Posted on March 18th, 2011
By the Second Word War, more than half the Chinese population of the United States was born on American soil – or, you know, in American hospitals (as soil births were becoming more and more rare). The Magnuson Act of 1943 ended legal Chinese exclusion and allowed Chinese residents to become American citizens, and the War Brides Act of 1947 brought over six thousand brides of Chinese American soldiers – which I like to imagine involved a cruise ship filled with beautiful Chinese women in couture wedding gowns. With the huge success of fast food in the decades following WWII, Chinese restaurants again profited from their ability to sell large portions of food for low prices to gullible people. Returning veterans had a taste for low-brow “Oriental” grub, largely because Americanized Chinese food had become a mainstay in American army cafeterias and ready-made meals. Though some ignorant souls harbored resentment against all Asian Americans during the war, Chinese Americans were largely able to say “HEY! WE’RE NOT JAPANESE”, and the established Americanization of Chinese food even played a role in reinforcing the view of China as an ally against the Axis powers. Because the relegation of Chinese Americans to kitchens did not disrupt traditional social relationships, and often involved little contact with immigrants themselves, Chinese food seemed “safe” and familiar in a time when American identity was being shaped by constantly shifting lists of “enemies” and “allies.”
As we meander into the second half of the twentieth century, we can see how the era of Hollywood glamour, night-club glitz, and fabricated fantasies provided a gilded stage for the elements of American Chinese culture, now marketed by white Americans to white Americans (though most still used the oh-so-cheap labor of Chinese cooks). My favorite example of these hybridized “Chinese” restaurants is Sugie’s Tropic’s. “Sugie” Sugarman was a Jewish film producer who was responsible for the Hollywood Walk of Fame and his restaurant that drew in top film executives and the 1950’s versions of Lindsey Lohan and Kim Kardashian. The Tropic’s menu featured a large palm tree on the cover and Chinese lanterns in the interior, and boasted a “Chinese Special Plate – Tropics Style”: “Chicken Fried Rice, Egg Foyung, Won Tun, Chicken Almond, and Mandarin Duck” (sic). Half of the menu items are “Chinese,” presented in mangled Mandarin with English translations – though guests were asked to “Please order by Number.” The other half of the menu was made up of so-called “American food” – chopped chicken liver, curry of chicken with chutney, Caviar Romanoff, Fricasse of Chicken, omelettes, Spaghetti (Italian Style), Crêpe Suzette, Welsh Rarebit, and Roast Tom Turkey with cranberry Jelly. See what they did there? This hodgepodge of international cuisines, served under palm trees and tiki torches with “tropical” rum cocktails, seems like a total parody of the fabrication of ethnic (and American) cuisine – but Sugie Sugarman was simply catering to the palates of demanding customers in a town of image, trends, and fantasy. Even if such things were in vogue in Hollywood at the time, everyone was probably way too drunk to notice cultural inconsistencies.
The racism, ethnic mash-ups, and general inventive bullshittery surrounding the creation of a Chinese American cuisine was a survival mechanism that gave Chinese Americans a place in the Melting Pot, but it also created a barrier to Americanization that is, in many ways, still unresolved. Early Chinese immigrants created their own identity when they catered to Western tastes out of necessity, but that identity became a burden as it was cemented into American popular culture well into the twentieth century. While we’ll never see the disappearance of mall court American Chinese food, things are definitely shifting towards a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of Chinese cuisines. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished quotas based on national origin, bringing hundreds of thousands of new Chinese immigrants to America. The late twentieth-century wave of Chinese immigrants ignited the confrontation between what Americans thought Chinese food was with the new noms that newbies from different regions of China brought in their luggage and family recipe books. For the first time, regional cuisines from outside of Canton began to appear in American restaurants, and confused a bunch of people from the Midwest who continued to try to order General Tso’s Chicken whether it was on the menu or not. This new wave of Chinese Americans has challenged the American opinion of what constitutes Chinese flavors and fashions, and it’s also sparked the trend of modern gourmands and pretentious foodies tracking down the most authentic and “un-Americanized” Chinese food.
So here we find ourselves, not at the end of the story but in a new chapter. Sure, America is now home to kickass Cantonese Dim Sum, fiery Szechuan dishes, and garlicky Hunan specialties, but we’re also the land of P.F. Chang and the $7.99 Chinese food buffet – and I’m sure that old SoCal Tasty Goody is still serving up bright orange chicken product to some happy toddler. It’s easy to ridicule these bastions of American Chinese food, but I really hope they stick around. Chinese American cuisine is a mirror of who we are, what we fear, and what we desire. Thanks to globalization of trade and culture, Americans have access to more international cuisines than ever before – but American Chinese food is a part of our national identity, a true living case-study of the evolving ways we interact with the world as a whole. Plus, regardless of authenticity, Chinese American food just it tastes really damn good – and that’s always a thing to celebrate.