A Short History of the Chinese Restaurant

From stir-fried buffalo to Matzoh Foo Young.

A menu from the 1900s

“Have You Eaten Yet?,” the wonderful Chinese restaurants exhibit now on view at New York’s Museum of Chinese in the Americas, takes a Babel of ephemera and makes it speak. One’s visit begins with an absence: the never-photographed first Chinese eateries in America, known as “chow chows,” which sprang up in California in the mid-19th century to serve Cantonese laborers. True holes in the wall, they were marked, as per a Chinese tradition, with yellow cloth triangles. No menus have survived, if ever there were any; who knows but that they served stir-fried buffalo. Still, we may gather that the workers liked the fare, for we do have the advertisements of competitors, who suddenly began offering free potatoes with their meals. The spud strategy was ultimately for naught, though: The Chinese restaurant had been born.

Would anyone have bet the bank on Chinese food back then? According to Chinese Restaurant News, there are now more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonald’s franchises—nearly three times as many in fact. In the 19th century, though, the Chinese were scorned as rat-eaters; nothing could have been more revolting than eating what they ate. An 1877 magazine cartoon titled “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” shows various immigrants contentedly enjoying their respective national dishes —a Frenchman, for example, tucks into his frogs—while an officious African-American manservant conveys a turkey to Uncle Sam. All is harmony, right down to a Native Indian who, unable to abide a chair, squats peaceably beside his fellow guests. Only one personage draws horror from the other diners—the Chinaman, about to eat a rodent.

A Chinese restaurant in the 1900s 

Yet despite this prejudice, and despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which categorically barred further Chinese immigration, Chinese restaurateurs strove to make a place for themselves. With trepidation: Chinese food was often embedded in the familiar. For example, 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. As if to counter stereotypes, early interiors featured stunningly sophisticated wood-carving; early images, too, include a surprising number of tuxedos. Observes show curator Cynthia Ai-Fen Lee, “It’s as if the owners are trying to say, It’s OK. Don’t be scared.” And indeed, the phrase “Try it” recurs hypnotically throughout the exhibit. Still, despite the best efforts of the restaurateurs, something disreputable remained, not only about Chinese food, but about people who ate it. In 1903 the New York Times described the Chinatown clientele: “It is the men and women who like to eat after everybody else is abed that pour shekels into the coffers of the man who knows how to make chop suey.”

Shekels. What an interesting currency to have gratuitously cited. And yet how unwittingly prescient the writer turned out to be, by mid-century: One of my favorite parts of this exhibit is the wonderful collection of kosher Chinese menus from New York restaurants, sporting names like “Glatt Wok” and “Shang-chai,” and serving dishes like Matzoh Foo Young. Lee speculates that East European Jews, themselves marginalized, flocked to Chinese restaurants as a way of forging a new, modern, identity—as a way of becoming American. Not that things “Chinese” were generally recognized as American; it took outsiders to see the obvious. Visiting Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong, for example, was amused and amazed by a restaurant he visited in the early 1940s. “It was called a Chinese restaurant,” he wrote, “but … nothing made me feel the slightest at home.”

Dance makes it onto the menu 

After the Second World War, mainstream Americans, too, began to see the Americanness—eureka!—of some “Chinese.” And Chinese Americans celebrated this: On a menu from the 1950s, a man smilingly paints characters on his “Chinese Easter Eggs.” By this point, though, Chinese restaurants were about more than East Meets West. They were sites where not only Chineseness but ethnicity in general was made and made fun of. Fei Xiaotong noted how, “Looking up from the table, I saw right in front of us a troupe of half-naked women doing Spanish dances. … Suddenly the dancing stopped and, to the same kind of ‘music,’ a young woman whom one would guess to be Cuban came on … various cultures of different origins came helter-skelter together …” Concoctions like Mani-shaigetz Cocktails—half Manischewitz wine and half Christian Brothers brandy—were served.

A menu that spoofs “Chineseness” 

But of course “China” and “Chinese” food remained the focus. Menus gave history lessons and told origin stories—explaining the beginnings of chop suey, or the fortune cookie, or takeout. And in the 1960s, they spoofed “Chineseness,” too—citing Confucius freely and frequently and warning things like, “We take care special banquet dinnas but can only takee limit numbers. First comes first serve, you please placee order early for no disappoint.”

Chinatown was not the only purveyor of “Chineseness” in the 1960s. In 1967, the Ideal Toy Company brought out a Chop Suey board game, which involved picking things up with chopsticks. (“You don’t have to be Chinese to play the Chop Suey game!”) Companies like Chung King and La Choy likewise encouraged housewives to “cook Chinese” with cheerfully proffered, sanitized products; visitors to the exhibit should not miss the exuberantly un-PC commercials on CD—click to listen to one here or the numerous “how-to” pamphlets with their inspired recommendations: “Either boiled or broiled, frankfurters dipped in Shou-you sauce make excellent sandwiches,” for example. The “Try it!” that so often punctuates these entries has a distinctly new, profit-oriented tone—the all-American tone of a toothpaste ad.

Happily, change was on its way. The 1965 liberalization of immigration laws brought new arrivals and new food, from Sichuan and Hunan and Shanghai. Multiculturalism and Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, meanwhile, inspired an “authenticity revolution”—a transformation further fueled by a changing clientele. Charles Lai, the director of the museum, recalls wandering into a Chinatown restaurant as a boy in the ‘60s and realizing that everyone else in the place was white. “I felt like, what am I doing here?” he says. But no more: Today, Chinese and Chinese Americans are important customers, as are other Asians and Asian Americans, and some restaurants are once again catering to newly arrived workers. How “authentic” they are, though, depends on how you define “authentic.” “It is and isn’t a return to the way things were at the beginning,” says Lee. She points out that with globalization, food is changing quickly even in Asia; what constitutes Chinese food is evolving.

In the kitchen at a family restaurant, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1950

The epic kitsch of the exhibit is balanced by touching recollections, on video and in notebooks, of what it was like to work and grow up in Chinese restaurants, both in America and abroad. I loved the many humble, vivid accounts and encourage others to take these in, as one may, sitting atop rice-sack-cushioned stools. While resting there, one might also appreciate the beauty and intelligence of the exhibit and the absence of cliché. There is no red; there are no lanterns or fortune cookies. Here, in the heart of Chinatown, in a kitsch-filled room, one finds, happily, kitsch-free thought.