From Chop Suey to Haute Cuisine: A Case Study in American “Ethnic Food”
By Oliver WangMarch 20, 2017
From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express by Haiming Liu
The Ethnic Restaurateur by Krishnendu Ray
When I mentioned Lucky Garden to a friend who grew up in Maine, he was mildly surprised that a Chinese restaurant had popped up in a place like Hallowell. I was surprised at his surprise, insofar as Chinese restaurants opening in random American towns always seemed as American as, well, Chinese food. Go anywhere around the country — if not the world — and odds are you’ll find someplace serving chow mein and egg rolls nearby. In the United States alone, there are roughly 40,000 Chinese food establishments. By comparison, there are only 36,000 McDonald’s franchises worldwide. When my uncle took over Lucky Garden, he made his own modest contribution to a massive phenomenon, an inextricable part of American culture.
Haiming Liu’s From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States delves into this phenomenon’s roots. His book joins a parade of similar recent publications. Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (2008) was followed by Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (2009), which shouldn’t be confused for either Yong Chen’s Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America (2014) or Anne Mendelson’s Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey (2016). I guess chop suey was a popular food, and it still is.
This recent flood is less remarkable than the protracted drought that preceded it. Despite the undeniable popularity of Chinese food in the United States, book-length histories have only appeared in the past 10 years. That long void isn’t unique to Chinese-American cuisine; most “ethnic food,” especially when connected to communities of color, has suffered similar neglect by culinary historians and (non-cookbook) writers. I’ll return to this point later. For now, it’s worth noting that, after decades of being starved, American Chinese food aficionados finally have much to feast upon (bad food puns intended).
Haiming Liu’s contribution is unique in terms of topical breadth rather than historical depth. From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express is slim, a full 100 pages shorter than any of the other volumes, yet manages to be more expansive, especially in its exploration of contemporary Chinese-American cuisine. That said, his first few chapters trace the same history found in all these books: the growth of Chinese restaurants from Gold Rush–era California up through the chop suey boom of the early 20th century. Liu stresses that this early phase “reflects more Chinese adaptation to America than what Chinese eat in China.” In other words, the first hundred years of Chinese-American cuisine tell us less about the food traditions of China and far more about how Chinese immigrants used food as a way to negotiate their entry into American society.
Take the “Canton Restaurant” of Liu’s title. It refers to the first documented Chinese restaurant in the United States, located in San Francisco, and the site of a November 1849 banquet of 300 people that included former state senator Selim Woodworth as a guest of honor; the dinner was partially intended to curry his favor in facilitating a land sale. In contrast to the stereotype that early Chinese immigrants were indentured “coolie” laborers, Liu argues instead that the first wave of migrants were largely “men of wealth and ambition.” Canton Restaurant was both a meeting place for those émigrés hungry for a taste of home and a strategic cultural outpost where Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs could wine and dine potential American allies in business and politics.
According to Liu, the proliferation of chop suey houses in the early 20th century had to do with the Chinese Americans’ need to “create an occupational niche for themselves during the Chinese exclusion era.” (Chinese were barred from immigrating beginning in the early 1880s; this ban lasted in law through the mid-1940s and in practice until the late 1960s.) Chop suey itself was a bastardized Cantonese stir-fry, far more invented than imported, but its popularity as “cheap exoticism in the eyes of many American consumers” made it a dish for immigrants to bank on. It allowed the latter to establish a social foothold by fulfilling the former’s desire for culinary novelty.
Liu points to similar reasons for explaining the Jewish-American love affair with Chinese food in his chapter “Kung Pao Kosher.” Personally, I like celebrating “Jewish Christmas,” a.k.a. “Chinese food and a movie,” and Liu argues that the Jewish-American tradition of dining at Chinese restaurants didn’t just come about because you can always find one open on national holidays. He describes it as “an expressive form of [Jewish] American identity,” a way to create a “new ethnic tradition” rooted in more urbane and secular practices which purposefully broke away from traditional, religious dietary restrictions. In that sense, food was a path through which immigrant communities could create new, specifically American cultural practices, both by creating it (Chinese) and consuming it (Jewish).
It’s in these sections that From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express offers up its most compelling fare. To be sure, Liu efficiently collates dozens of secondary sources in chronicling the early evolution of Chinese-American cuisine — but competing tomes delve far deeper into that history. It’s only when Liu moves away from a conventional, narrative history that his book’s most important contributions emerge.
This is especially true in the second half, which concerns itself with contemporary Chinese food practices. A key rupture came with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. As the most significant immigration legislation since 1920, the Act broadened immigration quotas across the board and, in doing so, dissolved the final vestiges of the Chinese exclusion laws. The new influx of Chinese immigrants — which included my parents and uncle — reshaped the demography of Chinese America and the diversity of Chinese culinary options. Cantonese cuisine dominated the first 100 years of Chinese American food because, pre-exclusion, most Chinese immigrants came from the Canton region. Post-1965, immigrants from Taiwan, Hunan, Shanghai, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, et cetera, brought new flavors.
Nowhere in the United States is that diversity better seen, or tasted, than in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley (SGV), a sprawling assemblage of suburban neighborhoods that Liu collectively calls the American “capital of Chinese food” (note: this claim is not open to dispute). Over the past 40 years, roughly a quarter-million Chinese Americans have settled in SGV cities such as Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Alhambra, Arcadia, and Rowland Heights. The first waves came from Taiwan and Hong Kong; since the 2000s, they’ve been joined by émigrés from mainland China itself. This brought about a sea change in the Southland food scene.
The first effects were felt in Los Angeles’s aged Chinatown, as Americanized-Chinese cuisine (e.g., egg foo young, chop suey, et cetera) began to give way to what Liu describes as “genuine Chinese food” — that is, food that more closely resembles what’s eaten in contemporary China. By the 1980s, however, upwardly mobile immigrants began to move out or avoid the older Chinatown enclave in favor of the SGV’s suburban digs, and Chinese restaurants quickly followed the money. By analyzing entries in the local Chinese-language Yellow Pages, Liu chronicles how this all played out: between 1988 and 2007, the number of Chinese restaurants in Chinatown declined by 25 percent; meanwhile, they more than doubled in Alhambra, grew over sevenfold in San Gabriel, and, most spectacularly, exploded by 6,500 percent in Rowland Heights.
Liu sees this growth as a reflection of a transnational sensibility, where food practices become acts of “ethnic resilience rather than assimilation.” To quote a woman Liu interviewed, today’s immigrants and their children are able to “think American but feel Chinese.” If the early history of Chinese-American food revealed the strategies by which marginalized immigrants established niches for economic and social survival, the flourishing of “genuine” Chinese cuisine reflects how the contemporary diaspora is more empowered to tackle identity formations on their own terms.
These themes become ever more complicated when one considers how many Chinese immigrants, especially of my parents’ and uncle’s cohort, went through at least two major relocations over their lifetime. They were all part of what’s known as the waisheng ren (“foreigner”) generation: born in mainland China but forced to flee to Taiwan during the Chinese Revolution of the late 1940s. As it often happens in displaced/exiled communities, food became the primary means by which the waisheng ren could sustain a semblance of their Chinese cultural identities. As Liu puts it, “when they were separated from their families in mainland China, hometown cuisine became one of the few cultural comforts in their life in Taiwan.” In the capital city of Taipei, a dense cluster of regional Chinese eateries arose to cater to those desires.
Then, after 1965, a younger generation of waisheng ren left Taiwan for the United States, bringing with them their conceptions of regional Chinese cuisine. From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express is especially insightful in tracing this complex web. Liu spends a chapter explaining the rise of the popular General Tso’s fried chicken dish, which is loosely Hunan in influence but was created by a waisheng ren chef in Taipei in the 1950s as “a new dish based on an old tradition.” When some of these chefs in Taiwan began immigrating to New York in the late 1960s, they set off a wave of Hunan-influenced restaurants in the city that would eventually help popularize General Tso’s chicken throughout Chinese eateries across the Eastern seaboard, whether they specialized in Hunan cuisine or not. In the SGV, on the other hand, almost no restaurants serve General Tso’s chicken (at least not by name), not even Hunan specialty spots, because, again, the dish didn’t actually originate in the province. It’s an inherently transnational creation, one that’s gone through many transformations from whatever ur-dish originally inspired it. (Perhaps appropriately, if not ironically, the one place in the SGV you can easily find General Tso’s chicken is at Panda Express, the fast food chain first started in Glendale, California, by a Chinese immigrant couple in the early 1980s.)
It should be clear by now that the history of Chinese-American food doesn’t follow a smooth, linear trajectory. Much like the Chinese-American population itself, it’s split into distinct periods conforming to changes in immigration policy. The same forces that created chop suey in turn-of-the-19th-century San Francisco differ radically from the forces that fed, say, the Sichuan craze of the past few years, centered in Alhambra. From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express may be significantly shorter than other books on the topic, but Liu’s interest in the global sources of post-1965 Chinese-American cuisine explores a richer set of intriguing questions around food, identity, community, and culture.
As someone deeply familiar with the SGV Chinese food scene, my first visit to my uncle’s Lucky Garden restaurant in Maine last summer felt like stepping into an entirely different time and place — back into the Chinese establishments I knew as a ’70s kid in suburban Boston. Like many older Chinese restaurants that cater to a primarily non-Chinese clientele, Lucky Garden offers up a hodgepodge of “Mandarin, Szechuan, and Cantonese” dishes. You can order chop suey and egg foo yong, as well as Peking duck, crab rangoon, General Tso’s chicken, and, of course, a pu pu platter of mostly deep-fried appetizers. I was glad to see that their cocktails still came in tiki glasses, and I smiled at the dish of complimentary, chalky mints next to the cash register. Eating one again evoked a Proustian moment, except in a wholly displeasing way.
My uncle ran in and out of the kitchen, delivering us an obscene number of dishes. In between bites, I asked how business was. The restaurant was full that night, so, clearly, it wasn’t flailing — but, as my uncle explained, the overall success of Chinese restaurants in New England has made running such a business more difficult. He explained that the sheer number of competing establishments meant everyone’s chasing after the same, shrinking pool of primarily Chinese immigrant labor. That’s been a boon for the workers, as they’ve earned higher wages and subsidized room and board. Restaurant owners, on the other hand, have found it difficult to offset higher overhead costs by raising prices.
“Out here, in Maine,” my uncle said, “you can’t put too high a price. Japanese restaurants, Thai restaurants, Vietnamese food — they’re all more expensive than Chinese restaurants.” He had recently eaten at a nearby Thai restaurant, and even though many of the dishes used the same ingredients as his did, their prices were 10 to 30 percent more than what he charged. When I asked why, he began by saying, “Chinese restaurants have been around a long, long time in the United States. Thai restaurants are newer…” As he trailed off, I took his implicit argument to be that, once a bar’s been set, it’s hard to reset it. Americans expect Chinese food to be cheap.
According to sociologist Krishnendu Ray, this assumption of affordability reflects “the global hierarchy of tastes.” In his new book, The Ethnic Restaurateur, Ray argues that Chinese-American cuisine falls under what we commonly call “ethnic food,” prized for its quasi-exoticism but also treated as cheap to the point of disposability. Other cuisines, such as Spanish and Japanese, are no less rooted in ethnic traditions, yet no one describes tapas or sushi as “ethnic food,” and they’re able to command far higher prices. Ray writes that because Chinese immigrants are historically associated with “subordinate others,” the “social architecture of class and race” has forced Chinese food into a “subcultural niche” that “rarely assures a position among elite food cultures.”
If it’s not already apparent, Ray’s book is written for an academic audience, and while his prose may be slightly less turgid than academia’s worst offenders, no one would confuse The Ethnic Restaurateur for an airport kiosk read. Ray’s preface in particular is a heady exegesis on how food studies offered him a way to probe “the breach […] between Western high aestheticism and Brahmanic divination”; that sentence alone may dissuade those unschooled in either Kantian philosophy or Vedic cosmology from continuing.
Yet, as if getting past an amuse-bouche that did not, in fact, amuse, I persisted — and that patience paid off. Once I got into the meat of the book, I found myself drawn into Ray’s ambitious attempt to unpack the meaning of “ethnic food,” and to discuss the legions of nameless cooks in restaurants and home kitchens who make it. As a researcher, he conducted interviews with restaurateurs and analyzed restaurant reviews; in addition, two chapters draw heavily on his own experiences as a non-cooking instructor at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Along the way, he deftly folds in arguments on everything from the obsessive hunt for “authentic” food by epicureans, to the social invisibility of Latina/o kitchen staff, to the gendered and racial chauvinism that elevates the professional chef class while diminishing other forms of cooking expertise.
I was particularly drawn to his deliberations on the aforementioned “hierarchy of tastes.” One of the clearest illustrations of this concept comes when Ray parses listings from recent editions of the popular restaurant review resource, the Zagat Guide, which he describes as aimed at “the Anglophone, middle-brow public.” In the 2010 Zagat Guide for Los Angeles restaurants, for example, Ray calculates that 33 percent of the entries were devoted to eateries offering American cuisine, 20 percent to Italian, 11 percent to Japanese, and, astoundingly, a mere four percent to Chinese restaurants. The Zagat Guides for Chicago, New York, and San Francisco were, eerily, identical: Chinese restaurants in all those cities only constituted four percent of the listings.
Zagat is hardly the only culprit here. With the notable exception of food critic Jonathan Gold, prior to the rise of websites such as Eater LA and First We Feast, Los Angeles food media seemed largely oblivious to the idea that there was any notable scene east of Downtown, least of all in Valley Boulevard strip malls. At best, SGV Chinese restaurants might have gotten a nod in a “cheap eats” column, lauded for their “hole in the wall authenticity,” but there was no ambiguity about where they fell on the hierarchy relative to establishments with white tablecloths (and whiter clientele).
Ray suggests that both Chinese people and Chinese food remain “classified as permanently foreign” in the United States. This is partly what traps Chinese cuisine in a symbolic enclave, both socially and economically. He compares Chinese cuisine with other fast/cheap food items we now think of as unquestionably American, even though all originated with formerly immigrant “others”: German hot dogs, Italian pizzas, Jewish bagels. As those European ethnic populations assimilated into American whiteness, their food items were able to shed their “ethnic signifiers.” After all, your local pizza parlor or deli isn’t likely to end up on anyone’s listicle for “best ethnic food.”
Racial difference has prevented Chinese food from, ahem, melting into that pot — but it may yet end up where Japanese cuisine now finds itself: still exotic but haute enough to merit top dollar tabs. Ray cautions, however, that several factors would have to be in place, “including the continuing economic rise of China and the decline in the flow of poor Chinese immigrants into the United States. Here, depressingly, culture merely follows capital.”
Besides musing on ethnic cuisine, The Ethnic Restaurateur also explores, as its title suggests, the evolving figure of the restaurateur/chef. Ray draws on his background at the Culinary Institute of America to talk about how such institutions contributed to the emergence of “the professional chef” as both an occupational and cultural category. It’s not that professional chefs learn how to make the best food, it’s that their professionalization — via specific cooking techniques, specialized equipment, the memorization of archaic French terms — deliberately shapes our perception of what “the best” even means. As a consequence, since “all professions are made by unmaking other occupations,” the rise of chef-dom required the marginalization of other forms of cooking skill, especially among ethnic cooks and housewives. Within the conventional culinary world, “non-Western techniques” — and the cooks that wield them — are either “invisible as techniques or considered inappropriate for the genre rules of that kind of food.”
Even those “ethnic chefs” who attempt to bridge the gap are left at a disadvantage, since their racial difference often colors expectations of the food they should be making. I remember watching an episode of the popular reality cooking show Top Chef, where one of the co-hosts expressed surprise that a Vietnamese-American chef didn’t seem to incorporate any of his “heritage” into his cooking, as if being of Asian descent obligated him to “cook Asian” too.
Ray identifies this is a clear double standard: “the authentic chef has to be original, in contrast to the authenticity of the ethnic cook who is urged to reproduce the unaltered original.” In other words, “professional chefs” are often lauded when they fold in a dash of ethnic difference via new spices or other ingredients. But for the ethnic cook to deviate from the traditional preparation of, say, a bowl of Vietnamese pho, means risking being labeled inauthentic — or even worse … fusion.
The rise of high-profile, professionally trained Asian-American chefs such as New York’s Ann Redding (Uncle Boons), the Bay Area’s James Shyabout (Hawker Fare), or Los Angeles’s own Roy Choi (Kogi, Chego) may suggest some cracks in this paradigm, especially since these figures are often celebrated specifically for their culturally syncretic cooking. However, Ray points out that many of them trained in culinary schools and/or worked under famed chefs in prestigious, haute cuisine restaurants. In Ray’s eyes, this makes them more like “imaginative insiders,” capable of “rattling the canon” but still operating well inside the existing rules and structures of the restaurant world. “A few exotic others can be, and historically have been accommodated,” Ray writes, but most ethnic cooks are left on “the bottom rungs of the hierarchy,” and the idea of “haute ethnic” remains an elusive if not “an impossible category to fit into.”
If and when opportunities for ethnic cuisine to rise up or disrupt the hierarchy of taste emerge, they will come too late for my uncle. After nearly 40 years in the restaurant business, he finally retired at the end of January. T. H. never had aspirations to break the mold of Chinese cooking; food was, first and foremost, a means to an economic end. When I ask if he’ll miss the restaurant, he thinks for a moment and explains that what he’ll look back on is the effort it took to make it viable: “We worked hard to establish this restaurant, and business has been doing very well. I will miss that era, but retirement is what I’m looking forward to. It’s time to move on.” Lucky Garden isn’t going anywhere however. It’s being sold to a business partner. The people of the greater Augusta area will still have somewhere to get their mushu pork and pu pu platters, as will millions of other Americans at their own local Chinese restaurant.
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