www.agentofchaos.com presents guest artist - Harley Spiller aka Inspector Collector
"As All-American as Egg Foo Yong"
September 22, 2004
By MICHAEL LUO
The New York Times
IT is an unusual trove of cultural kitsch: close to 10,000 Chinese
restaurant menus going back to the late 1800's, filling an array of
battered boxes and grocery bags. There is Ying's, a drive-through in
Jacksonville, Fla., which describes itself as a purveyor of "Chinee Takee
Outee," Jade Garden in Bismarck, N.D., which features the local specialty,
"hot and spicy walleye," Brillante, a Mexican and Chinese spot in Paterson,
N.J., which offers General Tso's Pollo.
There is a 1960's menu from the House of Lee in Oakland, Calif., featuring
"fried ravioli," better known as wontons; a dog-eared menu from Mon Lay
Won, a turn-of-the-century New York City restaurant that called itself "the
Chinese Delmonico's"; and one from Madame Wu's Garden in Los Angeles, a
favorite of Cary Grant and Mae West.
The bills of fare, gathered over the years by Harley Spiller, who has
amassed a number of curious collections in his Upper East Side apartment,
may be the ultimate road map to the Chinese restaurant's extraordinary trek
across the American landscape.
Excerpts from Mr. Spiller's collection are the centerpiece of a new
exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown about a
rarely examined phenomenon: the Chinese restaurant in America.
There are now close to 36,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States,
according to Chinese Restaurant News, a trade publication, more than the
number of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King franchises combined. What
began in this country as exotic has become thoroughly American. A study by
the Center for Culinary Development, a food product development company,
found that 39 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 13 who were
surveyed said Chinese was their favorite type of food, compared to only 9
percent who chose American.
"It has become part of our consciousness," said Yong Chen, a history
professor at the University of California, Irvine, and co-curator of the
exhibition, which will run until June. "It is quintessentially American."
Much of what has been served in Chinese restaurants in America is virtually
impossible to find in China. Crab Rangoon, chop suey and sweet-and-sour
pork are all essentially American inventions. In the late 1980's a Hong
Kong entrepreneur imported another one: "genuine American fortune cookies."
Credit the versatility and adaptability of Chinese restaurateurs that has
made them able to feed sophisticated gourmands in New York City, less
discriminating palates in small Southern towns and immigrant communities
across the country.
Cynthia Ai-Fen Lee, the exhibition's other co-curator, said Chinese
restaurateurs have been "good at seeing what people wanted and getting out
there and doing it."
The first Chinese restaurants in the United States were in mining towns of
the California gold rush and even then catered to a mixture of Chinese and
non-Chinese laborers. Soon they had spread East and into cities. For the
most part, however, Americans viewed the cuisine with suspicion, Ms. Lee
Some restaurants began to bridge the gap. A menu from the Hong-Far-Low
restaurant in Boston in the 1880's features a picture of a bald man in
Chinese dress, with the caption: "This is the first man in Boston who made
chop suey in 1879." Also on the menu: French fried potatoes.
By the early 20th century it had become fashionable for young urbanites to
venture into Chinatowns for the exotic food, Ms. Lee said. A yellowing 1925
postcard in the exhibition depicts the crowded banquet hall of the new
Shanghai Cafe in San Francisco, featuring "Chinese and American Dishes" and
"Music and Dance Every Evening."
Soon chop suey houses were springing up in cities across America, serving
the ubiquitous mix of meat, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and other
vegetables that would become a staple of Chinese restaurants everywhere,
alongside cheeseburgers and fried chicken.
Chop suey references crept into popular culture, often in bizarre ways.
Museum visitors can listen to Louis Armstrong's "Cornet Chop Suey" and sing
along to a 1925 ditty "Who'll Chop Your Suey When I'm Gone."
But Chinese cuisine remained unfamiliar to many, said Ms. Lee, so many
restaurateurs wrote long narratives into their menus, explaining Chinese
food and history or spinning fanciful legends of their restaurants' exotic
origins. They also offered tips for how to order family style.
At the King Joy Lo Mandarin Restaurant in Chicago, the menu advised: "If
you experience difficulty in making selections, the floor walker will
cheerfully aid you."
In reflection of the lowly status of Chinese immigrants in America at the
time, many restaurants deliberately used a bizarre pidgin English in their
menus. A menu in the exhibition from one restaurant in Honolulu, Lau Yee
Chai, reads in part: "Sometams fliends make appointmans. When come, place
full no room. Vely sorry. You please wait little while."
Another restaurant even adopted the pidgin language into its name, calling
itself Led Looster Lestaulant.
By the 1950's and 60's "going for Chinese" had become part of the suburban
vernacular. In places like New York City, eating Chinese food became
intertwined with the traditions of other ethnic groups, especially that of
Jewish immigrants. Many Jewish families faithfully visited their favorite
Chinese restaurant every Sunday night. Among the menus in the exhibition
are selections from Glatt Wok: Kosher Chinese Restaurant and Takeout in
Monsey, N.Y., and Wk Tov in Cedarhurst, N.Y.
Until 1965 Cantonese-speaking immigrants, mainly from the county of Toisan,
dominated the industry and menus reflected a standard repertory of tasty
but bland Americanizations of Cantonese dishes. But loosening immigration
restrictions that year brought a flood of people from many different
regions of China, starting "authenticity revolution," said Ed Schoenfeld, a
restaurateur and Chinese food consultant.
Top chefs who were trained in spicy and more unusual regional specialties,
like Hunan and Sichuan cooking, came to New York then, Mr. Schoenfeld said.
While some midtown Chinese restaurants had been popular places for a nice
night on the town, by the early 1970's, restaurants like Shun Lee Dynasty,
a daring experiment in Chinese food in a luxurious setting, run by the chef
Tsung Ting Wang and Michael Tong, were getting raves for their food.
Mr. Tong's is among more than a dozen recollections from restaurateurs in
the exhibition. He recalled the day Shun Lee Dynasty became the city's
first Chinese restaurant to get a four-star review in The New York Times.
Soon it was averaging 500 people a night.
President Richard M. Nixon's trip to China in 1972 awakened interest in the
country and accounts of his meals helped whet diners' appetites for new
dishes. An illustration of a scowling Nixon with a pair of chopsticks
glares down from the wall at the exhibition.
Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in New York influenced the taste of the whole
country, Mr. Schoenfeld said. Dishes like General Tso's chicken and crispy
orange beef caught on everywhere.
But as with the Cantonese food before it, Mr. Schoenfeld said, the cooking
degraded over time, as it became mass produced. Today's batter-fried,
syrup-laden version of Chinese food, he said, bears little resemblance to
General Tso's chicken, for example, originally made with garlic and
vinegar, has evolved, he said, into "sweet chunks of chicken with batter in
The real explosion of Chinese restaurants that made them ubiquitous came in
the 1980's, said Betty Xie, editor of Chinese Restaurant News. "Now you see
there are almost one or two Chinese restaurants in every town in the United
States," she said.
There are signs that some have tired of Chinese food. A 2004 Zagat survey
showed that its popularity has ebbed somewhat in New York City.
But the journey of the Chinese restaurant remains the story of the American
dream, as experienced by a constant but evolving stream of Chinese
immigrants who realized the potential of 12-hour days, borrowed capital and
a willingness to cook whatever Americans wanted. Sales margins are tight,
and wages are low.
Restaurants are passed from one family member to the next, or sold by one
Chinese family to another. Often a contingency written into sales contracts
is that the previous owners train the new owners.
Nowadays it is overwhelmingly Fujianese immigrants, many of them smuggled
into this country illegally, who are flocking to the restaurant business
because they have few other options.
Many restaurants operate with a startling sameness, Ms. Lee said, believing
that that is what customers want. She said the menu "has to be exotic
enough that it's different, but they have to keep it familiar."
So, there are the crunchy noodles that Americans like to dip in duck sauce;
place mats with the symbols of the Chinese years; and the stalwarts:
General Tso's chicken, beef and broccoli, sweet-and-sour pork. Although
old-style dishes like chop suey, chow mein and egg foo yong are almost
nonexistent today in New York City and the West Coast, they are
surprisingly common in the middle of the country.
Indigo Som, 38, an artist in Berkeley, Calif., has been traveling through
the heartland photographing Chinese restaurants. Some of her photographs
are featured in the exhibition; others can be found on her online
travelogue. Among the highlights: China Town Gourmet Chinese Restaurant in
Powell, Wyo., and Hong Kong Buffet in Onalaska, Wis.
"The competition in Chinese communities is cutthroat," Mr. Chen, the
co-curator, said. "What people realize is you can make much, much better
profit in places like Montana."
A typical story is that of Joseph C. Chan, another restaurant owner whose
memories are part of the show. He came to the United States in 1982 from
Hong Kong, settled in Huntsville, Ala., and worked at a cousin's
restaurant, learning just how much coloring to add to the sweet-and-sour
After four years he struck out on his own. Seeing few Chinese restaurants
near his friend's home in upstate New York, he borrowed $100,000 from
family and friends and bought an old diner in Scotia.
Now he faces competition from Fujianese immigrants and new takeout joints,
and he only hopes to be able to make it through a few more years to
It has been a life full of sacrifice, he said. When his daughter, Joyce,
first asked him for stories for the exhibition, he was puzzled.
"It's just making a living," he said, "that's all, nothing special."
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