A Truly American Cuisine: Act 2
Allison E. Jones
Posted on March 17th, 2011
(Part 2 of a three-act opus. For Part 1, click here.)
At first, Chinese laborers were viewed as super clean, quiet, and hard-working, but as the San Francisco Chinatown and San Francisco itself developed in the 1860s, the “Anti-Coolie” movement popped up like an angry red pimple on a greasy white forehead. When anti-Chinese jerks tried to rally antagonism against the Chinese communities on the West Coast, the Chinese diet was brought up as evidence of the dangers of allowing Chinese laborers to work outside of the (often demoralizing) service industries. The most ridiculous – and most widespread – of these attacks was Samuel Gomper’s pamphlet “Meat vs Rice, American Manhood Against Chinese Coolieism—which shall survive?” Gompers claimed that, due to “biological differences” that allowed them to subsist on cheap diets of rice (like college students), the Chinese had an unfair advantage and threatened the White American labor market. The labor activist failed to mention that most working-class white laborers also subsisted on inexpensive Chinese food prepared by Chinese cooks – but then again the tireless pursuit of the unadulterated truth wasn’t really his forte. Thanks to such assholes, patronizing Chinese restaurants became a dangerous and politicized activity, pressing Chinese residents to further change their menus and decors to cater to white perceptions and palates.
Because – shockingly – many Chinese immigrants hadn’t become filthy rich in the Gold Rush, a lot of them stayed to labor for the railroad industries. In 1865, railroad bigwig Charles Crocker was the first to hire Chinese men to work on the Central Pacific Railroad, and by 1880 thousands of miles of railroads had been completed on the backs and bodies of Chinese laborers. Along these railroad lines, Chinese cooks opened cafes serving cheap grub to other laborers and to residents of the emerging Western communities, and the taste for Americanized Chinese food reached an ever-expanding audience. It’s funny to think of those Old West towns we’re used to seeing in movies really filled with Chinese food restaurants, but that was totally the case. Put that fun fact in your back pocket and pull it out to impress your next date. You can thank me later.
It’s impossible to talk about the history of Chinese Americans without bringing up the incredible amount of xenophobic legislation coming out of Washington throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – so bear with me on some nitty-gritty dates, numbers, and politics for a minute. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act placed a 10-year kibosh on Chinese immigration, and was expanded for another ten in 1892 by the Geary Act. This extension was made permanent in 1902, and required Chinese individuals living in America to provide certified proof of residence or risk deportation. These restrictions seriously limited the immigration of Chinese skilled and unskilled laborers, but between 1870 and 1920, the total number of Chinese restaurants more than doubled, and the number of Chinese restaurant workers increased from 164 to 11,438. This is insane when you consider the fact that national numbers of employed Chinese Americans went down in the same period.
The children and grandchildren of Chinese immigrants began to capitalize on the popularity and sexy mystique of Chinese food, and, in some ways, government-legitimized racial tension actually served to increase interest in Chinese food establishments. Fueled by Orientalist desire for images and tales of danger and exoticism, stories of Tong wars, opium dens and gambling parlors were devoured by white readers, sparking a healthy tourism industry, as trips to Chinatown were deemed daring, exotic, enticing, and almost guaranteed to get you laid. Because this tourism trade was created and maintained by the Chinese restaurateurs themselves, they capitalized on the intrigue of the Chinese foreignness by further sensationalizing their décor, menus, and employee image to adapt to American conceptions of Chinese culture. Basically, the images of Chinese culture that viewed Chinese Americans as dangerous, exotic, and sensual were actually crafty, adaptive measures chosen and fabricated by Chinese Americans in order to secure their own control of a specialized market on their own terms. The thought gives me history-geek goosebumps all over!
Okay, so, three major groups of white customers patronized these Chinatown restaurants during the years of the Immigration Act: working-class males and Bohemians without a lot of money, and wealthy über-posh urbanites with too much money. Looking for a cheap thrill (and a cheap meal), and having been exposed to Chinese cooking while working in gold mines and on railroads, many white (and black) working-class men ventured to the restaurants of Chinatown entrepreneurs because they continued to provide large amounts of inexpensive food, as well as other sources of bawdy entertainment like drugs and boobs. The Bohemians, attracted to the “sensuality and freedom” of immigrant culture, flocked to Chinatown in their skinny jeans and ironic oversized glasses to enhance their cultured and adventurous image, presented in contrast to their perception of the prim safety of bourgeois American culture, which was so totally lame. The upper-class urbanites, seeking a taste of dangerous and safely scandalous cosmopolitanism, flocked to cheesy ‘‘high toned’’ Chinese restaurants with white tablecloths and fine silverware, where the women were to be seen and not heard and the men twirled their mustaches and adjusted their monocles. Chinese restaurants were able to capitalize on this wide variety of white clientele, catering to frugality, fad, and fetishism with similar adaptive measures – and laughed all the way to the bank, if they weren’t stopped on the way by a policeman asking to see their papers.
So even though Chinese Americans orchestrated the initial marketing of Chinese exoticism in the food industry, non-Chinese Americans began to realize the potential of the Chinese food craze in the twentieth century. In 1920, a few college students at the University of Michigan – Wally Smith and Ilhan New (who was born in Korea) – developed and marketed a line of ready-made, canned, and white-people-friendly Chinese food under the name La Choy Food Products (it would be college students, wouldn’t it…). Their product line included sickly-sweet sauces, chalky canned Chinese vegetables, and soy sauce that was mostly salt, though their recipes claimed to “follow the traditions of centuries of Oriental domestic cookery, and which have been tested and approved by a score of famous Chinese chefs.” Imagine, a whole score! The Mandarin Café, the first Chinese food restaurant owned and managed by white Americans, opened in 1929 in San Francisco, and Chinese restaurants continued to do well under Prohibition – when bars and other eating establishments were going out of business in large numbers – because they had never focused on serving booze (instead offering tea with meals).
After the repeal of Prohibition, the “chop suey” restaurant could be found in every major city in America, and Chinese food had so significantly become a part of American culture that eating at Chinese restaurants became a way for other immigrant communities to integrate into mainstream America. The classically-lampooned affinity for Chinese food among American Jews can be traced to the sons and daughters of European Immigrants, who patronized Chinatown establishments to mark their difference from the restrictive dietary habits of their parents. Going out for dinners at Jazz clubs serving Chinese American cuisine dressed up in exotic clothes may have provided a means of assimilation for Jews and other non-Chinese American immigrants, but the “whitening” of Chinese food didn’t really facilitate the integration of Chinese Americans into mainstream culture. Many white restaurant owners used blatant racial stereotypes as a means of drawing in customers, and Chinese culture was presented as one stuck in an eternal past, safely distant from modern America, and still faintly dangerous.