Sunday, June 28,John Jung and Flo Oy Wong spoke to our group about the advent of Chinese restaurants in America. John Jung is the author of five books, including Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants. Artist Flo Oy Wong grew up in Oakland working from the age of five in her family’s restaurant, “Great China.” They have been presenting together, reminding people of how restaurants, eating habits, and attitudes have evolved.
John, who grew up in Georgia in the 50’s, said he didn’t know Chinese restaurants existed until his family moved to San Francisco when he was fifteen. He’d never seen cha siu bao or wantons. He had only eaten his mother’s cooking. What were these establishments? When John researched the history of Chinese restaurants, he discovered that a century ago, they were a rare item. In fact, for most Americans, eating out was a rare past-time. It wasn’t until after WWII that, newly prosperous, people ventured out of their homes to eat food. The Chinese, however, had an earlier restaurant-going history.
Way back in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act ended up creating a bachelor society made up of men who lived in cramped quarters with no kitchens. Many of these men did not have a clue about cooking. This created an opportunity for those who did. They opened the first restaurants, serving meals to the workmen—not “orange chicken,” but home cooking. These entrepreneurs also opened tea houses—“the first Starbucks,” John quipped—offering tea and a safe, relaxed atmosphere for Chinese men to hang out.
To many Americans, these places were an anomaly. According to the book “Chinese Cooking,” the average American approached the Chinese table with “fear and trepidation.”
This changed a bit in 1896 when Viceroy Li Hung Chang visited Philadelphia. This was a big deal, and people gathered in the streets to see this important visitor from China. He was asked what he had eaten in America. He responded that he had tried Chop Suey, a dish he seemed unfamiliar with, and that it was delicious. From then on everyone flocked to discover what this “chop suey” was. Guided tours to Chinatown chop suey restaurants came in vogue (because certainly going on one’s own was too scary.) In fact, for a while, you couldn’t find a restaurant without the name chop suey displayed prominently somewhere. In fact, in 1927, Mazola Corn oil gave out the recipe in the local papers, of course insisting that one needed to use the Mazola product for the right flavor.
Flo Oy Wong, who grew up as one of seven children, said that they all worked in the family restaurant Great China from 1943-1961. Without pay. They served ok Chinese food and good American food, making one wonder if the only thing that was Chinese about the restaurant was that it was owned and operated by a Chinese family. Flo mentioned that it was fascinating to hear how many Chinese people had been involved in the restaurant business. Sure enough, our Vice President Winny Lin, and her husband Kenny, had opened a restaurant in Kentucky in the 70s. This led to spirited memories.
John mentioned that in the latter half of the 20th century, as the result of Immigration Reform in 1965 and Nixon Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1972, there was an influx of great cooks, and different styles of Chinese cooking. The result is that Chinese restaurants today are part of the mainstream.