2523 Broadway part of American experience with Chinese cuisine

Chinese cooking has a long and bumpy history in America. New Canton's success with unusual bites is the result of a persistent cuisine and an equally persistent desire by customers for new tastes.

Morgan Ong
Morgan Ong  

The New Canton Restaurant, 2523 Broadway


In a previous essay I discussed the history of the 2500 block of Broadway, where the New Canton Restaurant is located, because it shares the block with Mexican restaurant Los Jarritos, featured in an earlier segment of “Around the World in 30 Blocks.”  Also, I have already commented on how Broadway is a good location for businesses serving Sacramento’s Chinese population, given their strong presence in nearby neighborhoods and on the south side of the metropolitan area generally.  That makes 2523 Broadway a good location from which to serve its well-known dim sum and other dishes to myriad State of California employees.  From several Department of Motor Vehicles buildings right across the street and from other nearby offices, nearly 3,000 cubicle dwellers are across the street from New Canton’s bounty.   

Chinese food was not always so popular in America.  A new book by Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2009) explains why.  The remainder of this essay is largely a summary of what this highly recommended book has to say about Chinese restaurants in America.   

The first 60 years of interaction between Americans and Chinese (1784-1844) took the form of visits by American traders (and by 1830, missionaries) to the 12-acre compound in Guangzhou (Canton) to which Europeans were confined by the Chinese authorities.  Opportunities to move around the city or country beyond this restricted area (and Portuguese-controlled Macau) were very limited.  Americans who were able to taste Chinese cooking were consistently critical of it, emphasizing their hosts’ willingness to eat animals that Westerners considered pets (dogs and cats) and vermin (rats, snakes, frogs, etc.), as well as unfamiliar and unacceptable parts of animals.  They commented on the Chinese habit of cutting everything into small pieces (thereby disguising it), and the absence of whole joints of meat or whole birds.  They disparaged the oiliness of the food, as well as the frequent use of garlic and onions. 

Following the 1840-42 Opium War, the Chinese agreed to open up additional “treaty ports” to the victorious British, and by 1845, the United States had ratified its own treaty with the Chinese.  Now more coastal cities would be open to American merchants and missionaries.  A new generation of westerners was given freer access to Chinese cities, yet chose to remain largely isolated from them in gated communities.  They ate western food and only attended the occasional Chinese banquet if it were required to secure a business deal.

Missionaries, on the other hand, needed to interact more intimately with the Chinese.  By 1847, one of them, Samuel Wells Williams, had written a 1,250-page work, The Middle Kingdom, which remained the key American reference work on China for many decades. While discussing the wide variety of foods eaten in China, and downplaying the eating of kittens, puppies, and rats, Williams nonetheless concluded that “the art of cooking has not reached any high degree of perfection among the Chinese, consisting chiefly of stews of various kinds, in which garlic and grease are more abundant than pepper and salt.”

Coe comments, “One of the world’s great cuisines was reduced to a couple of oily stewpots.  Judgments like these would dominate American opinion of Chinese food for many decades…” (p. 59).

American views of Chinese food were strongly influenced by their overall view of China as “old, pagan, depraved” (p. 62) and worthy only of being enlightened and civilized by a modern Christian nation.  Denigration of Chinese food was part of what modern-day social scientists refer to as the process of “Othering”—seeing other groups of people as alien and inferior. 

Following this discussion of the first American encounters with Chinese food, Chop Suey author Coe goes back further in time to trace the outlines of Chinese culinary history “from the dawn of Chinese civilization.”  This is a monumental subject, but he manages to touch on a number of important themes: the influences of a diverse physical geography on agriculture and food, the significance of food in Chinese mythology, the connections between food and health in Chinese medical thought, the development of food technologies (e.g., milling and fermentation) in China, Chinese cooking’s careful attention to the relationship between flavors and textures, and the Chinese propensity to prepare and eat an unrivalled diversity of plant and animal items.  Coe argues that the Chinese early perceived that “cookery is an essential art, one of the defining elements of their culture” (p. 67).  By medieval times, “when fine food in western Europe was confined to a handful of great monasteries,” the Song Dynasty (960-1279) capital, Kaifeng, had gourmet restaurants, tea shops that served snacks or full meals, wineshops that also served food, and “a huge variety of simple cookshops and street vendors.”

And Chinese take-out had already been invented: “some of the city’s restaurants were so renowned that the emperor himself ordered out for their specialties; they could also cater the most elaborate banquets, in their own halls or at the homes of the wealthy” (pp. 94-95).  China’s restaurant tradition remained unbroken over centuries; some westerners who visited China in the 1800s penned accounts of various types of urban eateries, including what we would now call dim sum parlors (pp. 95-97).

The Gold Rush first brought the Chinese and their food to the United States, although Chinese tea had been arriving since colonial days.  Many migrants were Cantonese-speakers from the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province (where Guangzhou/Canton, Macau, and Hong Kong are located), particularly its Sze Yep (Four Districts) region.  Trading companies were soon supplying them with foodstuffs from home.  At the same time, many immigrant Chinese became successful fishermen and farmers in the San Francisco Bay area and the Gold Country.

Chinese-owned restaurants of various types opened in San Francisco in the 1850s.  Some of these served American food to American patrons.  Some served both American food and Chinese food, usually to Americans and Chinese respectively.  Some three-story banquet restaurants (with higher status customers being served upstairs) had almost exclusively Chinese customers, although by the 1860s it became fashionable for tourists to go “slumming” in Chinatown, looking for evidence of “Oriental depravity” (p. 128).  On these excursions, they might have tea and sweet dim sum, but consumption of other Chinese foods was rare.  At the same time, many white households had Chinese cooks, who prepared Euro-American food.  And as railroad construction took Chinese workers across the West, cafes with Chinese owners and cooks spread.  Chinese chuck wagon cooks also were common.  But again, they were serving up American fare.  Then, before Chinese food had a chance to become more popular with Euro-Americans, anti-Chinese feeling intensified, Chinatowns were burned down, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was signed into law, barring most immigration and naturalization. 

             While some Chinese left the United States at that time, others fled to the East Coast, especially New York City.  There, they were but a drop in the bucket of immigrants arriving from Europe and thus were perceived as less of an economic threat than they were out West.  Chinatown emerged along lower Mott Street on the edge of the Lower East Side, and the cheap, exotic food of its restaurants attracted free-spirited writers and artists known as Bohemians.  The popularity of Chinese food with this crowd paved the way for its acceptance by the wider society.  The Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1900 put China on the front pages of the newspaper, and that also brought increased numbers of curious non-Chinese patrons to Chinese restaurants.  At the same time, Chinese restaurants diffused outside Chinatown west into Manhattan’s nightlife district and as far north as Harlem.  Often known as “chop sueys” for their most popular dish, they served all kinds of people from wealthy theater-goers to “the rounder, the negro, and the wandering poor” (p. 169).

Chinese restaurants serving non-Chinese customers became commonplace across the country, an outcome that Coe attributes both to the attractions of Chinese food and to the business skills of their owners (p. 169).  Back in anti-Asian San Francisco, post-1906 earthquake Chinatown arose “bigger, cleaner, and with more Oriental flair” and attracted “businessmen, tourists, and even local San Franciscans eager for an evening’s amusement” (p. 175). 

Chinese nightclubs providing food, drink, and entertainment did well in the 1920s through the 1940s.  There were fourteen big “chop suey jazz places” on Broadway between Times Square and Columbus Circle in 1924 (p. 189) (Sacramento’s Broadway has something to aspire to!)  Several similar clubs were to be found in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  At the same time, chop suey and chow mein were showing up in “soda fountains, coffee shops, school cafeterias, military messes, church suppers and even Manhattan’s ultra-sophisticated Stork Club” (p. 192).  Recipes for these and other Chinese foods began to be published in English; Libby, McNeil & Libby started canning chop suey in 1915. [I wonder if our own local LM&L plant on Alhambra Boulevard ever did?]  La Choy, with its full line of canned Chinese foods, was established in the 1920s (and is still going strong).   

After World War II, America’s Chinese restaurants responded to broad socioeconomic trends: they moved to the suburbs and they offered a multi-course Cantonese family dinner at a bargain price.  These strategies helped them survive but not necessarily flourish.  Flourishing is what happened when new tastes in Chinese food, from other regions of China, were introduced via new restaurants in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere.  Dishes of Beijing and Shanghai supplanted those of Guangzhou/Canton in the affections of the new culinary Bohemians, and Sichuan and Hunan food became “hot, hotter, hottest,” both literally and metaphorically (p. 223).  An enormous boost to the American consumption of these foods was provided by President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972:  “after they saw the images of Nixon eating banquet food in Beijing, customers began to use chopsticks and ask about sharks’ fin soup and Peking duck” (p. 240). 

While the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, the immigration of large numbers of Chinese people (from a variety of countries) to the U.S. did not begin until after the whole immigration system was reformed in 1965, with the majority coming after 1980.  Most likely to settle in pre-existing Chinatowns were the Cantonese, since they were related by family and clan associations to the populations already there.  Other groups chose the suburbs, such as the Taiwanese in Southern California, who congregated in the San Gabriel Valley.  Chinese from many provinces of China and from other countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia have now found their way to the U.S.  They have opened restaurants wherever they have landed, so that today there are about 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America.  The barriers to diffusion that were put in place by both the Chinese and the Americans back in the 18th century have weakened considerably.

In addition to the book discussed above, I recommend Bonnie Tsui’s new book, American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods (Free Press, 2009).  The five Chinatowns that she describes are in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas.  Two of fifteen chapters deal with food, including one that tells the story of the world’s largest fortune cookie manufacturer.