The Decline of Chinese Food in America

My unscientific survey contends that 20% of recent American films —especially those filmed in New York City—feature at least one scene showing a table littered with take out boxes of Chinese food.
  Since every visual detail of a film is significant, we can assume that Chinese food is still important here—at least important enough to signify in a film something about the lifestyle of urban Americans, or perhaps, most Americans: after all, there are approximately forty thousand Chinese restaurants and take out joints in the nation, more than the combined total of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and McDonalds. But what exactly do such scenes mean?  What is America’s attitude toward Chinese food?  When reviewing the history of this cuisine in the states, one might see that the boxes of Chinese takeout are an unintended metaphor for the American interpretation of the cuisine itself: something expedient, tasty, economical, but in the background, unobtrusive, part of the dull clutter of life—definitely not something to inspire passion or devotion in the way sushi does.  And is it any wonder? While the American consumer has become more savvy and sophisticated in their appreciation of ethnic foods, what most Americans know of Chinese cuisine has become a sugary, battered-and-deep fried confusion of meats and vegetables, served from strip mall take-outs and buffets, bearing little resemblance to the great tradition as it is practiced on the mainland.

In China, the oldest continuous civilization on earth, one can see common threads of culinary tradition stretching at least as far back as three thousand years, to the Zhou period. For most people in the country the philosophy of Chinese cuisine remains a serious business, including the system, based on timeless principles, which designate certain foods as having special benefits in achieving balance within the body.  Ancillary to this is the pervasive use of herbs and foodstuffs in Chinese traditional medicine, indicating the ancient, almost sacred role of food and cooking in Chinese life.

Yu Xiang Zhu Rou Si
When considered more simply as a pleasurable necessity, traditional Chinese cuisine still demands of its makers serious attention to detail, and underscoring it all is an essential concern with balance and contrasts:  The textures of ingredients, and they way they interact within a dish are tremendously important; the use of sweet/sour, hot/cool, salty/bland, and the balancing of these create contrasting and complimentary sensations which give traditional Chinese food its luscious, distinctive intensity.  Care is taken as to the integrity of a featured ingredient, even when enhanced by flavorings and garnishes: In Shredded Pork with Fish Fragrant Sauce, (Yu Xiang Zhu Rou Si) for example, the dish is primarily shredded matchsticks of succulent pork, quickly stir-fried.  The meat is complimented and enhanced by flavoring ingredients such as garlic, ginger, scallions and chili paste, and subtly contrasting textures of bamboo shoots and cloud ear fungus.

In traditional Chinese cooking, freshness is nearly an obsession: in any Chinese market you’ll find live fowl and fish; meat is slaughtered in the morning, butchered and sold by afternoon; cooks shop every day.  Moreover, an effort is made to see that balance and contrast is maintained at the table as well.  Variations in cooking methods will be employed within a meal: boiled steamed, braised roasted and stir-fried—Chinese would not ordinarily consider laying a table with six stir-fried dishes.  With these concerns in mind, one can see how far the American version of this cuisine, a “sugary, battered-and-deep fried confusion of meats and vegetables,” has strayed from its source.

The history of Chinese food in America rightfully begins with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California, in 1848.  With the influx of immigrant labor from southern China’s Guangdong province, a simultaneous need for restaurants catering to these Chinese cropped up in the enclave soon to be known as San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The first Chinese eatery in America was probably the Macao and Woosung Restaurant, on the corner of Kearny and Commercial Streets.  In the mid to late1800s, these establishments not only attracted the Chinese, but also non-Chinese whose curiosity about this exotic fare and ambiance created a temporary surge of interest.  However, the patronage of these food adventurers soon waned, as economically-based resentment and racism cooled the interest in things Chinese.  This change in the view toward Chinese immigrants culminated in the Exclusion Act of 1880, and the restaurateurs of Chinatown were left to carry on the food traditions of southern China with very little compromise.

This phase of isolation was also encouraged by the racial stereotyping of Chinese within Chinatowns as being dirty, criminally inclined and habitually eating dogs, cats and rats.  As always with stereotyping, it is based on a molecule of truth.  Chinatowns in the late 1800’s were akin to ghettos, wherein sojourners found some measure of protection and familiarity of language, food and customs not found elsewhere; but this was not only a refuge for wealthy merchants, drug dealers and successful miners—it existed as an almost all-male enclave for the benefit of poor and illiterate miners and railroad workers, who, not having the responsibility of wives or family, found little to amuse themselves except gambling and other vices.  Moreover, in special circumstances, Chinese did and still do eat what to westerners are exotic, if not objectionable meat; but these circumstances are rare and by no means represent the mainstream of Chinese cooking either in the US or China.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese cuisine might have been consigned to the backwaters of the American restaurant scene had it not been for several factors: on the west coast, San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake devastated the city, including the near destruction of Chinatown.  The city fathers and Chinese merchants were prescient enough to rebuild Chinatown with a determination to clean it up and encourage tourism.  Restaurants were central to this rebirth, and elaborately decorated, tourist friendly eateries—featuring chop suey and chow mein—proliferated.  Meanwhile, especially in New York City where a clearly defined Chinatown was slow to emerge, the Chinese opened restaurants outside Chinatown, clearly necessitating a style of cooking acceptable to non-Chinese, including American dishes.  To lure even more customers, these entrepreneurs often combined dining and dancing to popular bands, the precursors of American nightclubs.

Nevertheless, acceptance of Chinese cuisine in the states continued to struggle against the stereotyped view of Chinese; I once read that when Edgar Snow, who wrote Red Star Over China, was a youngster, he learned this rhyme:
Chinaman, Chinaman,
Eat dead rats
Chew them up
Like ginger snaps!
During these years Americans mistakenly believed, for example, that Chop Suey and Chow Mein were the national dish of China, and that chopsticks were hollow like straws to facilitate the drinking of soups and sauces.  While these prejudices persevered, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese did as well, and by the 1930’s assimilation of Chinese Americans—intermarriage, emergence of middle class Chinese, more fluent bilingualism—helped inch forward the acceptance of things Chinese by the majority population.  Now restaurateurs opened new eateries outside Chinatown with menus clearly within the comfort zone of non-Chinese; they added amenities such as cocktail lounges, discount coupons, performance stages and offerings of both Chinese and American foods.   The handwriting was clearly on the wall for Chinese restaurateurs: if you were to overcome the myths and misconceptions of Americans about “John Chinaman” and his food, you must modify the cuisine to suit the fashion and tastes of non-Chinese.

The seeds of this adaptation began immediately, of course, with the invention or importation, of chop suey.   From the outset this event single-handedly began the divergence of traditional Chinese and Chinese-American food. In his 1972 book, Chinese Food, the late Kenneth Lo writes, “Everything suffers a sea change when removed from its native shores.  Chinese food and cooking are naturally no exception…In America and Canada Chinese food seems to be represented (or misrepresented) by chop suey.”  The name derives from the Cantonese words for “mixed fragments,” Jaahp Sui.  In other words, whatever's handy.  The origin of the dish, like so many popular foods, is endlessly debated; tales abound that a late 19th century Chinese cook stir-fried leftover bits and pieces of meat, vegetable and sprouts and presented it to an appreciative group of California miners, and the dish became a mainstay.  Other versions credit the visit of Chinese dignitary Li Hongzhang in 1896, whereupon he rejected the western fare proffered by his guests, and ordered his Chinese cooks to make something Chinese; finding few Chinese ingredients available, the cooks whipped up a mélange of sundry ingredients, and the dish was born.  In my opinion it is just as likely that the dish is an American adaptation of the Guangdong province tradition of Chow Jaahp Sui (Mandarin chao tsa sui), a dish of sprouts, sometimes noodles, and serendipitous mixtures of vegetables. Other stories exist as to the origin of Chop Suey, but as far as its impact on the demise of Chinese food in America, does it really matter? (Editor's Note: for a superb explication of Chop Suey's history, see Jennifer 8. Lee's excellent book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.)   And so, an overcooked, uninspired concoction of miscellaneous ingredients--even at its best in China, hardly a culinary triumph--has defined Chinese cuisine in the minds of Americans for decades, and still does for some with limited experience of Chinese food.

Another early disaster befalling the prestige of traditional Chinese food is Chow Mein.  In China noodles are a beloved staple, especially in the north, and when fried (chao mian) are only one approach to an almost countless number of delicious noodle dishes using steamed, boiled, fried and stir-fried noodles in soups and sauced presentations, hot and cold alike.  In nearly all these versions, the noodles themselves are the main ingredient, and an important textural element, with intense flavorings, meats and vegetables complimenting them to optimal effect.  But here in most Chinese-American  eateries, Chow Mein arrives at the table as a soggy, thickened mass of indistinguishable meat and vegetables over deep-fried or dry canned noodles.  Perhaps this unfortunate offering results from catering to the American familiarity with casseroles, and the custom of pouring a thick sauces and gravies over rice and pasta; in any event, to see China’s great culinary tradition represented by chop suey and chow mein belies a great cuisine and robs most Americans of its glories.

Over time, such adaptations to American taste affected nearly every item on the menu.  This probably happened incrementally, as subtle adjustments were made to dishes based on feedback from white customers and perceptions of the marketplace. Give them what they want is the unspoken theme of Chinese cuisine in America.  What the Westerners wanted—so the restaurant owner thought—is bright colors, sweet sauces, mild flavors and no surprises.  In most stateside Chinese restaurants, it appears that the Gwei Lo clientele will accept meat dishes that have 50 to 80 percent vegetable content.  In the mainland, this is not usually the case: a chicken dish has few other ingredients; the idea is to showcase the main ingredient, be it vegetable or meat.  To be fair, the economy of the states has a lot to do with such compromises.  Rent, utilities and labor is astronomical compared to China, so the pressure to quicken the process and cheapen the food cost is intense.

Thus, popular mainstays such as “egg rolls” (Spring Rolls, chun juan), and Sweet and Sour Pork (tian suan rou) Egg Foo Yung, (furong dan) and Won Ton Soup (wun tun tang) have wandered so far afield of the traditional Chinese cuisine, that it would hardly be recognized by a mainlander.

One might imagine that such adaptations, mei guo ren de kouwei, (American taste), would endear the cuisine to the American public; and, indeed from the turn of the century to the 1970s such compromises did, making Chinese one of the most popular, continuously marketed ethnic foods in the country.  In the 60’s immigration had increased the Chinese population eightfold, and creation of and employment in Chinese restaurants continued to be an expedient entrée to the majority culture.  These venues varied only slightly, consisting of the familiar “chop suey joints,” with nearly identical menus, dispensing cheap and plentiful food.  Thus, a watered-down, non-traditional hybrid cuisine, its genesis in the earliest chop suey concoction, became entrenched in America, and was called Chinese.  The fact that it bore only a passing resemblance to the traditional form was lost on all but a few scholars, travelers and sophisticates.  In this country it was Chinese cuisine.

The only serious challenge to this Americanization of Chinese food occurred in the 1970’s, coinciding with Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.  The thaw in relations stimulated a revived interest in things Chinese, and Chinese food, especially when news reports from Beijing included descriptions of the banquets served to the yankee dignitaries.  Soon, northern-style, Hunan and Sichuanese regional dishes were making their way to the US.  A more sophisticated audience emerged, especially on the west and east coasts, who demanded an alternative to “Chinese-American,” food, and in part, Guangzhou cuisine, which was guilty by association.  This might have heralded a true American renaissance for the traditional cuisine, but by the mid 70’s competition in the realm of Asian food had already begun.  Sushi appeared before the mid 1960’s, while Thai and Vietnamese restaurants arrived on the scene in the 70’s.  The Chinese American cuisine most familiar to open-minded eaters in the states had to compete with the “new” Asian offerings, dishes which had not yet a chance to undergo the century long process of adaptation and compromise.  These eateries were akin to the first Southern Chinese restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown: unexplored domains of exotic cuisine that attracted the curious and adventuresome.

Still, restaurants billing themselves as Hunanese, Sichuanese and Pekingese provided Chinese food here with an invigorated base of customers.  To this day, so-called Sichuan specialties such as Gong Bao Ji Ding (Kung Pao Chicken) and Ma Po Dou Fu are an essential listing on nearly every Chinese menu in America, though their chefs may hail from Singapore, Guangzhou, Thailand or the Philippines.  These developments have been a step in the right direction for revitalizing the cuisine; but it is not always artistically motivated, and anyway, it is too little too late.  The dominance of the chop suey/chow mein/egg fu yung legacy continues to haunt the Chinese food scene; Dim Sum, a very traditional southern food custom, has some measure of popularity but remains marginalized.  Traditional Cantonese food, a fresh, simple but elegant cuisine, survives here but is almost exclusively proffered to a Chinese clientele, and emphasizes banquets.  Other regional restaurants are of scant interest to the largely southern Chinese immigrant population here, so they survive by offering a diverse Chinese-American menu while adding chili peppers to a dish here and there and calling it Sichuan or Hunan.

To make matters worse, the ambience of most Chinese restaurants has drifted steadily toward a style that might be described as “stark utilitarianism,” found mainly in three types of stores: The strip mall take out with few if any tables, often franchised and featuring the standard, sugary batter-fried proteins; the buffet, with a prix fixe, all-you-can-eat concept, and proprietor-operated sit-down Chinese restaurants sporting a travel poster of the Great Wall,  a couple of lanterns on the ceiling, and printed Americanized Chinese food menus indistinguishable from every other Chinese restaurant. The discerning food enthusiasts knows that once again the Chinese restaurateur is compromising traditional methods, and offering what he or she feels will be acceptable to his white customer.

Meanwhile, in the background, possibly in the subconscious, westerners maintain ancient suspicions about cleanliness, the Chinese use of dog, rat and cat meat, and the not so ancient concern about MSG. Is it any wonder then, that the dining public, surrounded by the relatively new arrival of other Asian foods, cannot muster much enthusiasm when someone suggests “going for Chinese.”

As mentioned, this “sea change,” this process of deterioration, is common to all transplanted cuisines; but the pervasiveness of Chinese eateries—the Chinese Restaurant News claims there are 36,000 Chinese restaurants in the US, more than the number of
McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger Kings combined—and the degree of its adaptation make it an extreme case, rivaled, perhaps, only by Italian-American food.  Thus, the compromised version of Chinese cuisine settled in for the long haul, became commonplace, so much so that marginal offerings of traditional Cantonese and other regional foods has hardly put a dent in its chop suey/chow mein legacy.  In the sophisticated milieu of vast cultural information, Food Networks and gastronomic specialization, the answer to the question, what do the Chinese takeout boxes in the movies signify, is indeed sadly contained in the phrase, “cheap and tasty.”  In itself, there’s nothing inherently wrong with such an unexceptional summation; but to the knowledgeable food enthusiast, to say nothing of the Chinese, such a view is a disaster.  It is not said of Thai or Vietnamese, and certainly not Japanese.  One can only imagine how the French, or any devotee of French cooking, would feel to have the national cuisine of France summed up as “cheap and tasty.”

True enough, there are exceptions to the mainstream Chinese-American restaurants—try the Grand Sichuan in New York, or Wong's King Seafood Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, to name just two—but they are difficult to find and rarely succeed outside large cities on the West and East coasts.

The question remains, in the U.S., can traditional Chinese cuisine ever overcome the Chinese-American hybrid?  It probably never will, and opportunities to experience the former are few and far between. A change will occur when more entrepreneurs pluck up the courage to present restaurants with uncompromising regional menus.  Such places will have to be patient while overcoming the fashions of the times and the prevailing view of Chinese food as the cheap and tasty; if the same spirit of enterprise that made Chinese food the enormous industry it is today can be brought to the presentation of traditional regional dishes, America will rediscover the glory of this, intense, diverse, complex and delicious cuisine.

For a contemporary article related to the subject, see Double Happiness, Why Chinese Food in America is so unimaginative.