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Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants
Sweet and Sour examines the difficult lives of the Chinese immigrants and their families that made their livelihoods operating countless small restaurants during most of the past century often in small remote places.
Why did many Chinese immigrants enter this business around the end of the 19th century? What conditions made it possible for Chinese to open and succeed in operating restaurants after they emigrated to North America? How did Chinese restaurants manage to attract non-Chinese customers, given that they had little or no acquaintance with the Chinese style of food preparation and many had vicious hostility toward Chinese immigrants? The goal of "Sweet and Sour" is to understand how the small Chinese family restaurants functioned. Narratives provided by 10 Chinese who grew up in their family restaurants in all parts of the North America provide valuable insights on the role that this ethnic business had on their lives. Is there any future for this type of immigrant enterprise in the modern world of franchised and corporate owned eateries or will it soon, like the Chinese laundry, be a relic of history?
The goal of "Sweet and Sour" is to understand how the small Chinese family restaurants functioned. Narratives provided by 10 Chinese who grew up in their family restaurants in all parts of the North America provide valuable insights on the role that this ethnic business had on their lives. Is there any future for this type of immigrant enterprise in the modern world of franchised and corporate owned eateries or will it soon, like the Chinese laundry, be a relic of history?
Although the title, Sweet and Sour, suggests a popular style of Chinese restaurant fare, the focus of this book is not on Chinese food, but on the difficult lives of the Chinese immigrants and their families that made their livelihoods operating countless small restaurants during most of the past century often in small remote places all over the U. S. and Canada. These restaurants, which provided the primary, if not the only, experience with Chinese food for most non-Chinese people were a major source of self-employment for earlier generations of Chinese immigrants and their families from villages in the southern China province of Guangdong. Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants is a study of their experience in this livelihood and its impact on Chinese family relations and interactions. As with my other books on the early Chinese immigrant experience, a primary goal is to help preserve a record of the hard lives of Chinese families that operated small businesses such as laundries, grocery stores, and restaurants and to further an understanding and overdue recognition of their contributions to their communities.
Sweet and Sour serves as an apt metaphor for the often, contradictory experiences of Chinese restaurant families. The long hours of never ending work each day made for harsh lives, which were soured by the hostile reception they often faced as foreigners in a racially prejudiced society. Yet, they persevered, and through painstaking labor enabled their children to have a better education that afforded them better options in life. Sweet was the reward for enduring the sour aspects of their work. As one Chinese from a family restaurant noted, “the title… captures exactly how life was. The sweet was how the profits from operating the restaurant added to our quality of life… The sour was how we were treated by some of the customers, and all the crap we had to take, not to mention the hard work into the late hours!”
On a personal note, it was not until I was 15 that I first ate in a Chinese restaurant when my parents moved our family to San Francisco from Macon, Georgia, which at that time had not a single Chinese restaurant. One index of how much social change has occurred is that Macon now has over 20 Chinese restaurants. Al-though I have since dined in many Chinese restaurants, I never thought about their origins and operations. Writing Sweet and Sour has given me a deep appreciation and admiration of those who toiled in this vital economic and cultural enterprise.
I thank many that shared personal experiences, especially those that wrote narratives about their family restaurant lives for Sweet and Sour, listed in order of appearance in Chapter 8: Flo Oy Wong, Quong Wong family members, Dora Leung, Joe Chan, Bill Tong, Darren Lee, Karen Tam, Gilroy Chow, Raymond Wong, and P. C. Wu. Their perceptions and accounts provide a vivid behind the scenes view of restaurant operations. Without their contributions, Sweet and Sour would be a lifeless recital of historical data rather than an enlightening glimpse into the difficult lives of Chinese families that ran these restaurants. Their moving disclosures tell how their families managed their businesses and how they over-came many obstacles. Their narratives honor their roots and show that these experiences taught them valuable lessons that led to significant benefits for them.
Sylvia Sun Minnick, Mel Brown, Greg Robinson, and Yong Chen, experts on matters historical, generously gave valuable time to pro-vide suggestions, criticism, and encouragement. Long-time friends Rod Wong and Ron Gallimore offered helpful feedback on early drafts. I thank Phyllis, my wife, for enduring the mood swings that many authors, myself included, undergo during the task of writing as well as for numerous discussions that help clarify my thinking about many aspects of the book. Special thanks go to Bill Lee for first whetting my appetite to undertake this important research topic.
Jan. 2010 Cypress, Ca.
1. Varieties of Chinese Restaurants
Chinese restaurants are one of the most popular ethnic businesses today, found in virtually every city and town across North America, as well as in many other parts of the world including South Africa, Peru, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. “Chinese restaurant,” somehow suggests that they comprise a homogenous group, much like the thousands of outlets for a fast food franchise. However, nothing could be further from the truth as Chinese eating establishments come in a variety of forms, rang-ing from opulent, luxurious restaurants with many professionally trained chefs that can serve exquisite banquet dishes to hundreds of patrons in large dining halls embellished with elaborate Chinese art decorations to small hole-in-the-wall cafes in facilities with only a handful of Formica top tables and poorly decorated interiors run by single families with little or no initial restaurant experience. While some offer full waiter service, many resemble fast food places or self-service cafeterias. Take-out only and catering serv-ices also exist. More recently, there has been an increase in “all you can eat” for one price buffets.
Although there are certainly some common features among Chinese restaurants, the extent to which they vary can be consider-able as the following description of two restaurants clearly reveals. The Imperial Palace, prominently located in the Chinatown of a large city, is a recently refurbished 400 seat-dining venue with ex-pensive Chinese art decorating the entrance and dining room walls. The dining room tables are decked out with linen tablecloths and napkins and attractive tableware with a Chinese motif. The bi-lingual waiters are neatly attired, and polite, if not downright fawn-ing, in their attentiveness to patrons. A separate spacious dining room on the second floor allows for weddings, birthday parties, and other special occasions.
Attractive to the many tourists seeking a gourmet Chinese meal, the Imperial Palace offers an extensive menu of American-Chinese dishes that appeal to the western palate including their specialties that are reverently described as their “Signature” dishes, and command higher prices. Another menu, written in Chinese, boasts an extensive selection of Chinese dishes that appeals to its large Chinese patronage, but they are not offered on the English menu. A fully stocked bar adjoins the foyer where diners may have cocktails while waiting for a table and a large selection of wines and beers are available on the dinner menu as well.
The capital investment necessary for such a large facility is substantial, and far beyond the resources of a single family. The size of the staff needed by way of managers, cashiers, hostesses, chefs, kitchen assistants, waiters, dishwashers, and cleanup personnel is considerable. A syndicate or partnership with dozens of investors is typically needed to raise the necessary capital.
In contrast, Canton Gardens, the hole-in-the-wall café, occupies a small strip mall storefront in a blighted part of a mid-sized town that has a very small Chinese population. At the present time, a young Chinese immigrant family owns and operates the business but at least two other Chinese were prior owners before they retired. The father, a quiet and serious man with limited English speaking ability, stays in the kitchen most of the time where he does the cooking. He rarely enters the dining area where his outgo-ing wife, with a better command of English, performs the duties of hostess, waitress, and cashier. A young adolescent girl, probably their daughter or a close relative, helps after school and on week-ends. Two younger children, a boy and a girl, are also present after school. They take menus and glasses of water to customers; other-wise, they sit in a corner booth where they quietly do their school homework or watch TV.
After the dinner hour rush subsides, the family members find time to sit down to eat their own meals, though in staggered shifts, at a table in a corner of the kitchen where they can keep an eye on the dining room. Then, sometimes with the help of a hired hand, the dishes are washed, the dining room is tidied up, and a menu for the next day is made by 10 p.m., more or less. The restaurant then closes for the evening. Fortunately, the family residence is located in a flat above the restaurant so it does not take long after cleaning the dining area and kitchen each evening for the family to reach their living quarters. This convenient proximity also saves valuable time because early the next morning the food preparations must be started well in advance of the arrival of customers.
Canton Gardens has a steady mostly white, and a few black, customers that enjoy “American-Chinese” fare such as egg rolls, chop suey, orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, and fried rice. Only a handful of their customers order dishes unfamiliar to them with ingredients such as tofu, salted fish, shark fins, sea cu-cumber, bitter melon, bok choy, or chicken feet.
The dining area is comfortable but nothing fancy and the furnishings are showing signs of age. There was little effort made to try to disguise the fact that this facility previously housed an American coffee shop. In fact, in one part of the dining room there are some incongruous decorations that reflect a western ranch theme. The new owners tried to create a Chinese-y feeling by placing a statue of Buddha near the entrance, which is bordered with a pair of ceramic foo dog statues. Chinese calligraphy adorns the dining room walls, and some Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling. Behind the cash register is a wall calendar advertising a Chinese grocery supplier graced by a photograph of an attractive, smiling young Chinese woman wearing a tight fitting, silk embroi-dered Chinese style dress or cheongsam.
The restrooms are small and could use some redecorating. They are functional, but they are marginally maintained, as the short-handed staff is too busy to clean it except at the end of each day. Despite the physical limitations of the premises, Canton Gar-dens manages to survive by offering fresh tasty food in plentiful portions. The food is prepared quickly, the service is sincere, and the prices are low, largely because labor costs are at a minimum by the unsalaried help from all family members.
Actually, neither the Imperial Palace nor the Canton Gar-dens just described really exist. The descriptions are only composites of imaginary or fictional Chinese restaurants, one depicting an elegant Chinatown dining venue with authentic Chinese cuisine prepared by highly trained chefs and the other representative of the mom and pop run restaurant located in a suburban or small town setting featuring Americanized Cantonese dishes. They reflect two extremes of the variety of “Chinese restaurants,” both of which have had significant impact on the successful acceptance of Chinese food in North America. These descriptions are pro-vided to emphasize the wide variety that exists among “Chinese restaurants.”
Some Important Questions
In many respects, it is quite surprising that Chinese food and restaurants eventually came to be so well accepted and regarded by the general public. When one examines the history of Chinese in North America, it is clear that they were not welcomed immigrants. The Chinese, with their strange customs, attire, and language evoked a mixture of intolerant ridicule and curiosity. Their exotic food ingredients such as shark fins, seaweed, lotus roots, and bird nests led Westerners to disparage Chinese cuisine, which was so different from the plain foods traditionally preferred by middle class non-Chinese. Furthermore, popular stereotypes of Chinese eating rats and dogs added to their contempt for Chinese foods.
This growth and prevalence of Chinese restaurants is also somewhat surprising since, except for cities in metropolitan areas with large Chinese populations, most of the patrons are not Chinese. Times change, and today virtually everyone has heard of Chinese restaurants even those few that have never eaten in one. Chinese restaurants acquired a new image for serving low-priced delicious meals that were also nutritious and healthy.
Why Did So Many Chinese Open Restaurants?
One question for historical investigation is why Chinese immigrants entered the restaurant business? The rapid growth in the number of Chinese restaurants is surprising because the great majority of the Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, and well into the 20th century were young men who came from rural farming regions of Guangdong province in southeastern China. These men worked in the fields all day and it was their wives and mothers who did the cooking at home. Restaurants did not even exist in many small villages. What conditions led these immigrant men, most of whom were not cooks in China to start operating restaurants in North America as well as in many other countries? Success was not likely given their lack of training and experience in managing restaurants. How many were able to earn a living from running a restaurant and what were the keys for their success?
The Chinese restaurant, like the Chinese laundry before it, assumed a dominant role on the economic, sociological, and psychological lives of early generations of Chinese in North America. To a large extent, these occupational “choices” were indirect con-sequences of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that prohibited the further entry of Chinese laborers and their families to the United States. In Canada, a different barrier in the form of a Head Tax was imposed on Chinese in 1885.1 Ironically, had such severe restrictions on immigration not been imposed, and Chinese had been able to bring their wives and families to North America, there may well have been less growth of Chinese restaurants because the wives of the immigrants would have cooked the family meals at home.
During the economic depression from the late 19th century into the first decade of the 20th century, the Chinese were blamed for the hard times because they were willing to work for low wages. The exclusionary barriers were the culmination of strong resentment toward Chinese. These unfair restrictions prohibiting new immigrants from China and the many extreme acts of violence directed toward those already here adversely affected the Chinese in North America in many spheres of their lives for much of the twentieth century.
Several generations of Chinese immigrants and their descendants from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s had few work opportunities due to racial discrimination. From the mid to late 1800s, racism had driven the Chinese out of the gold fields and from many occupations for which they had expertise and experi-ence such as farming, fishing, cigar making, and shoe making.
The railroad construction work for which thousands of Chi-nese immigrant men were recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s was drastically reduced in 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point near Ogden, Utah. Although many of these Chinese found work on other rail lines under construction, the strong hostility toward Chinese se-verely restricted their opportunities to compete with whites in the labor market.
Out of sheer necessity, Chinese had to find or develop forms of self-employment because most forms of work were denied to them. Lacking English language skills, having little money, and lit-tle experience, one of the few opportunities was in domestic work, typically considered “women’s work.” Thus, they started their own small businesses such as laundries, farms, grocery stores, and restaurants often in areas where there were few other Chinese. These forms of self-employment proved to be their primary means of economic survival.
Work in the demeaning role of houseboys or domestics per-haps had a “silver lining” for these Chinese in that they acquired greater facility with the English language than Chinese who lived and worked in the confines of Chinatowns. Furthermore, domes-tic employment provided experiences and skills that would later lead to economic self-sufficiency as some Chinese opened laundries, and later, others started restaurants. As an example, in 1880 there were as many as 44 Chinese identified as cooks in Boise, Idaho in the U. S. Census. They found employment in many ho-tels, restaurants, and private homes preparing western style food rather than Chinese cuisine, which had not yet gained popularity among whites. Thus, the 1899 menu of one Idaho City restaurant run by a Chinese did not list a single Chinese dish.
In San Francisco, middle and upper class families hired Chinese, in preference to Irish, as domestic servants for washing, cleaning, and cooking. However, they expected western dishes, and not Chinese foods, which they regarded as “odd, smelly, and repul-sive.”
Raising Capital for Restaurants
Another important question is how were they able to raise sufficient capital needed to open cafes and restaurants? Chinese immigrants were poor and as laborers did not earn much money. Restaurants required more capital and manpower than laundries so it is not surprising that before 1900 the vast majority of self-employed Chinese opened laundries instead.
A rotating credit system known as a hui was a common method for Chinese to raise relatively small sums. Each member of a group of immigrants contributed equal amounts to a pool of funds, and they took turns borrowing the combined amount for starting a business. Sometimes, direct loans from relatives or friends might be adequate to start a small café.
Elegant restaurants that had the capacity to serve banquets in large dining rooms required partnerships involving financing from several entrepreneurs because most individuals did not have suffi-cient funds to open these larger facilities alone. Some of the partners actively participated in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, which they considered to be a long-term business, but others were “silent partners,” investors who would likely sell their share if, and when, they could realize a profit.
It was not uncommon for an immigrant to come over from China as a laborer. After working for several years until he could save enough money, he would become a partner in a restaurant or other business venture. For example, a 1924 newspaper article described how Lee Foo, owner of New York’s Far East Restau-rant started with $5,000 and four partners. After 16 years, they had expanded to three restaurants with over $100,000 from 40 Chinese investors, including some silent partners in Canton and Hong Kong.
How Chinese Restaurants Evolved
Chinese restaurants changed or evolved over time. Chinese immigrants from Guangdong province started “chow chows” around the mid-1800s to serve familiar Cantonese dishes that fit the tastes of their countrymen. These restaurants were located in “Chinatowns” near large populations of Chinese, their primary source of customers. They held limited appeal to most non-Chinese when they first appeared.
In the transition to the industrialized society of the last half of the 19th century, a restaurant industry grew rapidly as more peo-ple lived in cities than in rural areas. However, most whites did not patronize Chinese cafes frequently, if at all. They generally viewed foreign foods as strange and odd. Few had any interest in eating dishes served by Chinese cafes and restaurants.
However, from the late 1890s to the early 1900s, a surprising reversal of fortune took place for Chinese restaurants that will be detailed in subsequent chapters. Even with little or no promotion by the Chinese, their cafes were “discovered” by adventuresome white diners and the ensuing publicity widened their popularity among non-Chinese. Prejudices against Chinese immigrants were still strong, but their cuisine was gaining favor. Restaurants soon became one of the primary forms of self-employment among Chi-nese. In Chinatowns, newer, larger, and more elegantly decorated dining facilities were built to attract and accommodate the growing demand. Partnerships involving both active and silent investors raised capital for the expensive startup costs of remodeling and refurbishing existing facilities or building new ones and for the ex-penses for hiring numerous cooks, waiters, kitchen helpers, and other staff.
Even in cities and towns with few Chinese residents, grow-ing awareness and popularity of Chinese cuisine, especially chop suey, attracted interest and curiosity by the 1920s. This improved attitude toward Chinese food led to the growth of smaller Chinese cafes and restaurants in regions where there were few competing Chinese restaurants. Many small restaurants were not, strictly speaking, run by families, but by several male kin or friends work-ing as partners because immigration laws prevented Chinese, unless they were merchants, from bringing their wives and children. Con-sequently, most of the earliest family-run restaurants involved families of Chinese immigrant men married to women that were American citizens, Chinese or non-Chinese.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Chinese restau-rants, like most restaurants, struggled. Some failed but the demand for Chinese restaurants revived after the end of World War II. During the late 1950s until the early 1960s, these family-run busi-nesses that featured American-Chinese and Cantonese style cuisine became one of the most popular ethnic foods.
This book will examine the origin and operations of the far more numerous small family-run restaurants, which sprang up vir-tually everywhere. These, rather than the large banquet halls, are the kinds of Chinese restaurants that are familiar to most people not living near Chinatowns. Family restaurants involved members of one, or a few families, which sometimes also included uncles, brothers, and cousins. These Chinese were generally among the few or only Chinese living in the areas where they were located, a situation that left them culturally and socially isolated for many years living apart. It is important, however, to realize that generalizations about Chinese family restaurants must be qualified as they differed in many aspects during different historical periods such as the Depression, World War II, or the Civil Rights era. The generation of the owners, in terms of whether they were immigrants or born here, is also an important consideration.
Sweet and Sour seeks to understand the psychological, economic, and sociological status of the families that earned their living from small family restaurants. Work and social interactions within these Chinese families differ from those in large restaurants where the management has formal business training, skill, and experience. Most of the cooks, waiters, busboys, dishwashers, and other employees of large restaurants are not relatives or close friends with each other. Furthermore, located near large Chinese communities, they have many Chinese patrons who want authentic Chinese food, as do some non-Chinese customers. Finally, these restaurants and their staff are part of an extensive community net-work of Chinese social and cultural ties that sustain them in their business and personal lives. The study of the large Chinatown restaurant is a worthy topic in its own right, but will receive limited discussion in this book because the circumstances and nature of their operations differ markedly from those of family-run restaurants and cafes.
In contrast, the small family-run Chinese restaurant relied on, and generally received, long-term involvement and commitment from all family members and, in many instances, a few hired employees. Owners generally lacked much experience managing a business like a restaurant in which they had to deal with the public. Many lacked proficient English speaking skills, knowledge of the host culture, and social skills for interacting with non-Chinese cus-tomers. How did these ubiquitous family-operated Chinese restau-rants located in regions where they were among the few, if not the only, Chinese manage to survive?
It is from the diligence and perseverance of pioneering Guangdong immigrants that several generations of Chinese were able to eke out their living by running restaurants. The fruits of their labor provided the financial resources that helped educate their children who could then move beyond the arduous and low-paying restaurant work to pursue careers in professions and white-collar occupations. These Cantonese family-run Chinese restaurants deserve recognition for the significant role they had in introducing Chinese food to non-Chinese and for the contributions they made to the economic and psychological condition of the following generations of Chinese Americans.
From the Foreword
... well-researched, thoughtfully conceptualized monograph brings academic rigor and adds historical depth, as well as the perspectives of an insightful scholar...
Yong Chen, Professor of History, University of California, Irvine.
I greatly admired and enjoyed
I greatly admired and enjoyed "Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants." It does an excellent job of going over the historical back-ground on early U. S. Chinese restaurants, unearthing lots of material new to me. And the interviews of Chinese restaurateurs opened up a whole new side to the story, of what it was like to work and live in these restaurants.
Andrew Coe, "Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States
China Insight review by Raymond Lum
The “Chop Suey Craze” that engulfed large American and Canadian cities in the early decades of the 20th century (see http://www. asian-studies.org/eaa/Hayford_16-3.pdf) might be viewed as a positive reaction to the American and Canadian Chinese Exclu- sion laws that began in the U.S. in 1882 and continued until 1943 when the U.S. needed Chinese support in the war with Japan. The demonization of Chinese immigrants by American labor activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gradually gave way to an admiration of some, but by no means all, aspects of the immigrant Chinese and their culture.
Chinese family-run restaurants respond- ed to the growing interest in Chinese food in various but conflicting ways. Elaborate Chinese restaurants opened in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and cities in Canada. To entice patrons, the restaurants featured organs, live orchestras, dancing, and, in the case of the Forbidden City restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, live shows that highlighted Chinese- and Japanese-Ameri- can performers. The high cost of opening and maintaining such elegant venues usually required numerous backers and partners, all with deep pockets. Alas, the Depression did in those places when people had little money to spend on eating out, Chinese or not.
On the other side were the mom-and-pop (and the kids) takeout-and-delivery restau- rants, the “chop suey joints,” often located in marginal neighborhoods and serving up the pseudo-Chinese cuisine favored by the untutored: chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young, egg rolls, super-dried “chow mein noodles,” and fortune cookies (reportedly invented in the United States).
What life was like on the other side of the counter and in the kitchen has not been largely documented, but John Jung’s book bridges that gap. His history of life in Chinese restaurants in the small Southern (he was born in Macon, Georgia), Midwestern and Western towns where Chinese located to make a living is an important historical survey that contributes significantly to the recorded realities of Chinese life in the United States. Many are the Chinese restaurants that no longer exist and that are known today only through old telephone books and
business directories. No doubt families still have memories and hold documents on those businesses, but if no John Jung looks for them they will not be found.
Chinese men did not cook in China unless they operated eating establishments as restaurants or street stalls, so why did they do so in America? The answer is to be found in the anti-Chinese activities and laws of the United States. The Chinese came here originally to find their fortunes in Califor- nia’s gold mines in the mid 19th century, but when the gold was gone and Chinese labor helped complete the Trans-Continental Rail- road, the Chinese had to find other means of livelihood. Thus, they provided services for White Americans, such as laundry and cooking, thereby becoming identified in the non-Chinese imagination as low-skilled laborers who were particularly adept at washing and cooking. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: this is what you can do so this is what you will do. With severe limitations on their employment opportunities, the Chinese made the most of the few opportunities afforded them, and yet prospered through hard work. And that’s how they wound up in restaurants.
A case in point is my own family’s history: my literate great-grandfather emi- grated from China to Honolulu in 1862; my grandfather, born and schooled in Honolulu, eventually made his way to Decatur, Ill., where he and his father and some of his five brothers operated their Oriental Inn. My grandfather relocated to Springfield, Ill., where he and several cousins owned and operated the Oriental Café, managed for 18 years by my father. The Oriental had a dance hall (but by the time I knew it only a juke box remained, sans dancers). The place was large and elegant, with cut-glass decant- ers, silver utensils, linen tablecloths and napkins. And in the cigar case underneath the cash register was a small sign that read “We reserve the right to seat our patrons,” which years later was interpreted to me to mean “No Negroes allowed in the dining rooms,” although they were allowed to sit on the green leather settee as they waited for their take-out orders. My father’s res- taurant, Chop Suey House, traded well on Americans’ limited knowledge of Chinese food. Fortunately, times change and societ- ies progress.
Early Chinese restaurants in large cities used names that meant something in Chinese but were only odd sounds to the American ear, such as King Yen Low, Won Kow, Ho Sai Gai, Hung Far Low, but those restaurants were elegant in décor without being overtly “Oriental.” Later Chinese restaurants were operated on a more economical scale and some were nondescript and truly dreadful in décor, with a number of them made even garish in misguided attempts to present “Oriental” surroundings to complement the equally non-authentic food served there. Restaurants that catered primarily to Chi- nese often had Chinese names but others branched off into names like “Red Pagoda,” a take-out joint on Chicago’s North Side that was neither a pagoda nor red, and “Chiam,” its name an amalgamation of “Chinese” and “American.”
Airlines travel and American involve-
ment in Asia (diplomats, missionaries, Peace Corps Volunteers, military personnel, travel- ers), combined with large-scale immigration from China following the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act that allowed for the reunification of Chinese families separated by previous harsh anti-Chinese immigration laws, the Chinese civil war, and Japan’s invasion in China, to make Americans per- sonally knowledgeable about China. The end of the Vietnam War and the resulting huge immigration of Vietnamese, many of whom were ethnically Chinese, contributed significantly to changes in what was ac- ceptable as “real” Asian food. Immigration from Chinese provinces other than Guang- dong, the starting point of the majority of the Chinese in America, also permanently altered the landscape of Chinese cuisine in America. Chop suey and chow mein were falling off menus. But much of those devel- opments were not experienced in the places that John Jung writes about. Life in Chinese family restaurants was personal and local, as detailed in this study.
Most of the published histories of the Chinese in America are impersonal sociological studies, novels, and historical surveys. Here, John Jung gives us a history that is much more personal, even though it is not all his own story. People walk past us on the street and we do not know who they are or what their life stories are. Some of those whose lives centered on Chinese restaurants are memorialized in Jung’s book. In writing this book, John Jung has rendered a great service to the faceless people behind the counter who deserve to be recognized.
The numerous evocative photographs of people, restaurants, and menus included in the book provide valuable visual docu- mentation. No doubt, many of the people and places depicted exist otherwise only in memories. Vignettes of individuals bring to life the personal blocks that build the larger story. The author takes a geographi- cal approach to documentation of Chinese family restaurants and in so doing provides in-depth revelations about individuals and families. Who even knew there was a Chi- nese restaurant in Greenville, Mississippi, and in Savannah?
There are some aspects of Chinese fam- ily restaurants that Jung does not cover, such as the hiring of non-Chinese workers to staff the dining rooms; how supplies were procured in out-of-the-way locales such as Muncie, Indiana; how menus were produced (our printed menu was supplemented with a daily one that my father typed with two fin- gers and then reproduced in multiple copies using cold gelatin stored in the refrigerator), and “short off,” the time between the lunch trade and the dinner crowds when the restau- rants closed in preparation for the evening onslaught, and naps. Jung also does not note, in his short feature on Chicago’s King Yen Lo restaurant, that the Chinese reformers Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei backed the restaurant as a front to raise funds for their efforts to create a constitutional monarchy in China, as opposed Sun Yat-sen’s eventual successful revolution that toppled the mon- archy (see Adam McKeown’s book Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, and Hawaii 1900-1936).
This book could have benefited from tighter editing of both text and punctuation. The long quotations could have better been summarized, but they do not detract from the story that Jung tells. The book’s bibliography will lead interested readers to additional resources. The index is incomplete: one can read the sections on Chinese restaurants in Mississippi and Georgia, for example, but cannot go back to them by using the index. An introduction covering, even cursorily, the history of Chinese immigration and anti- Chinese laws would go a great distance in explaining why Chinese opened restaurants and what hurdles they had to overcome in doing so. Similarly, some information on the economics of restaurant ownership, including the sending of money to China to provide for family there, would have provided a financial picture of Chinese restaurant development that is almost entirely unknown to historians and sociologists.
Jung’s other books document life in Chi- nese laundries and in grocery stores in the Deep South beginning in the 1870s. What he documents are aspects of Chinese-American life that otherwise would be lost to history, and in recording these histories Jung has preserved slices of life that are rarely, if ever, treated in academic writing. In so doing, John Jung has rescued from obscurity the personal struggles and successes of immigrants who had little going for them except determination and hard work. Jung himself is an example of where it all led: he earned his PhD from Northwestern University and was a professor of psychology at the Uni- versity of California, Long Beach, for four decades before shifting gears and embarking on a new career researching, speaking, and publishing on largely-unknown facets of Chinese-American life.
We are all beneficiaries of his dedication and his scholarship.
Raymond Lum (林希文) is Librarian for Western Languages in the Harvard- Yenching Library, where he is also curator of historic photographs. A native of Chicago’s Chinatown, he studied Chinese there and in Taiwan. He holds a master’s in library science from the University of Michigan, and an MA and PhD in East Asian Languages & Civilizations from Harvard University. From 1968 through 1970, he was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Sarawak, Malaysia. Formerly, he also was Harvard’s librarian for South and Southeast Asia and Instructor in Chinese in the Harvard University Extension School. He is the book review editor for a new (debuting 2010) online scholarly journal, TransAsia Photography Review, and contributes the column “Asia Resources on the World Wide Web” to the Asian Studies Newsletter of the Association for Asian Studies. He has directed several Harvard projects that digitized photographs and other visual images of Asia.
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