curious, non-Chinese clientele.
Despite their marginalized status in the United States, Chinese Americans, like many ethnic groups, drew upon their cultural assets and culinary traditions for economic benefit and survival. Restaurant owners discovered that the key to success rested in striking a balance between the “exotic” and the “familiar”—developing a cuisine that is different enough from the mainstream to be considered unique and desirable, and yet close enough to American norms to be considered “edible.” Chop suey, a dish catering to non-Chinese customers, exemplified this balance. By the early 20th century, Chinese restaurant owners in New York began to seek patrons outside their own neighborhood. In 1885, there were six restaurants in Chinatown. By 1903, there were over a hundred chop suey establishments in New York, and dining on chop suey had become a popular late-night activity. Nom Wah Tea Parlor (13-15 Doyers St.), which opened in the mid 1920s, is one such example. It was also a bachelor society hang-out where men ate dim sum and played mahjong. The restaurant is still in operation today and is timeless in its appearance—from the old, worn red booths to the homemade almond cookies. Some of the favorites included char siu bao (roast pork buns), sui mai (steamed ground pork or fish balls), lo bok go (square fried turnip cakes), and ha gao (steamed shrimp balls).
Nixon Goes to China
America’s Chinese food remained predominantly Cantonese until Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, which revived interest in things Chinese. New immigrants began to arrive from China as a result of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act and the normalization of U.S.-China relations. Many opened restaurants as a way to make a living, and Chinese restaurants mushroomed in the 1970s in both cities and small towns. More Americans than ever were introduced to Chinese food from the four major culinary regions of China (Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western), including Shanghai, Szechuan, and Hunan. Some of the new restaurants competed with mainstream restaurants for an upscale clientele. At Shanghai Cafe (100 Mott St.) try the “soup dumplings”—shaped like traditional moneybags and filled inside with pork or crab meat and soup. Shanghai dishes are perhaps the most sophisticated of all Chinese cuisine because the region has historically been the most prosperous in China. The dishes tend to be sweet and/or oily, symbolizing opulence because sugar and oil were both precious commodities, unaffordable to common folks.
With the influx of working-class Chinese people after 1965, more Chinatown restaurants sprang up to cater to these new patrons. Many of the new arrivals worked in the garment industry located in and around Chinatown, and needed an inexpensive way to feed their families at the end of a long work day. Restaurants offered dishes tailored to the particular needs and tastes of this growing community, such as the ready-to-eat roasted meats and poultry often seen hanging in restaurant windows. Big Wong’s (67 Mott St.) is a perennial favorite best known for its roasted meats prepared each morning. Farther east on East Broadway is the core of the new Fujianese immigrant community, with restaurants known for their seafood and noodle soups. Try Nam Zhou Hand Made Noodle and Dumpling Place (144 E. Broadway) where you can choose your own toppings over a hot bowl of noodle soup.
For many Chinese immigrants, Chinese restaurants have represented hard work and long hours for low pay, but also economic opportunity and a place to maintain connections with a life left behind in the old country. For many non-Chinese, a Chinese restaurant may have been their first culinary adventure and their first connection with Chinese American people and culture. In this way, Chinese restaurants have helped broaden notions of what it means to be an American and also what it means to “eat like an American.” The following food establishments are examples of how evolving Chinese foodways are continuing to influence American tastes.
TenRen Tea (75 Mott St.) is one of the largest tea importers in the United States, offering a large assortment of teas from the most expensive but finest semi-fermented Green Tung Ting Oolong at $100/pound to simple fermented black tea at $5.75/pound.
Next door is TenRen’s Tea Time (79 Mott St.) which serves bubble tea—chilled tea with fruit syrups and tapioca balls. It became an instant success in Taiwan in the eighties, especially among school children, because it was a drink and snack in one. The term “bubble tea” refers to the foamy bubbles formed when the chilled tea with flavoring is shaken and blended.
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard Street). The Seid family wanted to open a neighborhood ice cream shop (an unconventional idea in 1978 Chinatown) that would offer friendly, bilingual service and culturally inspired flavors. The results are such favorites as mango, lychee, taro, and red bean, among many others.
Fa Da Bakery (83 Mott St.) is an example of one of the many bakeries in Chinatown that sell both savory and sweet treats—from roast pork buns to egg custard tarts to birthday cakes filled with real fruit. While Chinese desserts tend to be less sweet, the coffee served here is creamier and sweeter than American coffee. Try the yin-yang (half coffee-half tea) if you’re in the mood for a new caffeinated beverage.
Cynthia Lee is the vice president of exhibitions, programs and collections at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York City, and co-curator of the exhibition Have You Eaten Yet?: The Chinese Restaurant in America. She is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.Last Updated: December 15, 2008 1:01 PM