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date: 24 July 2024

The Rise of Chinese Food in the United Statesfree

The Rise of Chinese Food in the United Statesfree

  • Yong ChenYong ChenDepartment of History, University of California, Irvine


The “Chinese 49’ers” who arrived in the United States a decade before the American Civil War constituted the first large wave of Asian migrants to America and transplanted the first Asian cuisine to America. Chinese food was the first ethnic cuisine to be highly commodified at the national level as a type of food primarily to be prepared and consumed away from home. At the end of the 19th century, food from China began to attract a fast-growing non-Chinese clientele of diverse ethnic backgrounds in major cities across the nation, and by 1980 Chinese food had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, aided by a renewal of Chinese immigration to America. Chinese food also has been a vital economic lifeline for Chinese Americans as one of the two main sources of employment (laundries being the other) for Chinese immigrants and families for decades. Its development, therefore, is an important chapter in American history and a central part of the Chinese American experience.

The multiple and often divergent trends in the U.S. Chinese-food industry show that it is at a crossroads today. Its future hinges on the extent to which Chinese Americans can significantly alter their position in the social and political arena and on China’s ability to transform the economic equation in its relationship with the United States.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Asian American History

Chinese food was the first Asian cuisine to land in the New World, and the Chinese 49’ers, who transplanted it in the mid-19th century, were the first large wave of Asian migrants. Beginning to attract a fast-growing non-Chinese clientele of diverse ethnic backgrounds in major cities across the nation around the end of the 19th century, Chinese food was the first ethnic cuisine to be highly commodified as a type of food primarily to be prepared and consumed away from home at a national level. As such, it injected a refreshing air of diversity to a country long dominated by an Anglo culinary monotony, which remained evident as late as the 1960s. John Steinbeck recalled that “in the eating places along the roads the food has been clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness” after taking a cross-country road trip in 1960.1 By 1980 Chinese had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States as a result of changes in Chinese immigration.

Moreover, Chinese food has also been a vital lifeline for Chinese Americans, existing as one of the two main sources of employment for them (the other being the laundry business) for decades. Its development, therefore, is an important chapter in American history and a central part of the Chinese American experience.

Yet, Chinese food has not received the attention it deserves. Despite the fact that it stems from one of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated cuisines, and that it's been in the country for more than 160 years, it has largely remained at the lower end of America’s gastronomical hierarchy. Second and equally important, few systematically studied its history until the first decade of the 21st century.2

This essay outlines the development of America’s Chinese food through four stages, showing that its rise was not merely a gastronomical event but a development closely associated with important socioeconomic forces that impacted American society and the transpacific world. An integral part of Chinese immigration, traditional Chinese food was consumed almost exclusively by Chinese immigrants and for decades remained a prominent marker of their community and identity. At the same time, mainstream American society rejected it for a long time, a rejection that paralleled the growing 19th-century political movement to exclude the Chinese. In the late 19th century, in a second stage, when the anti-Chinese movement succeeded in curtailing Chinese immigration and confined the Chinese population in urban enclaves, white middle-class tourists and food connoisseurs “discovered” Chinese food as a culinary novelty. A third stage emerged around the turn of the 20th century, when Chinese restaurateurs promoted and tailored their food to meet the demand of customers of varied backgrounds, especially those on the social margins. Finally, the arrival of new waves of Chinese immigrants in the post-1965 era marked a fourth stage. Coming in greater numbers and from backgrounds different from that of earlier Cantonese immigrants, they have significantly expanded the scope and meaning of Chinese food in the United States.

The Transplantation of Chinese Food

Chinese food arrived in America in the Gold Rush era, as the 49’ers reached California from China, demonstrating the pivotal role of immigration in transplanting ethnic cuisines to America. Chinese immigrants brought their food to the New World not because they wanted to proselytize their cuisine among non-Chinese but because of its extraordinary importance in defining their community and identity.

Chinese food’s transplantation paralleled the creation of Chinese communities. In major cities in California, such as Sacramento and San Francisco, food businesses represented a vital sector in the Chinese ethnic economy during this period. In 1856, thirty-three grocery stores, along with five restaurants and five meat shops, represented almost half of all businesses in San Francisco’s emerging Chinese settlement, outnumbering all other kinds of businesses. Although laundry shops soon exceeded Chinese food businesses in San Francisco and Sacramento in the 1870s, the former were scattered in different parts of their respective city. By comparison, the latter constituted the core component of the commerce inside Chinatown and defined its meaning.

The large number of grocery stores indicates Chinatown’s role as a food-distribution hub. The main Chinese-language newspaper published wholesale prices for a wide range of foodstuffs in the front page in the 1870s.3 Many of such foods, especially the exquisite Chinese ingredients like orange skins, tea, bamboo shoots, shark’s fins, bird’s nest, and sea cucumber, were imported directly from China to ensure the continued existence of Chinese cuisine in the New World.4

Serving such foodstuffs, Chinese restaurants constituted another important attraction of Chinatown to Chinese immigrants and revealed the central significance of food for the Chinese community. Indeed, Chinese restaurants’ appearance invariably marked the beginning of a community. In 1849, for example, four Chinese restaurants inaugurated the nascent community in San Francisco. Restaurants also existed in the emerging Chinese communities in other cities, such as Marysville. Known also as the third city (san bu) among the Chinese, it would be home to a sizeable Chinese settlement. By 1853, there had already been two Chinese restaurants and three Chinese stores. Similarly, many East Coast Chinese communities also started with a grocery store and a restaurant.5

Several reasons explain the importance of restaurants. The first was the absence of family life stemming from the extraordinary sex-ratio imbalance in mid-19th-century Chinese immigrant communities in America. In 1852 only 19 of the 2,954 Chinese living in San Francisco were female.6 This means that few had the opportunity to enjoy home cooking as part of family life. Second, coming from a society where cooking had long been regarded as women’s responsibility, most immigrant men had no prior experience in cooking. Third, many Chinese worked as miners, farmhands, railroad workers, and domestic servants and did not have the time or space to cook their own food. The need to feed a predominantly bachelor and often itinerant population hungry for familiar food became an essential function of large communities.

Chinese restaurants provided culturally familiar food at affordable prices. In the late 1870s, immigrants like Ah Quin could grab a dinner for as little as ten cents in San Francisco’s Chinatown.7 Moreover, Chinese dining establishments represented a culturally important space to rest and socialize.8 The Washington Post characterized a reputable Chinese restaurant in the capital as “the resort and meeting place of East Asiatics.”9 This characterization captured the critical social and cultural significance of Chinese restaurants for the early immigrants.

Even when living in remote areas, immigrant workers also did their best to bring their food with them. The Chinese workers who contracted to build a railroad in Calvert, Texas, in 1870 offer an example. The community leaders who negotiated the contract on their behalf successfully demanded the railroad company to establish a store that would have a long list of Chinese foodstuffs and cooking materials and utensils in significant quantities, including ten boxes of “Foo Chuck, or bean curd sticks,” 200 pounds of ginger root, two dozen frying pan shovels, and forty sets of chop sticks.10

For many immigrants, Chinese food was important not only because of its familiar tastes but also because of the memories it carried. When a Chinese immigrant named Wah-chung Leung first arrived in San Francisco on February 3, 1922, he wrote, in his diary, that the fragrant food smell in Chinatown triggered his homesickness.11

What to Leung was a fragrant smell became the “strange odors of the East” to Anglo Americans.12 During the first stage, Chinese food catered almost exclusively to Chinese customers except for a brief time around 1849 when San Francisco’s Chinese restaurants entertained non-Chinese diners. It was quickly rejected by mainstream America. Characterizing the Chinese as being undesirable and un-American, the fast-growing anti-Chinese movement popularized a long-lasting image of Chinese cooking as being “repulsive to the epicurean taste of an Anglo-Saxon.”13 Early Western missionaries in China created the notion that the Chinese daily diet included strange and dangerous animals. It gained increasing currency after Chinese food landed in America with a particular emphasis on rats. Connecting the rat to Chinese cooking was also an effort to depict the Chinese as a source of dangerous diseases. This attempt was clearly evidenced in the investigative report of the 1907–1908 bubonic plague by a health committee of San Francisco. Calling the plague a “typically Oriental disease,” it noted the discovery of dead rats in Chinese restaurants and reminded readers of the Black Death that started “from China in 1334.”14

Examining the development of Chinese food in America helps debunk an idea shared by many Chinese since the early 20th century, namely, that Chinese food has achieved enormous popularity in the country because it is the best in the world.15 Given mounting anti-Chinese racism in the United States, few 19th-century Americans expected it to become popular. Even early in the 20th century, when its appeal already became quite palpable, mainstream commentators remained cautious about its future. One noted that “a prejudice against Chinese foods must be overcome before their delicacy and economy can be enjoyed.”16 The exclusion acts, starting with the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, not only sanctioned efforts to assault Chinese food but also curbed Chinese immigration and reduced the Chinese population, thereby making it very difficult to support and spread Chinese food. The number of Chinese immigrants dropped from 39,579 in 1882 to 8,031 in 1883, 510 in 1884, and 198 in 1885.17 Thereafter, the Chinese population also declined in America, never reaching the 100,000 mark again until after WWII.

Nonetheless, Chinese food’s transplantation brought to the New World new ingredients such as Chinese vegetables and tofu, new cooking methods such as stir-fry, and new ways to consume meals such as communal-style dinners. All these planted a potent seed of change. But what would cause the despised cuisine of a numerically small ethnic population to become enormously popular is not so clear.

White Americans’ Discovery of Chinese Food in Chinatown

During the second stage in the developing history of Chinese food in America that began in the late 1880s, Chinese food largely remained confined to Chinese settlements but also began to gain increasing acceptance among non-Chinese consumers. We have noted Chinese food’s cultural and social importance during the previous period; during this stage, the Chinese restaurant sector became the mainstay of the tourism-based Chinatown economy. These developments reflected key demographic and occupational changes in Chinese America.

The first change was the geographical redistribution of its population, marked, first and foremost, by Chinese America’s urbanization. In 1880 the Chinese living in cities with a population of at least 100,000 represented only 21.6 percent of Chinese America, but by 1940 that number had surged to 71 percent.18 A main cause was anti-Chinese violence, which intensified during the 1870s, destroying most small-town Chinese communities.

At the same time, Chinese Americans increasingly moved out of the West to other parts of the country. This movement reconfigured the regional distribution of the Chinese population. In 1870, 99.4 percent of the 63,199 Chinese residents lived in the American West. In 1940, that number dropped to 60.4 percent.19 Many Chinese Americans moving eastward entered major cities, where their presence grew visibly. In Chicago, for instance, the Chinese population grew from 172 in 1880 to 1,179 in 1900 and 2,353 in 1920.20 The Chinese population in New York increased from 747 in 1880 to 6,321 in 1900 and close to 13,000 in 1940.21

Occupational marginalization also increased as American’s Chinese population grew, especially in cities outside the West. For many Chinese immigrants, opening a laundry became almost the only viable way to make a living—a pattern that had already become clear in the early 1870s, when Chinese laundries appeared in numerous cities outside the American West with an amazing level of simultaneity. For example, the first Chinese laundry appeared in Chicago in 1872, and by 1874 at least four existed there.22 Six Chinese laundries existed in St. Louis in 1873.23 In Boston, there were four Chinese laundries in 1875.24 The expansion of the Chinese restaurant industry later was a logical extension of this trend.

The transformation of the metropolitan Chinatown as a prominent tourist attraction accompanied Chinese America’s urbanization and occupational marginalization. During this period, the intense sense of danger and enmity that had characterized Americans’ mentality about Chinatown in the previous stage started to subside. It was gradually replaced by curiosity because the perceived threat from the Chinese had been curbed.

America’s curiosity about the Chinese and their culture had long historical roots and was not a new development. What was new during this period was Chinatown’s transformation as the epitome of an exotic and backward China to one of a more benign image and social function. This development became particularly evident in San Francisco in the late 1880s. When the New York Tribune editor visited Chinatown in June 1885, he was accompanied by members of the city’s Board of Supervisors and “the usual escort of detectives.”25 Yet by the 1890s, professional tour guides had replaced police escorts for visiting Chinatown, and the trips occurred more regularly and were no longer primarily special occasions.

Indeed, going to see Chinatown became a national pastime around the turn of the 20th century. Characterized as a form of “harmless” entertainment,26 organized tours to Chinese settlements became increasingly popular in major cities across the nation, including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. As Chinese Americans were excluded from many occupations, tourism became a vital economic lifeline of the Chinese community.

The emergence of Chinatown as a popular tourist destination gave significant national exposure to Chinese food. “Of all the places in Chinatown,” a newspaper report of New York’s Chinese settlement noted as early as 1888, “the most interesting are the restaurants.”27 Dining establishments have since remained central to the Chinatown tourism infrastructure for several reasons. First, they constituted noticeable landmarks of the Chinese enclave. Second, they were not as controversial as some other Chinatown attractions like opium dens, which often generated strong objections. Third, restaurants were Chinatown’s most enduring attraction throughout the country. Over the years, the opium dens have long faded away, and tourist interest in the Joss House, the theater, and even the shops ostensibly waned. But the appeal of Chinese food persisted and grew. Fourth, among all Chinatown attractions, the restaurants were the most important source of revenue and employment. Until the 1970s restaurant work remained one of the two most important occupations for the Chinese. Peter Kwong reported in 1987 that 15,000 people worked in the 450 restaurants in New York’s Chinatown.28

The Birth of “Chinese-American Cuisine”

The third stage in the evolution of Chinese food and its presence in America commenced in the early 20th century, when Chinese restaurants ventured to non-Chinese neighborhoods, starting to create an omnipresent presence across the nation. As a newspaper reported in 1903, “there is hardly an American city that had not its Chinese restaurants, to which persons of every class like to go.”29 During this period, the spread of Chinese restaurants outside Chinatown created a Chinese cuisine unique for American consumers.

Chinese food’s spread benefited from two important experiences that many Chinese Americans had had in the service sector: first, their work as domestic servants, which gave them significant knowledge about serving food to a non-Chinese clientele; second, their occupation as laundrymen, from which they learned how to run businesses in non-Chinese neighborhoods.

Capturing the connection between the Chinese laundry and restaurants, the New York Tribune published a cartoon entitled “Exit Washee. Enter Chop Suey.”30 Nonetheless, Chinese restaurants did not always replace laundry shops. The two often coexisted side by side, as several Jewish informants told me about their neighborhoods in New York in the 1940s and 1950s.

The consumers that helped turn Chinese food into the first non-Anglo cuisine to achieve national prominence in public consumption were not middle-class tourists and privileged connoisseurs but whites on the margins of society, such as bohemians, African Americans, and immigrants like Jews from Eastern Europe. Unlike the middle-class tourist, who dined in Chinatown restaurants out of curiosity, these more marginalized Americans constituted the most reliable customer base, frequenting these restaurants within Chinatown and without. The latter two groups supported Chinese dining establishments in numerous East Coast cities. In explaining Chinese food’s popularity among the less fortunate, the New York Tribune noted in 1901, “So many, who, while possessed of a small share of this world’s goods, still affect ‘sportiness’ frequent the restaurant for its cheapness and grow to enjoy the highly flavored dishes.”31

The Chinese restaurants outside Chinese enclaves during this period bore striking differences from Chinatown establishments in earlier years. The latter depended on a predominantly Chinese clientele, and many of them offered a wider repertoire ranging from inexpensive foods to lavish meals featuring exquisite items like shark’s fin and bird’s nest. The former, by comparison, left behind Chinese cuisine’s delicacies and served instead simple dishes streamlined under a few categories, such as chop suey and egg foo young; they also tailored their food to their patrons’ palate. In so doing, they created what contemporary Chinese restaurateurs like Lee Gaim You called a “Chinese-American cuisine.”

This raises an extremely important and complex question: Is the Chinese food in non-Chinese neighborhoods authentic? Authenticity is an extremely complicated and highly contested issue in gastronomy and beyond. In the minds of many food connoisseurs, the question was whether America’s Chinese food was the same as the food found in China and enjoyed by the Chinese. For those who went to Chinatown in search of authentic Chinese food, therefore, the answer is no. But it would be a historical and gastronomical mistake to deny that American Chinese food has been deeply rooted in China’s long gastronomical tradition. A case in point is chop suey, which became the synonym of Chinese food and has been widely regarded as an American invention by both Chinese and non-Chinese observers. However, contrary to popular assumption, chop suey is not an individual dish but a category of dishes cooked in a method called chao or “stir-fry” as described by the legendary cookbook writer Yang Buwei in 1945.32 As a cooking method, therefore, chop suey has been a defining and unifying element of Chinese cuisine, used in different regions across China since the Song dynasty.

Nevertheless, it is also problematic to characterize America’s Chinese food during this period as entirely authentic. Chinese restaurateurs made significant adaptations, in part because of the lack of sufficient ingredients. As late as the 1960s, when the pioneer Cecilia Chiang opened her legendary Chinese restaurant (the Mandarin) in San Francisco, she often found it difficult to locate the appropriate ingredients. Moreover, Chinese restaurateurs also changed their food to suit the taste of non-Chinese customers, especially by making it sweeter. American chop suey tended to have more liquid than the chao dishes in China, and, unlike the latter, which remained largely a method of home cooking, the former became commercially packaged and streamlined as a highly recognizable brand name in the realm of food consumption. Finally, America’s Chinese food stayed predominantly Cantonese until the 1970s, representing only one of the many culinary regions of China, rather than “Chinese food” in its entirety.

The Expansion of Chinese Immigration and Chinese Food

Two events marked the beginning of the fourth stage. The first is Nixon’s highly publicized visit to China in 1972. “The Chinese restaurant scene here exploded because of the Nixon trip,” noted restaurateur Michael Tong, who re-created the meal in New York shortly thereafter.33 A far more significant event, however, was a law “that changed the face of America”34—the 1965 immigration reform act. Abolishing the racist quota system established in 1924, it drastically increased the Chinese American population, as we can see from the following chart.

Chinese population in the United States 1970–2000:35

1970   1980    1990    2000

435,062  806,040  1,645,472  2,432,858

The new Chinese immigrants provided the necessary labor force for the continued expansion of Chinese restaurants.36 The Chinese restaurant industry, in turn, afforded them economic opportunities. Coming from more diverse geographical origins, many post-1965 Chinese immigrants opened restaurants and introduced China’s regional cuisines outside Guangdong. In cities like New York, Cantonese cooking started losing its overwhelming dominance in the Chinese-food market early in the 1970s. Ralph Blumenthal noticed that “New Yorkers move from the long-favored Cantonese style to the more exotic Chinese cuisines.”37 In San Francisco Cecilia Chiang’s restaurant was among the first to introduce regional Chinese cooking—Beijing, Shandong, Sichuan, and Hunan—to non-Chinese customers.

By 1980 Chinese food had clearly become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the realm of public food consumption, constituting about 30 percent of America’s major ethnic cuisines.38 Chinese restaurants continued to multiply and remained an important source of employment for Chinese. Chinese food has also maintained its position as the leading ethnic cuisine in America. In 1989, after surveying nineteen cuisines, the National Restaurant Association concluded that Chinese cuisine remained the most frequently consumed.39 In 2007, according to Chinese Restaurant News, the number of Chinese restaurants in the United States increased to 43,139.40

The proliferating Chinese restaurant industry is becoming more multilayered than ever before. In previous decades, a prevailing trend was to make Chinese food more suitable for the American palate; but in this period, the Chinese food in the American metropolis increasingly resembles the food in different regions of China, exhibiting a “return to authenticity.” This is because of the appearance and development of new Chinese communities, populated by post-1965 immigrants—from Taiwan and later various regions in mainland China—in areas like Flushing, the Bay Area, and the San Gabriel Valley have generated both the sufficient customer base and the demand for more authentic and more varied Chinese food. Furthermore, unlike earlier periods, when most Chinese restaurants were mainly individual or family operations, a growing number of successful restaurant companies, such as the trendy hot-pot franchise Little Sheep in China and the famous chain Din Tai Fung in Taipei, have opened multiple branches in American cities recently, further synchronizing the Chinese-food markets across the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the traditional American Chinese food featured in chains like Panda Express as well as independent establishments still demonstrates a remarkably steady longevity. Old signature dishes such as chop suey, while being dethroned by new non-Cantonese ones like “Kung Pao,”41 continue to be popular, especially in African American neighborhoods in cities like Detroit and St. Louis.42

The U.S. Chinese-food industry is also influenced by American restaurant trends. For instance, fusion food has gained significant momentum, as the success of the P. F. Chang chain exemplifies. P. F. Chang’s also exemplifies a growing trend, pioneered by people like Cecilia Chiang, to elevate the status of Chinese food.43

However, despite such efforts, Chinese food continues to be viewed as an inexpensive and convenient type of food. The average annual revenue per Chinese restaurant is at least 40 percent lower than the national average in the restaurant industry as a whole. The new immigrants from China in recent years, including those undocumented immigrants who came from Fujian province, have also started another national trend: Chinese buffets at extremely affordable prices. Reminiscent of Chinese restaurants in earlier decades, these buffet places continue to function as a source of livelihood for common immigrant laborers from China. Thus, the divergent trends in the Chinese-food industry today continues to be shaped by diverse socioeconomic forces today.

The rise of Chinese food was not a purely story about changes in palate but was intimately intertwined with historical developments that shaped and transformed the United States and Chinese America after the mid-19th century. It also bespeaks the historical agency of Chinese Americans in their efforts to maintain their identity and pursue the American dream in defiance of racist forces that despised their culture and desired to exclude them.

The history of Chinese food presented here should not be simplistically construed as a celebratory story. The multiplication of Chinese restaurants throughout the United States reflected the marginalization of Chinese Americans into the service sector and signaled America’s need for food service, rather than an appreciation of China’s long and rich culinary traditions. Therefore, Chinese food remained largely a convenient and inexpensive type of food. It would not receive the recognition and appreciation it deserves until American society fundamentally altered its perceptions of the Chinese and their culture.

Discussion of the Literature

In spite of its historical significance and ubiquitous presence, Chinese food received little intellectual attention until recently. Since the 1990s, there have been numerous scholarly essays, exploring a number of issues. One such issue is the long-standing Jewish connection to Chinese food, which Gaye Tuchman and Harry Gene Levine examined in their 1993 essay.44

An important question that has existed in the minds of many people for more than a century concerns the authenticity of America’s Chinese food. Investigating this question, Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine have pointed out the paradoxical nature of consumers’ search for culinary authenticity. As they note, Chinese restaurateurs understood that “novel culinary traditions must be situated so as to seem simultaneously exotic and familiar: distinguishable from mainstream cuisine (and thus desirable) yet able to be assimilated as edible creations.”45 In a more recent article, Sherrie A. Inness shows that Chinese American cookbook writers too faced the authenticity issue, as they tried to appeal to non-Chinese readers.46 Chinese-food cookbook writing is another topic that has started to draw attention from scholars.47

More and more researchers also recognize Sino-American interactions as an important context for the transpacific voyage of Chinese food. For example, in discussing Chinese food’s spread to Western countries, J. A. G. Roberts’s China to Chinatown devoted significant space to the writings about it by Americans living in China. In an essay about the evolving Chinese restaurant industry in southern California, Haiming Liu and Lianlian Lin illuminate the role of Chinese immigration.48

During the first decade of the 21st century, three books on the topic appeared: Jennifer 8 Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey, and John Jung’s Sweet and Sour.49 The work of Lee, a former New York Times reporter, is the first book-length examination of the topic published in English, providing snapshots of important episodes in the development of Chinese food in America, such as General Tso’s chicken, the fortune cookie, and illegal immigrants working in Chinese restaurants. Coe’s extensive coverage of the culinary tradition of China and American travelers’ encounters with it offer a historical context for understanding its journey to the United States. The long-time psychology professor John Jung has published several studies of Chinese American history since his retirement. His Sweet and Sour contains valuable narratives and memoirs by Chinese restaurateurs, offering insights into the saga of American Chinese food. These are followed by new publications on the history of American Chinese food, such as my own Chop Suey, USA and Haiming Liu’s From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express,50 which provide in-depth analysis of the roles of significant historical developments such as Chinese immigration.

Many exciting tasks awaits scholars of Chinese food. One of them is to situate the development of America’s Chinese food in larger historical and in comparative contexts. Another task is to unearth more sources.

Primary Sources

One of the reasons why Chinese food has not received sufficient scholarly attention until recently is the scarcity of historical sources. Contributing to this scarcity is the persistent prejudice against Chinese Americans and their food. In addition, few of the Chinese immigrants, especially those who worked in the Chinese-food industry, had the time to record and preserve their experiences. Nevertheless, many valuable sources are readily available. For example, in English-language newspapers in cities across the country, there are many articles, restaurant reviews, and advertisements about Chinese food. The availability of online searchable newspaper databases—such as Chronicle America, produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress—has made the job of researchers much easier than before. Similarly, many travelogues, left by both Chinese and non-Chinese authors, contain lengthy records and commentary about Chinese Americans’ food and their food habit. There is also valuable information about Chinese food in Chinese-language newspapers published in different cities, but such newspapers are mostly not digitized, and their coverage of food is more scattered.51 Chinese-food cookbooks represent another extremely significant kind of historical sources. From the early 20th century to 1985, almost 300 such cookbooks were published in the United States. Written by Chinese Americans in most cases, they offer great insights into the far-reaching significance of Chinese food for Chinese Americans and how they communicated with non-Chinese readers in an effort not only to promote their food but also express their pride in their history and cultural identity.52 Furthermore, anyone who wishes to understand multifaceted meanings of Chinese food should spend time studying restaurant menus. Together, they constitute fascinating narratives that offer valuable glimpses into the cultural negotiation between Chinese restaurateurs and their clientele. At the same time, it is also a challenge to find and interpret restaurant menus. Many of them have vanished, and those that have survived the passage of time often are not clearly dated.

The dearth of sources and other challenges, however, have also motivated a growing number of scholars to locate and gather various historical sources. The independent scholar Harley Spiller, for example, collected about 10,000 Chinese restaurant menus in spare time, using his own resources. His collection, the largest in the world, constituted an important basis for a museum exhibit on the history of Chinese restaurants in America that Cynthia Lee and I co-curated about a decade ago.53 It has been acquired by the University of Toronto. In addition, scholars such as John Jung have also collected oral histories and memoirs from those who have toiled in the Chinese restaurant industry. Such fruitful efforts show that there are enormous numbers of sources and information about Chinese food out there, waiting to be uncovered and recorded.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Chang, Kwang-chih. Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Chen, Yong. Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
  • Coe, Andrew. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Jung, John. Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants. Cypress, CA: Yin & Yang Press, 2009.
  • Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve, 2008.
  • Liu, Haiming. From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: The History of Chinese Food in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West. London: Reaktion, 2002.
  • Wang, Q. Edward. Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Wu, David Y. H., and Sidney C. H. Cheung. The Globalization of Chinese Food. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.


  • 1. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (New York: Penguin Book, 1997; originally published in 1962), 108. Others have also noted mainstream America’s monotonous gastronomic landscape. See, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catharine Esther Beecher, The American Woman’s Home (New York: Ford, 1869), 168; and Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 4.

  • 2. See the discussion of the literature section.

  • 3. See for example, The Oriental, October 23, 1875, 1.

  • 4. For discussions of invoices of such importations, see Robert F. G. Spier, “Food Habits of Nineteenth-Century California Chinese,” California Historical Society Quarterly 37.1 (March 1958): 79–84. Many observers also mentioned that many things used in Chinese cooking were imported from China.

  • 5. Bayard Taylor, Eldorado (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 117 and 165.

  • 6. Benson Tong, Unsubmissive Women (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 3. In 1860, the men-to-women ratio in Chinese America remained 18.6:1. See Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 69.

  • 7. Ah Quin’s diary entries for December 12 and 18, 1878.

  • 8. It was common knowledge that Chinatown in American metropolises remained crowded. In the mid-1880s, for example, more than 30,000 Chinese lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown in an area within twelve blocks. According the 1885 report of a special committee appointed by the city’s board of supervisors to investigate Chinatown, there were 15,180 bunk beds in the Chinese settlement, each occupied by two persons. The committee also found rolls of bedding that people for sleeping on floors at night. See Willard R. Farwell, The Chinese at Home and Abroad Together with The Report of the Special Committee of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco on the Condition of the Chinese Quarter and the Chinese in San Francisco (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Co., 1885), part 2, 7.

  • 9. “Like Oriental Cuisine,” The Washington Post, November 30, 1902, 28.

  • 10. The Memphis Daily Appeal, December 31, 1869.

  • 11. Wah-chung Leung’s diary entry for February 10, 1922.

  • 12. Charles Warren Stoddard, A Bit of Old China (San Francisco: A. M. Robertson, 1912), 2.

  • 13. Joseph, Carey, By the Golden Gate: Or, San Francisco, the Queen City of the Pacific Coast; with Scenes and Incidents Characteristic of Its Life (New York: The Albany Diocesan Press, 1902), 196.

  • 14. Frank Morton Todd, Eradicating Plague from San Francisco: Report of the Citizens’ Health Committee and the Account of Its Work (San Francisco: C. A Murdock & Co., 1909), 15, 21, and 38.

  • 15. Shiu Wong Chan, The Chinese Cook Book (New York: Frederick, A. Stokes, 1917), preface. Chen Benchang, Meiguo Huaqiao Canguan Gongye (The Chinese Restaurant Industry) (Taipei: Yuandong Books, 1971), 217, and “Heyi Wairen Xichi Zhongcai Yuelaiyueduo” (“Why More and More Foreigners Like to Eat Chinese Food?”), in Chen Benchang Wenji (Selected Works of Ben John Chen), ed. Chen Benchang (New York: Asian American Republican National Federation, 1998), 422.

  • 16. “Ways and Means,” The Independent 92.3598 (November 17, 1917): 343.

  • 17. US Bureau of Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1957 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), 59.

  • 18. Rose Hum Lee, “The Decline of Chinatowns in the United States,” The American Journal of Sociology 54.5 (March 1949), 427.

  • 19. Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992), 73.

  • 20. Tracy Steffes, “Chinese,” in Chicago Historical Society, Encyclopedia of Chicago. Also see Huping Ling, Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 50.

  • 21. Xinyang Wang, Surviving the City: The Chinese Immigrant Experience in New York City, 1890–1970 (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 136.

  • 22. Paul Siu and John Kuo Wei Tchen, The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation (New York: New York University Press, 1988), 23.

  • 23. Huping Ling, Chinese St. Louis: From Enclave to Cultural Community (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 35.

  • 24. See, Sampson, Davenport, & Co., The Boston Directory, Embracing the City Record, a General Directory of the Citizens, and a Business Directory for the Year Commencing July 1, 1875. It is available at through Tufts University’s “Boston Streets” project.

  • 25. Sacramento Daily Record-Union, June 12, 1885, 1.

  • 26. This was the image of Chinatown projected by publicists during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. See Abigail Markwyn, “Economic Partner and Exotic Other: China and Japan at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” The Western Historical Quarterly 39.4 (2008): 485.

  • 27. “Seen in Chinatown,” Atchison Daily Champion, October 25, 1888, 7.

  • 28. Peter Kwong, The New Chinatown: Revised Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Macmillan, 1932).

  • 29. “Odd Chinese Dishes,” The New York Tribune, August 30, 1903, B2.

  • 30. Arthur Chapman, “Why All the Chinese Restaurants,” New York Tribune, December 25, 1921, 6.

  • 31. “Chinese Restaurants,” The New York Tribune, February 3, 1901, B6.

  • 32. Yang Chao, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (New York: John Day, 1945), 43.

  • 33. Florence Fabricant, “Nixon in China, the Dinner, Is Recreated,” New York Times, January 25, 2011.

  • 34. Margaret Sands Orchowski, The Law that Changed the Face of America: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

  • 35. Birgit Zinzius, Chinese America: Stereotype and Reality: History, Present, and Future of the Chinese Americans (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 96. The ethnic populations that include large numbers of immigrants, such as the Chinese, are often uncounted because many did not come through the regular immigration channels.

  • 36. Ralph Blumenthal, “Chinese Restaurants Flower Following Diplomatic Thaw,” New York Times, July 27, 1972, 33.

  • 37. Ibid.

  • 38. Wilbur Zelinsky, “The Roving Palate: North America’s Ethnic Cuisines,” Geoforum 16.1 (1985): 56 and 60.

  • 39. The National Restaurant Association, The Market for Ethnic Foods: A Consumer Attitude and Behavior Study (Washington: National Restaurant Association, 1989), 9. The key word here is cuisine, which does not include individual food items like pizza or hot dog.

  • 40. Chinese Restaurant News, “Chinese Restaurants in USA Dining Guide,” retrieved from

  • 41. For more information about the popularity of different “new” dishes in American Chinese restaurants, see Yong Chen, Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 146.

  • 42. For more discussions of chop suey houses in African American communities in St. Louis, see Malcolm Gay, “St. Louie Chop Suey,” River Front Times, November 15, 2006,

  • 43. Philip Chiang, co-founder of P. F. Chang, is her son.

  • 44. Gaye Tuchman and Harry Gene Levine, “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern,” in The Taste of American Place: A Reader on Regional and Ethnic Foods, eds. Barbara Gimla Shortridge and James R. Shortridge (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 163–184. Hanna Miller continues to explore this connection in her article “Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine,” Journal of Popular Culture 39.3 (2006): 430–465.

  • 45. Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine, “The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment,” Sociological Quarterly 36.3 (1995): 536.

  • 46. Sherrie A. Inness, “‘Unnatural, Unclean, and Filthy’: Chinese American Cooking Literature Confronting Racism in the 1950s,” in Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 39–60.

  • 47. See for example J. A. G. Roberts’ China to Chinatown (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 187–197. Melinda Lo presented an insightful and interesting paper at the 2001 annual conference of the Association for Asian American Studies entitled “‘Authentic’ Chinese Food: Chinese American Cookbooks and the Regulation of Ethnic Identity,” which is available online at A close reading of Beuwei Yang Chao’s cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese can be found in Janet Theophano, “Home Cooking: Boston Baked Beans and Sizzling Rice Soup as Recipes for Pride and Prejudice,” in Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, ed. Sherrie Inness (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 138–156.

  • 48. Haiming Liu and Lianlian Lin, “Food, Culinary Identity, and Transnational Culture: Chinese Restaurant Business in Southern California,” Journal of Asian American Studies 12.2 (2009): 135–162.

  • 49. Jennifer 8 Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (New York: Twelve, 2008); Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); John Jung, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants (Cypress, CA: Yin & Yang Press, 2009). It is necessary to add that the first book-length study of America’s Chinese food was published in Chinese outside the United States: Chen Benchang, Meiguo huaqiao canguan gongye (“The Chinese Restaurant Industry in America”) (Taipei: Yuandong Books, 1971).

  • 50. Yong Chen, Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); and Haiming Liu, From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: The History of Chinese Food in the United States (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).

  • 51. For a comprehensive list of historical Chinese newspapers, see Him Mark Lai and Karl Lo, comp., Chinese Newspapers Published in North America, 1854–1975 (Washington, DC: Center for Chinese Research Materials, 1977).

  • 52. Readers interested in this topic may consult Jaqueline M. Newman’s extensive bibliography Chinese Cookbooks: An Annotated English Language Compendium/Bibliography (New York: Garland Publishing, 1987). Professor Newman has donated her collection of more than 4,000 books to create the Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese Cookbook Collection at the State University of New York, Stonybrook.

  • 53. “‘Have You Eaten Yet?’: The Chinese Restaurant in America” at the Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia. April–September 2006 and Museum of Chinese in the Americas, New York City, September 14, 2004–June 30, 2005