Chinese restaurants first opened in the United States during the California Gold Rush. In the early years, these modest eateries fell into two basic categories, serving Chinese food for Chinese immigrants or typical American fare for non-Chinese patrons. However, by the 1890s, a new style had emerged that we now call Chinese-American cuisine in which traditional Cantonese dishes were modified for the dominant American palate. Compared to traditional native dishes, this version of Chinese food utilized fewer ingredients and expressed a narrower range of textures. The most prominent adaptation was chop suey, comprising assorted pieces of meat or seafood, quickly stir fried with vegetables like bean sprouts, cabbage, and celery, and bound in a starch-thickened sauce.1 Even though this inexpensive dish quickly became popular, it wasn’t long before Chinese restaurateurs began putting a few Western-style dishes on their menus, trying to attract the broadest possible audience. A chronology of menus from the early twentieth century shows how the culinary traditions of the two cultures slowly came together.
This menu comes from Mon Lay Won in New York’s Chinatown. Known as the “Chinese Delmonico,” this restaurant was patronized by white members of the middle and upper classes. The notice on the cover reads: “Our annex dining hall fited (sic) up expressly to serve dinner for Clubs and Parties. Chinese Orchestra, String Band and Songsters will be furnished at short notice. We can make a ‘Night in China’ for you.” There are no Western-style dishes on this menu from the late 1890s.
The menu below is from Hang Far Low in Boston.2 Dating to about 1900, it includes a few side dishes like bread and butter and stuffed olives. (High-margin relishes like olives were then used as a way to pad the bill, even at upper-class establishments such as Delmonico’s and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.) This menu also caters to the American sweet tooth, offering chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry cake. The confusing caption under the photo infers that this restaurant opened in 1879. The timing was not auspicious, for three years later Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the naturalization and immigration of Chinese laborers. Nevertheless, despite this setback and other forms of discrimination, Chinese restaurants proved to be very successful.
The next menu is from about the same period, still before a three-digit telephone number appeared on the cover. Although the style of typeface has been updated, the dishes (and prices) are pretty much the same, except for one notable addition—French fries!
Returning to Mon Lay Won in about 1910, we find that only one American food has made it on the menu—Horton’s ice cream—and it was only served during summer months. Savvy restaurateurs in Chinatown often minimized the number of American dishes on their menus, recognizing that people came to their part of town for an exotic dining experience. The back page features an acrostic, or poem in which the first letter of each line forms a message. Here it spells out “Mon Lay Won Company.”
In the early 1900s, Chinese restaurateurs in New York opened locations outside Chinatown, either in the entertainment district along Broadway, or further uptown in the middle-class neighborhoods. The menu below comes from Young Nam’s, a so-called chop suey house on West 125th Street. The four-digit phone number indicates that it dates to sometime after 1910. There are a few sandwiches on this menu; the egg-foo-yong dishes are referred to as Chinese-style omelets.
Although the dishes of both cultures were now mingling on the same page, the formation of Chinese restaurants did little to help the cause of Chinese assimilation. In fact, a dining excursion into Chinatown was then called “slumming.” Ethnic slurs were common, as shown on this invitation for a dinner-dance in New York in 1912. The party was held at the Chinese Tuxedo on Doyers Street, conveniently located near the elevated train. Costume choices are described below as either “chink,” “dago,” or “apache,” referring to the attire worn by Parisian pimps and prostitutes.3 In keeping with the plebeian theme, diamonds were “debarred” from this high-society event.
This traditional banquet was accompanied by Chinese wines, French Champagne, American rye whiskey, and Scotch. The bottled water was from Poland Springs in Maine. The guest list includes a goodly number of socialites, along with a generous sprinkling of princesses, countesses, and marquises.
This photograph of the interior of the Chinese Tuxedo shows a small advertising sign for Horton’s which was then supplying half of New York City’s ice cream.
Chop suey became such a fad that it soon showed up at non-Chinese venues. In about 1915, it made an early appearance at Zeigfeld’s Midnight Frolic in New York. Staged in the New Amsterdam’s intimate rooftop theater, the glitzy show called “Nothing but Girls” featured a glass runway on which chorus girls paraded in ankle-length bloomers over the audience. Dancing was another craze that year; theater-goers tangoed and turkey-trotted before and after performances and during intermission. Adding to the glamour of this chic event, the late-night supper was catered by Reisenweber’s, a trendy cabaret on Columbus Circle.
Two specials are shown on the upper attachment—chicken chop suey and chicken chow mein, “cooked by Lee Wung Ho, late chef of the Emperor of China.” (Chow mein was chop suey served on fried noodles instead of rice.)
By the mid-1920s, cabarets, nightclubs, and Chinese restaurants in the entertainment districts of large cities often utilized a format that gave equal billing to “Chinese style” and “American style” dishes. One such place was the Public Restaurant on West 42nd Street in New York. The menu below from 1926 offers a wide selection of standard dishes in both categories.
The dated insert with the daily specials also offers both types of cuisine.
The dual-cuisine format was also employed at Chinese restaurants in small towns and cities, such as The Pekin in Bangor, Maine which had a population of about 27,000 people in 1926. The menu below looks much the same as the one above from New York City two month earlier.
A “chop suey joint” had already opened on Times Square in 1903, when a newspaper reporter asked a Chinese restaurateur why he served both Chinese and American food.4 Not surprisingly, the proprietor replied that he did it in order to satisfy his customers. He went on to explain that when a husband and wife came to his restaurant after the theater, there were times when the woman wanted a bowl of chop suey, and the man was in the mood for something like broiled ham or broiled chicken. His answer is intriguing. For one thing, it raises the question as to whether women of the fin de siècle were particularly fond of chop suey. The reason why the restaurateur chose broiled chicken as his example may be a little more straightforward, for it seems that broiled chicken was then a distinct and tasty specialty of Chinese restaurants.
Chop suey became so ubiquitous that it was not unusual in the 1930s for average eateries to offer it as the daily special. Such concoctions bore little resemblance to real Chinese food, and soon there was a budding movement that called for a more authentic ethnic cuisine. The Chinese Lantern in Washington, D.C. was one of the first to offer an extensive selection of “native style” dishes. Proprietor S. J. Chan wrote in the prolog of this menu from 1939 that he wanted, “in a humble way, to further introduce Chinese Culture to the American people.” Located in sight of the Capital Building, the Chinese Lantern was most likely patronized by academics and diplomats stranded abroad by World War II. It was a forerunner of post-war restaurants like the Peking in Washington, D.C., Kan’s in San Francisco, and Sun Luck in New York.
As the country emerged from the Great Depression, another new theme was developed in which Chinese-American dishes were presented in the guise of an exotic Polynesian cuisine. The early-1940s menu below comes from Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood. Touting “Chinese dishes prepared by Cantonese chefs,” this restaurant served as the prototype for the Tiki-style restaurants of the 1950s and 60s where Cantonese dishes figured prominently on colorful, over-sized menus.
Although chop suey had fallen out of favor by the 1970s, General Tsao’s chicken was soon developed to take its place. It was also at about this time that fusion cuisine entered the scene, combining elements of different culinary traditions in the same dish. Susanna Foo in Philadelphia was an early and successful practitioner of this method, melding traditional Chinese ingredients with classical French techniques. Today, the inspired combinations of Asian-fusion cuisine are seemingly endless. And while there are now some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States, one could argue that some aspect of Chinese cuisine can probably be found on most American menus.
1. The most common translation of chop suey is “odds and ends.” It is said to be a native dish of Siyi (or Sze Yup), an impoverished area around Taishan in Guangdong where many of the first immigrants originated. Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, 2009.
2. Several restaurants in the country were named Hang Far Low, including one on Grant Avenue in San Francisco. “Hang far low” means almond blossom fragrance in Taishanese, a Cantonese dialect spoken in the western part of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong. The term has a bawdy connotation in English, prompting countless jokes by non-Chinese diners.
3. Apache (pronounced ah-PAHSH) is a highly dramatic dance associated with Parisian street culture. It was at the height of popularity in New York in 1912. Described as a reenactment of a violent interaction between a pimp and a prostitute, the dance features mock slaps, punches, and faints.
4. “Chop Suey Resorts,” New York Times, 15 November 1903, 20.