The Origins of American Chinese Food: A Brief History


In less than two centuries, the Chinese restaurant has become an indispensable cornerstone of American cuisine.  Starting with the first of many Chinese immigration waves in the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese food has been synonymous with cheap, delicious, and accessible food across the country.  

So, where did this unique cuisine come from?  American Chinese food is the product of the legal and social realities of Chinese immigrants from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. 

The story of American Chinese food highlights the best parts of the American experience, as it is a story of small businesses, multiculturalism, and meritocracy.  Be warned, this story also highlights the worst of American history, as the story of the American Chinese restaurant must be told alongside the story of bigotry and xenophobia.

A Brief History of American Chinese Food

What truly makes the story of American Chinese food so compelling is how unique it is.  Many are quick to point out that American Chinese food, otherwise known as Americanized Chinese Food (Authentic Chinese food vs American Chinese food), does not actually have an equivalent in mainland China.  This is true, but it is important to note that Chinese food is not one hundred percent American either.

Instead, Americanized Chinese food is an entirely new cuisine, not fully Chinese or American.  This is important to consider in light of the recent emphasis on authenticity in cooking.  No, if you traveled to China, it is unlikely you would find an egg roll, nor would you find anybody serving chicken and broccoli.  

That being said, Americanized Chinese food has its own history stretching back before the Civil War.  To judge it according to the standards of traditional Chinese food would be unfair to the unique cultural institution, the American Chinese Restaurant has become.

The Beginning: Chinese Immigration and the California Gold Rush

Before the mid-1800s, the Chinese population in the United States was so small, many considered it nonexistent.  In fact, some sources even claim that there were less than fifty people of Chinese descent in the entire country!

This changed with the first Chinese immigration wave, beginning in about 1849 and ramping up throughout the early 1850s.  To understand why this happened, it’s important to be familiar with what was happening in the United States and China.

An Empire in Decline

In the mid-1800s, the Chinese peasant class was in dire straits.  Under the Qing dynasty, peasant life was difficult and brutal.  A lack of arable land led to food shortages, and little was done to prevent rising hunger.

Hunger was often the least of a Chinese peasant’s worries, as the aging Qing state was mired with war and chaos.  These wars spelled disaster for any peasant unfortunate enough to be caught in their wake.  

The First Opium War ended in Chinese defeat in 1842, resulting in European occupations in several port cities.  By 1851, the Taiping Rebellion would begin, widely considered the deadliest civil war in all of human history.

In this context, it’s unsurprising that many in the Chinese lower classes were willing to leave their homeland.  However, there was an imperial ban on immigration, punishable by death.  Despite this, many managed to gain passage by bribing officials or finding a way around the law.

Most of these eventual immigrants would find their way through the Southern port of Canton.  Canton was the most common point of exit because much of the unrest and violence was located in the Southern regions of China.  

Canton was also, before the conclusion of the First Opium War, the only city in which foreign merchants were allowed to sell goods, which meant Canton had strong connections to the outside world.

California Gold

Meanwhile, America was experiencing the California Gold Rush.  Gold was found in Sutter’s Mill at the beginning of 1848, and for the next several years, every young man in America dreamed of striking it rich in the West.

Before the Gold Rush, there had been little immigration to California by Europeans, not the least because it had been a Mexican territory up until 1847 when it was conquered by the United States in the Mexican-American War.  

However, the promise of gold and wild dreams of stardom proved more than enough motivation, and by the end of the gold rush, hundreds of thousands had flocked to the western United States.   

Though this would result in California gaining statehood at a record pace, those who first arrived found a virtual wilderness.  Little government existed for the first several years of the gold rush was routinely ignored, resulting in a chaotic landscape where underhanded tactics like theft, fraud, and even outright murder were often profitable.

Exaggerated stories of this gold rush found their way to China, delighting the impoverished peasant class with tales of instantaneous status and wealth.  Taken together, the promise of gold across the sea and the chaos and poverty for the lower classes in China formed a perfect storm for a wave of immigration.

By the mid-1850s, over 100,000 Chinese immigrants had arrived in San Francisco.  Like the Americans who traveled looking for gold, they soon learned that the tall tales of a golden paradise were greatly exaggerated. 

Some Chinese immigrants certainly struck it rich, but the vast majority struggled to find more than a little gold dust.  However, in the competitive world of California, even this was enough to upset people.

Unwelcome Competition

As Chinese immigration picked up, xenophobia too became more prevalent.  American settlers were often suspicious of nonwhites in the best of times, but many prospectors viewed the Chinese immigrants as unwelcome competition.  In the early, lawless years of the gold rush, this often made Chinese born prospectors a target for the unscrupulous elements.

Unfortunately, as the United States government finally took control of the Californian frontier, it did little to curb these racist attacks.  If anything, the laws imposed on California codified these acts of bigotry.  

Chinese Faced Discrimination

Chinese prospectors faced discriminatory laws that ranged from nuisances, such as taxes on foreign mining, to disastrous, such as a ban on people of Chinese descent being allowed to act as a witness in court.  This last policy especially hurt Chinese prospectors, as in many cases, it effectively legalized violence and theft against them.

Eventually, many Chinese immigrants gave up on the dream of striking gold due to the cutthroat nature of the trade, lack of legal protections, and the uncertainty of success. However, they quickly learned the greatest lesson of the California Gold Rush: there was more money to be made providing for the prospectors than there was in prospecting.

Immigrants Needed a Way to Survive

The lack of amenities in these frontier towns presented an opportunity for Chinese immigrants looking to make a living after failing to strike gold.  Most prospectors were men and declined to bring their wives along with them west, so there was an enormous market for performing household tasks for men who were unable or unwilling to do so.

So desperate were these American prospectors to avoid doing chores. Some even sent their laundry overseas to Hong Kong for cleaning.  In light of this, it’s no wonder many Chinese immigrants built thriving businesses cleaning these clothes.  

However, the most successful businesses that Chinese immigrants started in this era would change America forever: Chinese restaurants.

The first Chinese restaurants in American began humbly as simple places for weary prospectors to get a home-cooked meal.  The immigrants who ran them had few resources at their disposal but managed to make do with the materials available.

Chow Chow Houses

As a result, Chinese eating establishments, called ‘chow chow’ houses by white Americans, gained a reputation for cheap and delicious food.  These early Chinese restaurants often didn’t offer what we would consider modern Americanized Chinese food.  

In fact, many offered prepared local ingredients, intended as a cheap, hot meal rather than a cultural experience.  As long as the West was populated by workers and aspirants, these restaurants were the only ones that were in demand.

However, as San Francisco grew from a frontier backwater to a thriving and wealthy urban center, some eateries began to cater to a more upscale clientele.  Again, these establishments did not offer what we would consider modern Chinese-American food, instead of serving Chinese delicacies such as Bird’s Nest soup and Sharkfin.

Though successful, these Chinese restaurants were more curiosities than the staple of taking out the food they are today.  They gradually spread to the eastern coast as railroad travel became more accessible. Still, it would be more than fifty years until the American Chinese restaurant became the institution it is today.

The Rising Popularity of American Chinese Food

Before we get into the explosion in popularity Chinese food experienced in the early 1900s, now would be a good time to talk about exactly what we would consider ‘modern’ American style Chinese food came from.  First of all, one of the main reasons that Americanized Chinese food is not considered “authentic” is because of how many different cuisines there are in China.

The Eight Great Traditions

this link bring you to Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese food

China is an enormous, multicultural country with distinct regions and cuisines.  In fact, Chinese cuisine is typically divided into the Eight Great Traditions, each corresponding to a region of China.  These regions vary greatly in available ingredients and culture, resulting in very different cuisines.

For example, Sichuan cuisine, named for the Sichuan region, typically uses heavy amounts of heat and spice, including hot peppers and garlic.  On the other hand,  Jiangsu cuisine is known for its sweet, subtle flavors.  

Out of these Eight Great traditions, Cantonese cuisine is the single biggest influence on modern Chinese-American food.  The biggest reason for this was that the vast majority of the first Chinese immigrants to America traveled from Canton, but the cuisine also lended itself to American tastes.

Cantonese Cuisine 

While American Chinese food is significantly different from Cantonese cuisine, the general flavors and cooking methods were well suited to American tastes.  The Cantonese often prepared food by stir-frying and deep-frying and used many flavors familiar to Americans, including garlic and sweetened sauces.  

Cantonese cuisine also had many uses for starch, including fried rice and dumplings.  Chinese-American cooking especially borrowed from the many types of Cantonese noodle dishes.  In fact, while many Chinese-American dishes do not have a Cantonese equivalent, Lo Mein and Chow mein are eaten in China, though in many cases, they are significantly different.

However, the most influential aspect of Cantonese cuisine was its concept of Dim Sum.  Dim Sum, which means ‘touching heart’ when translated literally, is a Cantonese tradition of small, snack-sized dishes.

Thought to have originated in Cantonese tea houses, Dim Sum allowed those who ate it to enjoy a small snack or enjoy a variety of dishes in one meal.  This practice had a huge influence on American Chinese restaurants, many of which, to this day, allows customers to order several different dishes to share, rather than one full entree for each person.

Mix and Match

While Cantonese influences have been felt in Chinese-American cuisine, it is important to point out that Chinese-American cuisine is *not* a subtype of Cantonese cuisine.  

Very few dishes in Chinese-American cuisine have counterparts in Cantonese cuisine, and even those that do are significantly different.  For example, American Lo Mein is crispier and oilier than its Cantonese counterpart.

Not only are there many dishes and techniques that exist in American Chinese food that does not have a counterpart in Cantonese cooking, but there are also many aspects of Cantonese cuisine that never made their way to the United States.

Finding Replacements for Chinese Ingredients

This happened for two reasons.  First, there were many ingredients that existed in China, but not in the United States.  Famously, while broccoli dishes are extremely popular in American Chinese dishes, this type of broccoli did not exist in China.  So-called “Chinese Broccoli” is a bit of a misnomer, as it is a lot closer to Kale in appearance.

Conversely, many traditional Cantonese ingredients did not make the trip across the Pacific.  While American Chinese restaurants certainly offer some seafood options, mostly shrimp, Cantonese cuisine includes far more seafood.  

People Had Less Adventurous Palates

This brings us to the second reason some aspects of Cantonese cuisine were not used in Americanized Chinese food: Local tastes.  The Chinese and European worlds spent centuries relatively isolated from each other, and during that time, cuisines that were already very different from each other grew even further apart.

For example, Cantonese cooking, like several other schools of Chinese cooking, has several dishes made from organ meat, such as the intestine of the animal.  While they are popular in China, there is a large stigma against eating such types of meat in the United States.  

Another example is the century egg, a preserved egg dish with a strong fermented flavor that is not typically agreeable to the American palate.  These dishes were often prepared for fellow Chinese immigrants but not Americans.

Overall, American Chinese Food is a Venn Diagram of the flavors and techniques enjoyed by Chinese consumers and the flavors and techniques enjoyed by Americans.  In combining the tastes of these two cultures, a cuisine entirely new and unique was formed.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the Rise of Chop Suey

As the Chinese population of the United States rose with continuing immigration, white backlash increased.  Many historians chalk up the early tolerance of Chinese immigrants because there weren’t many of them.  However, after the wave of immigration caused by the California Gold Rush, many whites felt threatened.

Backlash

Chinese immigration was blamed by many in the working class for declining wages.  These resentments came to a head in the early 1870s, spurred on by several high profile examples of strikes being broken by the hiring of Chinese immigrants.  This was resulting in growing calls for further limitations on Chinese immigration

Unfortunately for the newly established Chinese immigrant community, the discriminatory laws passed in the immediate aftermath of the gold rush were only the beginning.  Before the federal government got involved, the state government of California passed several anti-Chinese laws in the late 1850s, including an outright ban.

The rise in xenophobic sentiment towards the Chinese culminated in the 1882 Chinese exclusion act.  This banned the immigration of any people of Chinese origin for almost any reason, placing special emphasis on laborers.  The result was a massive stagnation in the Chinese population in the United States.

Chinese Business Owners in the Late 1800s

In this context, the progress of the Chinese restaurant stalled.  Despite the early successes of Chinese food in California, the combination of xenophobia and a lack of new immigrants to hire as employees capped the growth of these restaurants.

Chinese business owners suffered greatly, not just for their lack of legal protections but also the uncertainty surrounding these rights.  Most of the discriminatory laws mentioned earlier were struck down by courts three or four years after they were passed, only to be reintroduced again shortly after.  The Chinese Exclusion Act itself was only intended to last for ten years, but a series of further bills passed in the following decades extended it well into the 1940s.

Owning a business as a Chinese immigrant was difficult in this era and even dangerous.  However, though Chinese restaurants did not experience much growth after spreading to the East Coast via railroads, they persisted.  Little did they know their popularity would explode within the next several decades.

Chop Suey

It was in this era of setbacks that a dish primed to become famous in America first began to be served:  Chop Suey.  Trying to discover the origins of chop suey in America can feel a bit like cryptozoology at times.  There are so many tall tales and legends. The truth may never actually be known.

Li Hongzhang

Many stories center around Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang, a powerful and influential politician whose visit to the United States in 1896 was considered a high profile event.  They usually involve him requesting food that would remind him of home or otherwise being in need of a fast Chinese meal.

Other stories place the invention of chop suey back to the gold rush.  Usually, a Chinese restaurant is forced to unexpectedly feed a large group of miners. Either as an insult or for lack of other available food, the Chinese chef stir-fries a random assortment of leftover meat and vegetables.  To his surprise, the dish is a hit and becomes popular.

Odds and Ends

Part of the reason the origins of chop suey are so hard to pin down is the wild variations in the dish restaurant to restaurant.  Chop suey, which translates roughly to ‘odds and ends,’ is thought to be a dish similar to fried rice.  That is to say, a dish suited for using leftovers before they go bad.

All you need to chop suey are meat, assorted vegetables, and a thickened sauce that resembles a sort of gravy.  Most iterations of chop suey include eggs, and some starch base, usually rice, but sometimes noodles are used.  Even these basic tenets differ in some restaurants.

Some attempts to trace chop suey back to its mainland Cantonese roots, with mixed success.  However, it is unlikely such a dish would stand out, as all it is are leftovers stir-fried together.  Such a dish would not be very remarkable in China, but in America, it was a novelty, a novelty that, in the coming decades, would become a smash hit.

The Early 1900s and a Surge in Popularity

After years of struggle without much to show for it, restaurant owning Chinese immigrants got an enormous break.  The Chinese Exclusion Act, while it was considered fairly ironclad, did include some limited exceptions.  The exception that became most important for the Chinese restaurant was merchant visas.

An Immigration Law Loophole

Previously, Merchant visas were only awarded to the owners of specific types of businesses.  These visas were often difficult to obtain even for these owners, requiring many other conditions to be met before they were awarded.  However, they were prized, as they allowed the holder to travel to China and bring back other people to find a labor force.

In 1915, these visas became central to the running of a Chinese restaurant when a Judge ruled that restaurateurs were eligible to receive them.  Suddenly, owning a Chinese restaurant was not just a way to make a living. It became a path to retrieve family left behind in the homeland, family Chinese immigrants thought they would never see again due to harsh immigration laws.

As a result of this change in policy, the number of Chinese restaurants in the United States exploded over the next decade, alongside increased Chinese immigration.  This is not to say that the rise of the Chinese restaurant was only the result of a bureaucratic loophole.  Chinese restaurants experienced a massive surge in popularity in the early 1920s, especially in New York.

Fad-Level Popularity

The humble ‘Chop Suey’ had been steadily growing in popularity for decades at the beginning of the twentieth century.  By the time these Chinese restaurants were permitted to gain merchant visas, its popularity had approached a fad.

The dish was so popular that it lent its name to many Chinese immigrant run eating establishments.  These ‘Chop Suey Houses’ usually offered other Americanized Chinese food but saw fit to advertise Chop Suey as their primary offering.

Chop Suey primarily owed its popularity to the white middle class.  They saw it both as a cheap and relatively nourishing fast food, often available late into the night.  It was also considered a cultural experience, especially to those who embarked on racialized guided tours of Chinatown. 

Overall, the combination of legal incentives and public demand led to a cuisine once considered a novelty to becoming a cornerstone of American restaurant culture.  The chop suey craze of the 20s paved the way for American Chinese cuisines as we know them.  Popular dishes such as crab rangoon and egg rolls can trace their origins back to this era, as restaurants attempted to expand their menus and gain lasting relevance.  In this, they were successful.

The Late Twentieth Century and Present Day

Throughout the 20s and 30s, Chinese American cuisine became more and more well defined.  As it consolidated throughout the early twentieth century, winds of change were blowing.  

Immigration Reforms

The Twentieth Century was marked by a softening of hardline immigration policies in the United States.  The beginning of this changing fortune occurred in the Second World War.  As the United States began their Pacific campaign against the Japanese, they found themselves allied to the Chinese, who had been the subject of brutal invasions by Imperial Japanese forces.

In light of this alliance, the Chinese Exclusion Act was deemed a political liability and sap on homefront morale.  It was repealed in 1943 by the Magnuson Act.  This act allowed Chinese immigrants already living in the United States a way to become citizens and allow a small number (105) of legal immigrants from China per year.

Final Thoughts

Throughout the next two decades, immigration would be continually liberalized, culminating in the 1965 repeal of the Nation Origins Formula.  As America grew more tolerant and multicultural in the latter half of the twentieth century, a market developed for more ‘authentic’ foods.  Not just Chinese food, but cuisines from all around the globe were welcomed.

However, despite this shift in cultural sensitivities and palate, Americanized Chinese food has remained exceedingly popular.  As pillars of American restaurant culture and pillars of the small business community, Chinese restaurants have weathered discrimination, legal troubles, and competition to become a fixture of the American experience.

 

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