I never knew about fortune cookies or chop suey growing up. When I had my first bite of American Chinese takeout 6 years ago, I thought it was delicious before I realized it was “Chinese food.” Then I got upset. Then angry, Then very very angry. (Imagine whenever a stranger in college learned that you were from China and responded with: Oh, I love General Tao’s Chicken!)
Night and again, I would fire-breathe with anger, cry hysterically inside with fists punching up and down: The real Chinese food is thousand times healthier, well-balanced and developed way before the great-great-great-grandfather of Lincoln was born. It has HISTORY!
But of course, those anger only hurt my lungs. I was determined to never befriend American Chinese food in my life.
Then one day a few weeks ago, David bombarded me on Google Hangout with why American Chinese food is an important subject to write. After an intense text fight and experiencing denial, anger, bargaining, and “depression”, I came to accept that Rome was not built in one day. If I were so determined to shame American Chinese food, at least I need to know how it evolved into what it is inside and out. I threw myself into American Chinese history, and learned the birth of American Chinese food was actually a fascinating story of survival.
Towards the end of 19th century, thousands of Chinese landed at California and started building railroads for America. They didn’t speak English, the males had long braided hair and smoked opium. They all dressed in a weird fashion (the Qing dynasty traditional clothing), and they ate chicken feet and snakes. As you can imagine, not a lot of western railroad builders would like to befriend with Chinese.
After the railroad projects, many of the Chinese stayed. Language barrier limited them in only catering and laundry businesses, and their cheap laundry services soon received envy eyes from established shops. Somewhere in between those years, rumor started that the Chinese “… favorite delicacies were rats and snakes; they ate soup with chopsticks, which [were] hollow, like stars, their national dishes were chop suey and chow mien, and the only other food they ate was rice.”* This was the anti-Chinese sentiment era. No westerners would come to chinatown to eat the Chinese food, and the Chinese were forced to find a way to make a living.
The San Francisco Earthquake destroyed Chinatown, and the much more assimilated younger generation Chinese saw an opportunity to renovate the place to become a tourist spot and change their menu.