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.
Ethnicity is a concept employed to understand the social, cultural, and political processes whereby immigrants and their children cease to be “foreign” and yet retain practices and networks that connect them, at least imaginatively, with places of origin. From an early juncture in American history, ethnic neighborhoods were an important part of such processes. Magnets for new arrivals, city neighborhoods both emerged from and reinforced connections among people of common origins. Among the first notable immigrant neighborhoods in American cities were those composed of people from the German-speaking states of Europe. In the second half of the 19th century, American cities grew rapidly and millions of immigrants arrived to the country from a wider array of origins; neighborhoods such as the New York’s Jewish Lower East Side and San Francisco’s Chinatown supported dense and institutionally complex ethnic networks. In the middle decades of the 20th century, immigration waned as a result of legislative restriction, economic depression, and war. Many former immigrant neighborhoods emptied of residents as cities divided along racial lines and “white ethnics” dispersed to the suburbs. However, some ethnic enclaves endured, while others emerged after the resumption of mass immigration in the 1960s. By the turn of the 21st century ethnic neighborhoods were once again an important facet of American urban life, although they took new forms within the reconfigured geography and economy of a suburbanized nation.