If you follow my blog, you know that I try to cover the history of any food or cocktail that I am working on. For my Old Fashioned series I wrote a history post and for my hotdish series, I did the same. We won’t change that with our Chow Mein series and this has probably been the most difficult history to cover, thus far. I have done quite a bit of research into the history of Chow Mein and I am going to share what I have found. One thing I have learned is that the history of Chow Mein is as much an exploration of the history of Chinese American cuisine as it is about chow mein specifically. Today, we are going to take a brief look at the history of Chinese American cuisine and how dishes from China ended up in our local middle-America Chinese restaurants.
Is Chinese American Cuisine My Story To Tell?
As I first started exploring this topic, I wondered if I should even be writing about this topic. Other than some Asian links far back in my genetics (thanks Ghenghis Kahn), I am not close to Asian culture and don’t have parents that are Asian. I was born in North Dakota and spend a good chunk of my life in a mostly homogenous Upper Midwestern culture. Lefse, tater tot hotdish, and knoephla soup are the culinary culture of my early youth.
I was talking to a friend about this question and she mentioned that maybe I am the perfect person to write about this. Really, the restaurants where I live might be the end-product of the stereotypical Americanization of Chinese food. I have eaten at many Chinese restaurants in North Dakota and Minnesota over the past 43 years. I am quite familiar with the flavor of Americanized Chinese food and I am fairly certain you would not get the same dishes in China or even Chinatown. In Fargo (where I live), Phil Wong's opened up in 1970 and I believe that to be the first Chinese restaurant in this city and likely North Dakota. Maybe Fargo is the final destination, for better or worse, of a culturally transformed Chinese cuisine. Yes, I loved Phil Wongs and it was probably the closest I got to Asian food for at least the fourteen years of my life. Yes, I am going to write about the history of Chinese American cuisine from the perspective of a mostly Norwegian North Dakotan. As always, once done reading, I would love to hear your stories or any critique in the comment section below.
Sources for My Search
This was such a big topic that I went beyond my normal research. I read a book called Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food In The United States and reinforced much of this research with other online research methods. If you are interested in an in-depth and entertaining look at how Chinese food migrated to America, pick this book up.
How Far Back Does Chinese Food Go?
Such a silly question, as I suppose it goes back as far back as when man learned to harness agriculture, while living in Asia. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, this was about 8000 years ago. Many ancient Chinese wrote about food preparation that would eventually lead to the Chinese food we know today. Confucius wrote about food extensively. According to the book Chop Suey, Yi Yin, a leader and cook from the Shang Dynasty had described proper recipes as such:
“all five of the basic flavors— bitter, sour, sweet, pungent, and salty— should be present, to greater or lesser degrees, often depending on the season, but always in harmony with each other.”
There were many ancient Chinese foodies.
The Divide Of Rice And Wheat
China is no small region, so as people settled, they farmed what was available in thier respective areas. This provided a distinct difference in the regional fare as time went on. Most notably to me and relevant to the Chow Mein discussion, wheat was grown in northern regions and rice in southern. The climate of the northern regions just did not support the growth of rice and wheat became a staple in northern China.
A rich heritage of wheat dishes formed in China that included noodles and dumplings. When you go to a Chinese restaurant and eat Lo Mein, Chow Mein, Pot Stickers, or many other dumplings, it is a reflection of this heritage. Wheat plays an important part in the history of Chinese food and Chinese American cuisine.
East Meets West
Before America was a thing, European cultures and Chinese cultures met and spoke the international language of trade. Through the Silk Road, China and European entities exchanged goods and cultures. However minimally, East and West began to gain exposure to each other.
Well, the west happenstanced somewhere in this timeline on North America. All sorts of turmoil, western exploration, and some ugliness happened for many years. All of this led to America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. America was born.
America Makes Its First Trip To China
It was not long after the formation of America that it tried to make a presence in one of the world's superpowers, China. In 1784, Samuel Shaw sailed the Empress of China across the ocean to begin trade and begin America's diplomacy in the East. Remember, America was the new kid on the block and China has been around for a long time. Shaw landed at the port in Guangzhou (Canton) at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta.
Even though Samuel Shaw was in China for several months, he was not allowed in the city proper. In the book Chop Suey, they showed that the foreign trading port, Guangzhou, served as a separation from anybody on the outside to Chinese culture. Additionally, Shaw was in the company of the world stage. This means they were also in the company of Britain, whom they were recently at war with.
Shaw’s four-month visit to China might have provided only limited exposure to Chinese culture and cuisine, but it was the first of many to help begin trade between America and China.
Samuel Shaw Chinese Cuisine Exposure
This was likely one of the first times that Chinese food was exposed to an American. That exposure, however, was fairly limited. Even though there were several Europeans and Shaw in China, there was still a cultural and culinary separation. The trading post where Shaw spent his time separated them from the rest of China. They were not even allowed to leave unless strictly monitored. Even though many of the cooks were Chinese within the compound a largely European cuisine was prepared. The style of food was so foreign to Westerners that most shunned Chinese food as being bad. At the same time, China saw itself as the center of the world and looked at Western food as bland and wasteful.
In the book, Chop Suey, there were some descriptions of ornate Chinese meals being prepared and served to Americans and Europeans, but they were the exception. The tastes of the different regions and cultures were so different that most of the West could not take the many different tastes that Chinese cuisine could offer.
In fact, even the notion that there were not forks and knives was difficult to fathom by many Westerners. Etiquette, pomp, and circumstance was a very important feature of ‘civilized’ culture in the West. Chopsticks threw a big wrench in this!
Another Fundamental Divide
One thing that I think is important to point out is the basic divide between the East and West. I feel like many Westerners felt Chinese practices and food to be plain bizarre and not normal. They were just so different and looked down upon by the West. From the kinds of meat that the Chinese would eat to the way that the Chinese would use more of an animal, it was not comfortable to many Westerners.
On the other side of things, China was one of the oldest cultures in the world. They definitely had some advances over the rest of the world in many facets. China saw itself as the center of the civilized world and all of these other countries were just here to pay respect to China.
Fortunately, through the language of trade, this divide was conquered and the East was able to work with the West despite enormous cultural differences. America began to flourish, but Chinese immigration to America did not really begin in a meaningful way until the California Gold Rush.
First Chinese Immigration Wave - Gold Rush, Laborers, Contract Workers
While not exclusively because of the gold rush in California, it certainly played a big role in the beginning migration of Chinese people to America. Gold was found in California on January 24, 1848. That same year, there were approximately 325 Chinese Immigrants in America. By 1852 that number rose to 25,000. By 1880, that number was 300,000.
People came from all over the world to find gold and Chinese immigration exploded. Interestingly, most Chinese immigrants came from the same area where Shaw originally landed in China. Perhaps some of these first meetings in California provided for the very first glimpses of Chinese American cuisine.
The Chinese did not only come for the gold but also as laborers and to help build the transcontinental railroad.
Racism and Anti-Chinese Sentiment
So, the Chinese came in large numbers in the mid-1800s and brought a unique culture and tastes to America. Those large numbers also resulted in an enormous anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese immigrants were willing to work for less than their American counterparts and this threatened many.
A large contingency of anti-Chinese sentiment permeated political and social realms. Part of this included a proliferation of the stereotypes of Chinese food that impacted Chinese American cuisine for years to come. The anti-Chinese sentiment created fear and stereotypes that caused real problems for Chinese in America. Terrible acts of violence like the Rock Spring Massacre were tolerated. All of the bad sentiment culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented most Chinese immigration from 1882 forward. This was the first American law implemented that prevented a specific ethnicity from immigrating to the US. The law was eventually, and thankfully, repealed in 1943, following World War II.
Some believe that this racism and anti-Chinese sentiment pushed Chinese immigrants to specialize in non-threatening labor fields like laundry and also to establish their own businesses.
Chinatown was first given the name by the press, but it really was already Chinatown before the name started. Chinese immigrants tended to live in the same area, like many immigrant cultures. If you have visited San Francisco's Chinatown, you know that it is one of the must-see tourist destinations. In earlier times, this was not the case. It was given a reputation, although largely exaggerated, as being a neighborhood of ill repute, opium dens, and gambling halls.
Also, there were Chinese restaurants that catered to the locals in these areas. The citizens of Chinatown wanted food like they had at home and whole micro industries sprung up to cater to those tastes and demands. As Chinese moved from city to city via rail, Chinatowns sprung up all across the nation. People in many cities were interfacing with Chinese people and culture for the first time. While we had great divides, at the end of the day, we are all people. Interactions and cultural connections between Americans, European immigrants, and Asian immigrants started to happen and the very early buds of Chinese American cuisine were formed. We all have taste buds and the culture of cuisine was not excluded.
Late 1800s And Chop Suey Houses
By the late 1800s, the Chinatown in New York started to gain some notoriety for food amongst the bohemians of the time. Anglo Saxon Americans started to venture into Chinatown to get some Chop Suey, which was the first Americanized Chinese dish according to the namesaked book, Chop Suey.
Early 1900s And Mainstream Acceptance of Chinese Food
The Bohemians had something right, in that Chinese food can be awesome. Chop Suey houses started becoming a thing. The Chinese restaurants started to cater to the tastes of their white clientele. Sure, there was a local demand for authentic ‘like home’ Chinese meals, but like any good business, if there is a market that can be catered to (white people looking for something exotic), it will happen. It did happen.
Around this time you start seeing recipe books that have Chinese recipes (Chop Suey being one of the most popular of the time) and Chow Mein. This book from 1911 contains Chinese recipes that cater to Amercans of European descent.
In fact, right around the turn of the century, Chinese restaurants started showing up outside of the local Chinatowns.
San Francisco Fire of 1906
Much of San Francisco’s Chinatown was destroyed. There were questions if Chinatown was even going to exist in that location anymore. It really is in a good location and others talked about moving the community. Businessmen like Look Tin Eli, however, convinced other Chinese businesses to hire American architects to rebuild Chinatown in a way that would attract tourists and look like stereotypical China. The politicians approved. So, the post-1906 fire Chinatown was really built as a spectacle to attract tourists.
Here we are, today. Over 110 years later and people still flock to San Francisco's Chinatown.
Chinese Food Becomes an American Staple
By the 1920s, Chinese food was a fairly commonplace meal. Sinclair Lewis has characters eating at Chinese places in Minnesota in the novel Main Street. In fact, they mention Chow Mein. So, by the 20s, eating at a Chinese restaurant in Minnesota was not that out of the ordinary.
In 1920, La Choy started selling products and by the end of the 1930s, they were selling the same Chow Mein Noodles we can pick up at the grocery store today.
While Chinese food had not yet made its way to Fargo, North Dakota, a train ride to Minneapolis may have allowed for the exotic experience of Chinese dining.
Prohibition Was a Boom For Chinese Restaurants
One very surprising detail in the book Chop Suey was how prohibition was great for Chinese restaurants. While other businesses struggled to replace the sale of alcohol (assuming they were not running a speakeasy), Chinese restaurants did not sell the stuff to begin with. This gave Chinese restauranteurs an advantage and Chinese American cuisine became even more popular.
The Great Depression Boom For Chinese Restaurants
On top of prohibition being a positive thing for Chinese restaurants, the Great Depression also gave Chinese restaurants an edge in competition. Since the beginning of Chinese restaurants in America, low price has always been one of the features.
Because Chinese restaurants were already priced very cheaply, they gained an advantage over the competition. It was economical to eat Chinese American cuisine.
The Chinese Exclusion act prevented many families from being together and most Chinese immigration up until it was repealed. This was finally repealed in 1943 and while there were still rules on immigration, it did remove what was an abomination of American history.
Chinese restaurants started becoming commonplace and provided one way for Asians and Asian Americans to start businesses all across America.
Phil Wong’s Opens In Fargo
Phil Wong’s opened its doors in Fargo, North Dakota in 1970 and stayed open until 2004. The place’s namesake, Phil, illegally migrated to the US in the 20s and gained citizenship upon being dishonorably discharged from the US Military.
I can honestly say that I know many people who loved Phil Wong’s and really was the only exposure that Fargo had to Chinese food. Since then, several places have opened in the area. So many that I can’t even count them.
Alright, so if I can put a date on when Chinese American cuisine transformation officially completed, I am going to arbitrarily say 1970…. When Phil Wong’s opened.
Yes, the food and cuisine continue to change and maybe becomes closer to the original cuisine, but the kind of Americanized Chow Mein or Chop Suey is now available at almost any city with any size to it. I got it at Phil Wongs.
And if you travel to Asia or to more populated areas you are going to see dishes that are just different and closer to traditional cuisine. If you walk around Chinatowns in the US, you are going to see things that many just don’t imagine in their Norman Rockwell perceptions of what stereotypical America is. It doesn’t make Chinatown any less American and I think it actually makes America better.
Maybe the question isn’t if Phil Wong’s was Chinese American Cuisine or real Chinese (yeah… it was Americanized Chinese), but maybe the question lies in how did Phil Wong bring two distinct and American cultures a little bit closer together using food? Maybe Phil Wong opened up doors for other restaurateurs and helped bring inch authentic dishes to the palates of my neighbors in Fargo, ND. The journey of Chinese culture to Fargo, ND is like many American stories in that we each have a unique heritage and come to this melting pot to find a better life. Somehow, everybody changes a bit and hopefully, we find ourselves in a better place together. The story of Chinese American cuisine, perhaps is a reflection of America.
I really hope you enjoyed this brief look at the history of Chinese American cuisine. This really is a deeper topic than I can cover in one blog post, but today I hope you get a feel for how that transformation happened and some key points in history that enabled and resulted in the Chinese food we see in our restaurants today.