A History of Chinese Food in the United States

By Jaimie Yue, Michelle Li, and Hans Chou

CAST/HIST 260: Asian American History, Spring 2021

While China has no national cuisine and comprises a rich, diverse, and unique array of dishes, Chinese food has taken on several denotations in the United States. Similar to fast food, it is quick, cheap, reliable, ubiquitous and tasty-- nearly every American can name a dish like General Tso’s Chicken or fried rice. However, Chinese food has also been labeled unhealthy or Chinese restaurants called unsanitary, while others decry certain dishes as “fake” Chinese food. These trends are closely linked to histories of anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States. Meanwhile, these dueling perceptions revealing surprising but notable insights about the history of Chinese immigration. Through food, Americans can re-examine the history of Chinese immigrants and their diverse origins, struggles, and triumphs. Everything, from the persistent stigma against Chinese eating habits to the ongoing debates over authenticity, trace back to how Chinese immigrants learned to survive, serve their clientele, and assert their cultural identity and belonging through the ages in Chinese restaurants.

This list gives an overview of the history of Chinese food in America, from 1849 until the present day, and how it is intertwined with the history of Chinese immigration, anti-Chinese sentiment, and the commodification of Chinese cuisine and culture.

  1. Chinese food among the first Chinese immigrants
A Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, circa 1880. Via time.com

Canton Restaurant, which opened in 1849, is the first known Chinese-owned restaurant in the United States. The first Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush, known as the “forty-niners.” did not bring their native foods to eat by themselves; they were entrepreneurs who were already familiar with trading and exports, and established restaurants to appeal to all types of patrons.

The Gold Rush, Chinese immigration, and the rise of Chinese restaurants all tied into ongoing discussions about coolies, or imported Asian contract laborers, who became more in demand after 1807 when Britain banned the slave trade throughout its empire. Many debated the morality of coolieism amid ongoing discussions about slavery and emancipation. In 1862, an anti-coolie bill was meant to outlaw such a practice, but it left it up to Chinese immigrants to prove that they were “free and voluntary” immigrants. Many of these early immigrants were not the “coolies” that white American labor unions labeled them as. The forty-niners and early Chinese restaurant history completely dispute tired stereotypical depictions of Gold Rush immigrants as greedy, short-sighted, and only interested in temporary migration to the United States. While there were migrant laborers who intended to stay temporarily, 19th-century Chinese immigrants also included merchants who were familiar with US-China trade, Western merchants, and wanted to do long-term business in California.

Norman As-sing was a forty-niner who owned Macao and Woosung Restaurant and a trading company after moving to the United States in 1920 and was possibly the most famous early Chinese restaurant owner. As-sing did not just cater to other Chinese immigrants but also gave banquets to local white politicians and policemen.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed, the restaurant scene in San Francisco diversified and soared as more American tourists traveled from the east. Yet, the Chinese restaurant scene stagnated — there were 7 to 8 restaurants in 1849 and less than 30 by 1882. This was largely due to the rise in anti-Chinese sentiment as immigration increased, along with competition in the job market during an economic recession in the 1870s. The Chinese were scapegoated, and subsequent legislation such as the Cubic Air Ordinances that unfairly targeted Chinese laundries. Grocery stories, pharmacies, and restaurants became increasingly niche and served Chinese immigrant communities. For restaurants in particular, they struggled the most because Chinese immigrants were more likely to eat at home. If Chinese patrons were less likely to eat at a Chinese restaurant than go to a Chinese grocery store, white people were even less likely.

Forty-niners were not an ethnically segregated group; they actively wanted to integrate into American society. However, they were not content with American racism; As-sing joined other migrants to protest Chinese exclusion. These efforts and more showed how early Chinese immigrants wanted to settle in a new country and demonstrates their transnational community building.

2. The rise of Chop Suey: Chinese food during the early Exclusion years

A typical chop suey dish. via radiichina.com

Chinese food culture also had direct ties to anti-Asian sentiment in the late 1800s, beginning with the “Chinese rat-eater” stereotype. The 1897 advertisement “Rough on Rats” was for a pest control product that depicted a Chinese man eating a live rat and was published shortly after The Chinese Exclusion Act. This act explicitly barred Chinese arrivants from legal entry as well as the possibility of naturalization; it was a key legal anchor of many legal provisions passed from 1860–1930 which excluded Asians, or “Orientals,” from citizenship.

While the conditions seemed to leave very little room for an ethnic niche, particularly one so visible as the restaurant industry, Chinese immigrants still found a way to keep their restaurants afloat. During the Exclusion era, restaurants were a loophole for immigrants to claim special merchant visas and thus be legal immigrants. Crucially, this merchant exemption allowed those who qualified to travel back to China and bring over friends and relatives as workers and partners. The Chinese restaurant scene also managed to make a rebound in the 1900s with chop suey, which was considered a staple Chinese food in America until the 1960s. Because early Chinese immigrants were mostly male migrants who lacked cooking skills since it was women who usually cooked, chop suey made out of food scraps was an easy dish to prepare, market, and eat. Journalist Wong Chin Foo described chop suey as a dish consisting of chicken liver and gizzards, fungi, bamboo shoots, pig’s tripe, and bean sprouts with gravy on top of rice. The origins of chop suey are debated, some citing the West during the Gold Rush, and others accrediting untrained chefs as the source of the dish. While Foo claimed that chop suey had regional variations in China, chop suey is a Chinese American dish, not an authentic Chinese food, contrary to what many Americans believed. Chop suey was often seen as a cheap dish, but American consumers still associated it with exoticism and mystery.

Chinese government official Li Hongzhang’s 1896 visit to the United States, as well as his meals of chop suey in New York’s Chinatown, further popularized the dish. Slowly, chop suey restaurants started moving out of Chinatowns as they gained more traction, and chefs catered to white American tastes by omitting animal intestines and the concept of fan-cai. The popularity of chop suey helped secure jobs for Chinese people in the restaurant industry and increased business of Chinatown establishments. Rapid urbanization led to many opting for a quick take-out meal during lunch in lieu of going home, and chop suey houses were favored due to the cheapness and warmth of the dish. Later on, chop suey was sold as frozen and canned food, allowing it to enter American homes. With a new wave of Chinese immigrants arriving after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, interest in chop suey decreased and focused more on authentic Chinese dishes. Still, chop suey was a pivotal turning point in the rise of American interest in Chinese food, paving the way for more Chinese restaurants to thrive.

3. Chinese food during the Great Depression to WWII

A view of New York City’s Chinatown in the 1930s. Via npr.org

During the Great Depression, there was an increased need to can and pickle food for preservation, and the entrance of frozen and canned Chinese food helped this market. However, some of the people who capitalized upon this trend the most were not Chinese.

The 1930s saw the commercialization of Chinese food as well as a rise in multi-ethnic eating as many Americans went to Chinese restaurants to have cheap, tasty meals. These late-night activities were facilitated by how fast chop suey establishments were set up; in the years leading up to The Great Depression, the number of chop suey restaurants nearly quadrupled in number in places such as New York City. Chop suey palaces, as they were called, are remembered for bringing affordable dining experiences to middle-class Americans.

Jeno Paulucci, a son of Italian immigrants, was a food business entrepreneur who noticed how much other American GIs enjoyed chop suey while serving in the US military. He purchased a Chinese cannery in 1947, started canning Chinese food under the Chun King Corporation, and later patented the method of putting chow mein or chop suey in one can and vegetables in the other. During the 1940s, around World War II, two Wong brothers from Los Angeles’ Chinatown started manufacturing frozen Chinese food. By the 1940s, there were approximately 4,300 Chinese restaurants in the US, and about seven percent of the US population dined at Chinese restaurants. The following years saw the expansion and gaining momentum of the Chinese food industry.

4. Cecilia Chiang, the Chinese food pioneer of the 1960s

Cecilia Chiang. Via pbs.org

The year that Cecilia Chiang opened The Mandarin, 1960, was the same year chop suey dropped off as the dominant face of Chinese food. According to her obituary published by NPR, Chiang grew up in a wealthy Shanghai family with two classically-trained chefs until 1937, when the Japanese invasion of Shanghai forced her to flee with her sister to Chengdu. She later relocated to the United States in 1959 after the Communist takeover of China. A year later, she opened The Mandarin in San Francisco, a revolutionary restaurant that introduced white Americans to Chinese cuisine beyond chop suey houses and egg foo young. While she started at a small building on Polk Street, her later success led her to opening at a new location in Ghiradelli Square with 300 seats in 1967.

The Mandarin was the first Chinese restaurant in the United States to serve dishes like Peking Duck, potstickers, hot and sour soup, and others. However, Chiang and her restaurant still faced systemic barriers — starting with Americans’ biases about Chinese food. For the first two years, The Mandarin struggled to receive business. It did not truly take off until after mainstream American food critics like Herb Caen endorsed it, which speaks to how Chinese restaurants were still largely dependent on white clientele for their success. In the ensuing years, Chiang entertained guests such as John Lennon and Mae West and mentored chefs such as Julia Child, Alice Waters, Marion Cunningham, Jeremiah Tower, James Beard, and Danny Kaye. While Chiang did not invent them, she introduced and popularized more diverse Chinese dishes to Americans with The Mandarin. Chaing is remembered as such a pioneer because The Mandarin laid the foundation for a new wave of diverse Chinese cuisine in the United States that the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 would later expedite. Later on still, Chiang’s son Philip founded the popular Chinese food chain P.F Chang’s, which would further bring Chinese food into the mainstream.

5. Chinese food after Immigration Reform in 1965

Lyndon B Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965.

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 marked a turning point in Asian immigration. Thousands of new immigrants arrived from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. President Lyndon B Johnson signed The Hart-Celler Act, or Immigration Act of 1965, in response to an ongoing movement called “liberal multiculturalism” that began after WWII and during the Cold War. The Hart-Celler Act overhauled the national origins system that was previously in place, which prioritized nativism, Western and Northern European immigrants, and a mostly white America. Now, The Hart-Celler Act enabled immigrants to sponsor family members, which promoted Cold War values of family reunification.

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 enabled chain migration through family sponsorships and favored immigrants who were more educated and wealthier. This era saw a new wave of Chinese immigrants who were more geographically, socioeconomically, and culturally diverse. With the passage of the Act, the influx of new Chinese immigrants caused a shift in the dishes of Chinese American restaurants. Prior to the act, Chinese restaurant owners had to market and pander toward white Americans, but with the entry of more immigrants from the mainland, restaurant owners could afford to sell more authentic foods. Restaurants saw an increased demand for “authentic Chinese food,” and more trained chefs were brought over from China to cook in restaurants. These new immigrants also re-established Chinese food as highly diverse and region-based, the way it always had been in China and its surrounding regions. Soon, Shanghai, Sichuan, or Hunan food gained popularity and started phasing out Cantonese food.

Due to language barriers and the lack of US diplomas, new immigrants still relied on the restaurant business for employment. These immigrants helped expand the restaurant business, and helped revitalize Chinatowns as more Chinese people filled the consumer base. No longer just an ethnic enclave for survival, more Chinese tourists visited for its Asian businesses and cultural festivals. Other geopolitical developments also reflected Chinese regional and Chinese diaspora food. For example, many Hunan restaurants in the US were established by Taiwanese immigrants originally from Hunan instead of immigrants directly from Hunan Province.

Another important turning point toward the rise of authentic Chinese food in the United States was President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. It was a highly publicized and televised event that resulted in the increase in popularity and curiosity of Chinese food among white Americans. As China and U.S. tensions increased and threatened war, Nixon’s trip to China was a notable attempt to extend an olive branch. Nixon’s meals consisted of shark’s fin soup, Peking duck, and coconut chicken, among many others. Capitalizing on this new boom of Chinese food, Chinese American restaurants recreated and served the dishes televised during the president’s visit. Ultimately, Nixon’s one-week visit sparked a bridging of cultural gaps by familiarizing Chinese dishes to the Americans who had previously only known Americanized dishes like chop suey.

6. Chinese Food Going Corporate: P.F Chang’s

An exterior view of P.F. Chang’s. Via pfchangs.com

Philip Chiang succeeded Cecilia Chiang in 1989. He inherited The Mandarin, and his mother’s ambitions to elevate the authentic in regional Chinese cuisines to mainstream restaurant American audiences. Unfortunately, he inherited much of the same baggage, such as the commercial success of the restaurant depending on the goodwill of its customers. Despite recent strides, many Americans still expected Chinese food to be quick and cheap: small, independent or family-owned enterprises still existed, but high-end Chinese restaurants were also beginning to appear in ethnic neighborhoods for wealthier Chinese clientele.

In 1993, Philip Chiang created P.F Chang’s in partnership with Paul Flemings and white chefs like Paul Muller. It was a groundbreaking corporate model for the high-end, sit-down Chinese restaurant chain. PF Chang’s is comparable to The Cheesecake Factory in organization and target audience: middle class families looking for the familiar in the strange. Interior spaces were spacious and exuded an appealingly gentrified opulence; the menu boasted a collaboration between Cecelia Chang and Barbara Tropp, a white food writer. Kitchen and hospitality operations were standardized across all stores. Access to corporate capital and management was crucial in all components, and set P.F Chang’s apart from ethnic competition while carving out a distinct niche in the sit-down restaurant chain market.

P.F Chang’s has lasting relevance today. Paul Muller’s preparation included extensive trips to China and training. In these corporate structures, chefs can access deep pockets, the commensurate capital and means to learn and act as authentic food ambassadors. P.F Chang’s represents a moment in Asian American history and in culinary history where the desire for the authentic can break into American middle class consumer markets. However, it also reflects how Chinese food and culture continued to be commodified for a wider consumer market at the expense of potential authenticity and tradition. The rise of the Chinese restaurant chain raises new discussions about how it privileges the white gaze over multiplicities of class, race, and place in the Chinese experience in America.

7. Suburbanization: Diversifying and Authenticating the Chinese Restaurant Scene

A street view of 99 Ranch Market, a popular Asian food store chain that was founded in 1984 and common to ethnoburbs in southern California. via https://www.alhambrasource.org/

After the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, the new wave of Asian immigrants were mostly wealthier and more educated. Like white families of the previous decade, they too wanted to chase the suburban American Dream and own homes outside ethnic urban enclaves.

Monterey Park, CA was one of the first major “ethnoburbs,” or ethnic suburban communities to emerge out of southern California. Realtor Frederic Hsieh, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1963 to attend college, saw Monterey Park as an opportunity to appeal to the “new Chinese” with money. He bought property and promoted Monterey Park as “Chinese Beverly Hills” even in advertisements overseas, which led to foreign capital investments by Taiwanese and Hong Kong businessmen. By 1990, Monterey Park was 56% Asian.

In Monterey Park, Chinese restaurants were the first ethnic businesses to appear, followed by Asian malls, banks, real estate agencies, Asian grocery stories, and more. Some Chinese restaurants were still family businesses as a means of survival, but there were also restaurants created by wealthy investors. Most importantly, Chinese restaurants now reflected a “taste of home” for Asian customers, rather than businesses to appeal to white patrons, and dishes were not seen as “exotic” as they used to be. While early Chinese restaurants were largely operated by individuals and families, this era saw the rise of restaurant companies assisted by foreign capital. Soon, Monterey Park was not the only city to have clusters of ethnic Asian restaurants. To attract business, cities clustered Asian businesses all in one place — the most famous is Valley Boulevard, which goes through Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rosemead and has about 100 Asian businesses in a two-mile stretch. The only equivalent would be Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens that rivals the pre-existing Chinatown in New York City. Today, Valley Boulevard has overtaken Monterey Park and Los Angeles’ Chinatown as a Chinese cuisine hub and the property value has skyrocketed. These cuisine hubs none represented Chinese food as a “cultural symbol:” an authentic meal situated in a culturally Asian area that Asians would go out of their way to travel to.

Between the exclusion era and 1965, various geopolitical conflicts such as the Opium War of 1839–1842, Japanese invasion of China, WWII, establishment of the PRC, and wars in Southeast Asia scattered Chinese people around the world under the Chinese diaspora, which was reflected when all of them immigrated to the US and opened restaurants. Rather than create isolated ethnic enclaves, new restaurateurs were now establishing businesses in mainstream spaces. By the time of suburbanization, Chinese food directly more accurately reflected Chinese Americans’ transnational and multicultural identities.

8. Chinese food today: High-end food, Appropriation, and Persistent Stereotypes

A dish from Xi’an Famous Foods, one of the many new Chinese restaurants founded in the last decade that is more reflective of China’s diverse cuisine, this time to Xi’an, China. Via ny.eater.com

Today, with China’s increasing wealth and modernization and a new wave of aspiring entrepreneur immigrants from Asia, the number of high-end Chinese restaurants have increased in the U.S. Historically, Chinese food in America has been seen as an inexpensive food; Chinese food buffets, popularized in the Midwest and the South, add to this cheap and fast — and potentially inauthentic — narrative. The newer focus on cuisines since the rise of “ethnoburbs,” ranging from different provinces of mainland China, has further diversified Chinese American cuisine. However, currently, the most well-known Chinese dishes among Americans are still Kung Pao chicken, General Tso’s Chicken, Mongolian beef, among other heavily sweetened, greasy, and otherwise Americanized dishes. By contrast, many traditional mainland Chinese dishes favor lighter tastes.

Along with the entrance of more high-end Chinese restaurants, there is a growing number of fusion restaurants. Often marketed as Asian fusion coupled with other Asian cuisines, the melding of cuisines usually suggests an East meets West mixture. For instance, the restaurant Tuome in New York City features Chinese-American chef Thomas Chen cooking Western foods inspired by Asian flavors. With the continued popularity of Asian fusion, the issue of cultural appropriation is brought to the foreground. Many dishes are mislabeled with the adjective “Asian” as a descriptor, and the label is often used for marketing purposes. Furthermore, many white-owned Chinese restaurants have been under fire for appropriation and racism. An example of this is the restaurant Lucky Lee’s in New York City, founded by white Jewish American nutritionist named Arielle Haspel. Haspel marketed her restaurant as having “clean Chinese food with quality ingredients.” This racist branding reinforces the stereotype of Chinese food as cheap, unhealthy, and unsanitary. Other white-owned Chinese restaurants have also faced controversy as they attempt to enter the Chinese food restaurant industry without proper knowledge of the food. As Asian foods gain more popularity, the amount of non-Asian chefs who try to create Asian food will rise, along with the continual question of cultural appropriation.

At the moment, with the coronavirus pandemic, Yellow Peril has been on the rise again, and as a result Chinese American restaurants have lost significant business. Theoretically, the chances of contracting COVID-19 through food is incredibly low, but this does not eliminate Americans’ xenophobia and paranoia. Many Chinese restaurants have had to decrease their staff size or have gone out of business in the past year. That being said, on social media, “support Chinatown” and other tags have been used in an attempt to revitalize the struggling industry during the pandemic and to increase patronage to Chinese businesses. With establishments adapting to the pandemic, there is hope that Chinese restaurants will manage to stay afloat in spite of the anti-Asian sentiments and difficulties restaurants have been facing.


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We affirm that we have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.

— Jaimie Yue, Michelle Li, Hans Chou



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.