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Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Cuisine Made In America

by Imogene Lim

Chinese Food in the USA

Spring Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(1) page(s): 11 and 12


Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the cultural landscape of North America. In a Chinatown, restaurants and other types of businesses are expected; but in small towns with no noticeable Chinese American population, Chinese restaurants are also common. They are outposts of Chinese culture represented by the food, and by the restaurant itself. For these reasons, Indigo Som began her Chinese restaurant project. You may have already read about some of her efforts in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 11(2) on page 29.

On checking her website: www.well.com/user/indigo/crpintro.html you learn that Ms Som considers these restaurants the most visible manifestation of Chinese American presence in this country. The development of the Chinese restaurant in America is a statement of entrepreneurship and adaptability of a cuisine that reflects regional and/or local context.

When the Chinese first arrived in the United States, they were like every other immigrant who came for economic and other opportunities. The gold rush of 1848 was the initial draw for many who wanted to do well and then go home. Some also eventually viewed the United States as a place they wished to also call home. Opening and operating a Chinese restaurant was not first on these immigrant’s list as a means to make a living. The majority spoke little English at the time. A restaurant requires the ability to communicate with customers, as well as food wholesalers and producers.

With John Eng-Wong, in an article entitled: Chow Mein Sandwiches: Chinese American Entrepreneurship in Rhode Island, that appeared in Origins and Destinations: 41 Essays on Chinese America, edited by Kwok and Quan (1994), I made the case that Chinese restaurants developed after Chinese Americans found employment in other businesses. For example, in the southern states, many Chinese Americans became grocery store owners with some eventually opening restaurants.

Such was the case of How Joy in Greenville, Mississippi, one of the restaurants visited by Indigo Som. Her blog includes a painting of How Joy in its earliest incarnation. What is striking in the picture is this restaurant’s signage. It says: How Joy Chop Suey. In addition, the building is adorned with embellishments that suggest a traditional Chinese rooftop.

Both sign and design signify that the business serves Chinese food. Identifying the restaurant with chop suey indicates that you will find other comparable dishes such as chow mein, egg rolls, sweet and sour, etc. In other words, this was a Chinese American restaurant-—an establishment with a cuisine that had evolved and adapted to its environment and clientele.

The words 'chop suey' are particularly significant because in North America, this dish has become known as a stir-fried vegetable medley in a sauce, sometimes with the addition of beef, pork, or chicken. James Trager, in Food Chonology (1995), states that there is no such item in China; like fortune cookies, chop suey is an American invention.

To remain and succeed in business, Chinese American restaurateurs have had to be inventive and flexible. Another consideration is the ability of non-Chinese consumers to accept a 'foreign' food. This provides the rationale of Chinese American restaurants to serve traditional American fare or 'Chinese' versions of local foods. For example, Southern cuisine has a variety of breads, from baked biscuits to fried beignets and hush puppies. As noted by Ms Som in her blog, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Mississippi offered deep-fried biscuits among its buffet items. Given the context of Chinese cuisine and entrepreneurship, this seems not so odd nor so unusual.

Restaurants outside of a Chinatown rely on a clientele that might or might not be familiar with Chinese culture or cuisine. This is especially true in the southern states where the Chinese American population remains relatively small. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Mississippi’s population is less than one tenth of one percent Chinese American. For this reason, dining in a Chinese restaurant provides a cultural experience to the uninitiated. But how do they or you know the restaurant is the 'real thing?' You may be told the establishment is 'authentic.' With your own eyes you see symbols and icons that seem to affirm this.

The business acumen of restaurateurs explains the choice of restaurant name, the typeface or font used in it, and the identifiable Chinese décor or artifacts embellishing or adorning the establishment. This can be seen in the How Joy painting. Lettering can resemble brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy. Words associated with China or Chinese culture, such as 'chopsticks,' 'wok,' 'panda,' 'phoenix,' and 'dragon,' also identify the ‘authenticity’ of the restaurant. So do known place names such as Peking, Hong Kong, or Hunan.

Of the sixty-two establishments seen during Indigo Som’s southern road trip, two-thirds have either 'China' or 'Chinese,' or an associated Chinese object in their name. Names and/or objects establish their Chineseness. One Louisiana restaurant states on its website, that their restaurants were designed to emulate Chinese palaces, highlighting imported cultural artifacts, or feature items such as pagodas and carp ponds.

In many senses, by using these markers, restaurateurs unconsciously help stereotype the Chineseness that the larger public views. What do other ethnic restaurants do? Pizza joints do not inform a diner about Italian culture, yet Chinese American restaurants 'teach' Chinese culture. Chinese business people realize that the public expects to see these markers, whether calligraphy-like lettering or pagodas, to authenticate Chineseness.

Consider San Francisco’s Chinatown restaurants. They range in variety from the large ornately decorated to the small 'hole-in-the-wall' kind. For a 'real' encounter with Chinatown, a hotel concierge sends guests to the most extravagant in décor. These signifiers are like those of early roadside restaurants designed for visibility, instant recognition, and brand identity.

Without identifiers or ethnic markers, a restaurant is a restaurant in the larger landscape, so only upon entering and/or seeing a menu do you realize that it serves Chinese cuisine. As Indigo noted in her blog, some of the places were 'subtle and understated' and some required 'sharp eyes' to be recognized as Chinese restaurants.

In establishing a restaurant as Chinese, the question may arise as to the authentic nature of the cuisine. Those less familiar with China may lack an awareness of regional diversity as well as local specialties. Early Chinese sojourners to the United States came primarily from the Guangdong area. Therefore, restaurants prior to 1965 presented Cantonese-style cuisine.

Since then, a wide variety of regional styles has become available in the United States (e.g.: Shanghai, Peking, Sichuan). With their introduction, many Chinese American restaurants have become a bit of everything to their clientele. For example, the buffet table will have hot and sour soup as well as wonton soup, kung pao chicken as well as chicken guy ding. Each dish represents a different adapted regional cuisine, yet the restaurant is generically 'Chinese American' rather than Shanghainese, Sichuanese, or Cantonese.

Business tactics require that most restaurateurs serve an American palate that recognizes something called 'Chinese' rather than a distinct style. To the majority of consumers, there is no realization of the heterogeneity found in China and in its food culture. Regional styles in China reflect their local environment with what food products are available there. In this sense, Chinese cuisine is as much about the techniques of food preparation and cooking, as it is about flavors and ingredients. New ingredients can readily be incorporated in Chinese cooking, whether in the United States or in China. Culture is not static and that includes food culture; it is constantly changing.

Chinese cuisine promotes the use of the freshest ingredients so when local fresh foodstuffs are used in the southern states, whether crawfish, catfish, or alligator, the cooks there are following in the footsteps of tradition. Like the regional cuisines of China, the local context is emphasized. That context is one that is American, as well as being southern. As the title of this article indicates, Mostly Mississippi is just that-—a southern version of Chinese American restaurants.

Note: This essay has been adapted from one that accompanied Indigo Som’s exhibition catalogue Mostly Mississippi: Chinese restaurants of the South (2005, Chinese Historical Society of America). The exhibition ran from February 1 through March 27, 2005 at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, CA.
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Imogene Lim, an anthropologist at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo BC, Canada, teaches a wide range of courses including one about food and culture, and one about food and globalization. She is a third-generation Chinese Canadian, and a true foodie, raised 'at the table' of a Vancouver Chinatown restaurateur. She earned a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship and examined early Chinese American entrepreneurship in Fall River, Massachusetts. Well-known to many of our readers, Dr. Lim has written a literal handful of articles for Flavor and Fortune. They are in 4(2): 9 and 20; 4(2): 13 and 22; 6(2): 5; 6(3): 9 and 10; 6(4): 22; and 9(1): 6. Do check them out.

                                                                                                                                                       
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