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Two Hundred Dollar Take-Out Menu: A View of Chinese History

by Harley Spiller

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(1) page(s): 5, 7, 24, and 26

Today, right now, you can buy a sushi dinner in California that costs in excess of three hundred dollars. You can easily spend a grand per person at Alain Ducasse’s newest namesake restaurant. Back in the 1950's, a shot of Remy Martin’s Louis XIII Cognac was two bucks fifty at Ruby Foo’s in Montreal. Today, that same shot costs a hundred seventy-five smackers at the swanky spanking-new 'W' Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Regardless of the reasons for such massive inflation, it is still easy to inflate waistlines for 1950's-style prices.

Chinese restaurants, particularly those clustered on Division, Eldridge, and Delancy Streets in Manhattan continue to offer lunch specials for $2.50, and yes, the decimal point is in the right place, and they come with a heap of steamed rice surrounded by your choice of three dishes from nearly twenty offerings. There is no tax, no pressure to tip, and the tea is free. Go to Chinatown across the river, in Queens or Brooklyn, and pay but a dollar more.

When I moved to New York City in 1981, my starting salary of $9,200 per year precluded supping at Ducasse-like spots, and simultaneously inculcated a passion for Chinatown’s gourmet bargains. Why pay almost ten dollars for a plate of six escargots at Le Bistro when you could get a quart container, with easily over a hundred snails for less than half of that on Canal Street?

For a greenhorn New Yorker keen on expanding a diet that had previously consisted wholly of meat, potatoes, and pizza, Chinese food was 'manna.' Big Roast Pork Buns cost forty cents; a heaping container of Fresh Noodles with Dried Shrimp and Scallions cost only a buck, even with the addition of healthy squirts of sesame oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and hot chile sauce. Chinese tea lunch, called dim sum soon became a week-end staple. I sampled shrimp, beef, chicken, duck, squid, scallops, pork, noodles, rice, vegetables, and scores more for less than a ten-er, tax and tip included. “Wanna go for a prix-fixe meal for $30?” friends would ask? “Forgetaboutit” entered this transplanted Buffalonian’s vocabulary.

Menu’s slipped under the door of my apartment by aggressive restaurateurs were read in toto, informing my newly reinvigorated love of Chinese cuisine. I kept these menus in a box and after several years, decided to alphabetize them. It took all day. A typical problem was, in keeping with mid-1980's dining trends, Miraculous Mandarin, a local restaurant, changed its name to Sizzling Szechuan. How should I separate these menus?

Faced with many other such conundrums, it became apparent that takeout menus were a phenomenon, an irrefutable factor in the daily hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. Yet no one seemed to care about them. If its true that the hardest thing to find in New York City is a copy of yesterday’s paper, Chinese menus must end up in the same black hole. Building superintendents are known to angrily discard them before tenants have a chance to find them. Then and now, 'no menu' signs appeared in nearly every entranceway. Police arrested deliverymen on charges of littering, and coined a new word for the offense 'menu-ing.'

This negative attention to menus merely urged me on. I built a collection that now numbers around six thousand menu’s dating back to 1898. They are from all fifty states and some forty-five foreign countries. In 1991, I mounted an exhibition titled: A Million Menus: An Exhibition and Celebration of Chinese Take-out Food in America. The show was reported by The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and others. I was flown to Studio City, California, where I stumped Kitty Carlisle Hart and other celebrities on the 'To Tell the Truth' program, and I even ended up in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

Contrary to my earlier notions, it seemed like there was great interest in menu collecting. I learned the New York Public Library has more than twenty-five thousand menus and that there are other such collections in schools and libraries across the word. Alyson Ryley, then librarian of the New York Public Library’s Buttolph Menu Collection, told me that a large collection of Chinese menus is special because of its rare focus on a single cuisine. Professors from Duke, New York University, and other academic institutions directed their students to my collection for research on topics such as Chinese-American assimilation. Menus, I learned, are a lot more than food--they offer a glimpse into society past and present. They provide information about their time and place and reflect trends and tastes of particular eras. Imagine a menu from cavemen, how we would scour it to learn about our ancestors.

Menu collecting has led to thrills beyond the gustatory. I was interviewed by Pulitzer prize-winning author Stanley Karnow, and served as the model for a character in a Taiwanese novel. My menu ‘thing’ had started as a lark but has proven to be not only important, but a source of mystery in my life. The oldest menu in my collection, for example, has only a few words beyond the list of foods: Chinese Mission, March 15, 1898. We can be sure when this menu comes from, but it will take a lifetime of research to be sure about who, what, where, and why. That is one of the greatest parts of collecting--it builds a lifelong interest in the pursuit of knowledge.

The entire menu collection had been assembled for free--I had not had to pay, beg, borrow, or steal any of the takeout menus. After all, they are inexpensive advertisements published expressly to be given away. In the mid 1990's, however, things began to change when in a North Carolina thrift store, I saw a rather nondescript plastic bound number from the 1970's. I could not believe my eyes. It was tagged five dollars. As this was the first time I had ever seen a Chinese menu for sale, I bought it.

At the famous but now defunct Yat Chow Doctor restaurant in Hong Kong, I was desperate for a copy of the menu but the surly staff would not part with one so I ended up paying twenty bucks for a cropped photocopy. And, at the famous Snake King Complete and Restaurant in Guangzhou, where it was plain that any tourist would have to snag a menu that honestly listed cat as an entree, I knew this place had a menu hard to acquire, so I offered the waitress ten dollars. She said no. I said twenty dollars and again she said no. OK, I will give you thirty dollars, says I, which earned a reply of “I’ll get the manager.” When I proffered a Chinese language article about my collection, he gladly gave a free copy of the well-stained treasure. Then in 1998, I saw the above mentioned menu from 1898 at the Triple Pier antiques show. They wanted fifty dollars and I walked away thinking I could eat for a month in Chinatown for that price. The money, however, burned a hole in my pocket. I thought about waking up with the oldest menu I had ever seen; it made me wheel around and fork over the dough.

While visiting the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle in 1999, the curator told me about a menu for sale in an ephemera shop in historic Pioneer Square. I hustled over and purchased not one but ten menus. Mostly from the mid-twentieth century. This west coast cache averaged only seven-fifty apiece, about the price one might expect to pay for a glossy magazine. However, I get far more enjoyment out of quirky old menus than copies of next season’s Go.

I continued traipsing about the antique shops of Seattle, which has one of the oldest and best Asian neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere. This diverse area is not called Chinatown; rather, it is referred to as the 'International District.' I stopped in at Michael Maslan’s Historic Photographs, Postcards, and Ephemera and after much shuffling of browned papers, I was shown a takeout menu from the turn of the century, a Mon Lay Won Company in New York City. The price was a firm two hundred dollars, one hundred times the cost of the Pell Street purveyor’s fanciest dinner listed thereon. For once, this food critic had only one thing to say: GULP!

Maslan also had a 1903 brochure extolling the virtues of visiting New York’s Chinatown, which listed the following restaurants on Mott Street: Imperial, Port Author, Tuxedo, Chinese Quick Lunch, the Chatham on Doyer Street, and the Savoy and the Oriental on Pell Street. A cousin already had a dated copy of the Oriental Restaurant’s 1916 printing. The style and prices helped me to guess that the Mon Lay Won menu dates from several years earlier. Nonetheless, two hundred dollars seemed outrageous. Dismayed as I was to leave Maslan’s store empty-handed, I was not aware that months later I would be dreaming of Mon Lay’s menu.

In the meantime, I happened to begin reading Luc Sante’s amazing amalgamation of the urban history of old New York titled Low Life. I nearly flipped when I turned to page two hundred ninety-five and read about huckster Chuck Connor’s guided tours for the adventurous bourgeoisie. He took them through the narrow streets of Chinatown and then off to the 'westernized restaurant called the Chinese Delmonico’s for a meal of something inauthentic as chop suey, which they nevertheless usually professed to find unpalatably strange.'

I devoured the rest of Sante’s vintage 1991 book, and thank him for all of the historical facts mentioned in this article that are lifted directly from it. When my sister Lora asked what I wanted for my birthday, I opted for cash to defray the cost of the cheaply printed menu that cost three times more than I had ever paid for a meal. Soon the four-page beauty was in my hands, I made a much happier 'GULP' this time.

Sante’s book described the period when restaurants the likes of Mon Lay Won first opened to the public. Relative to other immigrant groups, the Chinese came relatively late to New York City. Early records indicate that in 1858, a man named Ah Ken moved into a house on Mott Street and opened a cigar store on Park Row. Ah Ken was followed by the sailor Lou Hoy Sing in 1862, and then by the first Chinese immigrant to acquire notoriety in the press, Quimbo Appo who was evidently deranged. He killed his wife and then a neighbor for no apparent reason; but his racial heritage made his condition and actions appear moral choices to the eyes of the ignorant city.

In 1868, a man named Wah Kee came to town and opened a store on Pell Street. There, he sold vegetables, dried fruit, and what was inevitably referred to in accounts of the time, as 'curios.' He also had a room upstairs with facilities for gambling and opium. In later years, more respectable merchants like Ling Ming opened similar stores to that of Tuck High on Mott Street (the original shop was moved to Albany where it is on permanent view at the New York State Museum). A few years later, in 1870, there were anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five Chinese in New York; such was the gap between census and unofficial estimates.

Thus began Chinatown, with a few houses on Mott and Pell Streets in the 1870's. Over the years, it spread in four directions, gradually absorbing the progressively abandoned ethnic settlements around it. Ten years later, there were said to be seven hundred Chinese in the city. By 1890, there were twelve to thirteen thousand Chinese. With increases in numbers of a population largely isolated by culture and language, the first New York tong was formed to control the masses. The tong is an entirely American phenomenon. One was started by the first Chinese immigrants to the United States, some thirty years earlier, in the California goldfields.

Gambling and opium activities became associated with the Chinese, but it should be emphasized, that Chinese people were more sinned against than sinning. The remoteness of their language to Western ears and their tendency not to assimilate made them a readily available subject for any inventions of the sensational press of the time. By the late 1870's, for example, it had become routine for cub reporters to turn in their 'horrors of Chinatown' piece soon after being hired.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1896 meant only scholars, highly qualified professionals, and the rich could enter the United States. Women were denied legal entry so early Chinese settlers lived in bachelor communities and had a propensity for marrying Irish women. Newspaper stories about Chinatown were usually fictitious. They drew on the sexual fantasies of the middle class and often involved tales of white slavery and forced drug addiction. In actuality, most Chinese New Yorkers were working stiffs, not very colorful, and rather baffling to Caucasians. An 1890 poll shows a disproportionate number working as laundrymen, and following Ah Ken’s lead, cigar vendors working outside major hotels.

The Chinese were thought of as threatening and unworldly because of a large number of signs and attributes only semi-intelligible to Westerners. There was the food, for example, which was more nutritious and lower in fat than the Western diet, but which initially struck those of European extraction as repulsive. Their religion was incomprehensible. Chinese music had strains never heard before. Chinese drama was also befuddling and with no pretense of realism, the prompters and directors often remaining on stage. It was noted that Chinese were casual about smoking, eating, and walking in and out during the course of plays or operas. No one seemed to remember that American audiences behaved that way sixty years prior at the Old Bowery Theater. One reporter at the turn of the century went so far as to break down the immigrant nationalities by odor: the French smelled of garlic, the Germans of sauerkraut and beer, the English of roast beef and ale, and the Chinese of opium and cigars and dried fish.

The turn of the century saw the rise of dozens of unabashedly criminal clubs; Jimmy Kelly’s Mandarin Club on Doyers and the Pelham on Pell Street. The Pelham was a dive in a space that had been the original site of the Chinatown Music Hall, the first Chinese theater in the United States. Soon, singing waiters became a fad, the Pelham’s most melodious waiter the young Izzy Baline, who when he left that seedy milieu behind, changed his name to Irving Berlin.

Efforts were made around 1913 to suppress dancing under what remained of the old blue laws, but nothing much came of it. Chinese restaurants, here-to-fore noted only as a raffish thrill for sophisticates slumming around Chatham Square, began a new era of popularity when the proprietors of such uptown establishments as the Pekin and the Tokio (apparently a Chinese restaurant in spite of its name) started hiring jazz bands. They played during meals, a bizarre tradition that endured among midtown Chinese places until the 1950's. The combination of Chinese food and dancing to band music, as evidenced on fading signs on brick walls in Seattle (Chop Suey and Cha Cha) reached its apotheosis at Forbidden Palace in San Francisco in the mid-century. Chinese dinner dancing seems to be another western phenomenon that arose out of dreams of far-Eastern exoticism. Underscoring this ‘fetishism’ is the fact that the most common graphic device in my collection of Chinese menus seems to be that of a female Asian server.

Chuck Connors, the B-movie and television actor born Kevin Connors in 1921, took his name after the infamous early Caucasian denizen of Chinatown. The original Chuck claimed to have been born on Mott Street but probably came to New York from Rhode Island. He grew up loose on the bricks and worked as a newsboy and small time boxer. As a child, he was fond of tormenting local Chinese, pulling their pigtails and throwing rocks at their windows. But, he came to like them and eventually enjoyed a special relationship with them to the point of learning the rudiments of the Chinese language. He thus avoided the unenviable fate of local toughs like Big Mike Abrams, who boasted of having decapitated numerous Chinese with his clasp knife. Connors’ principal occupation in the 1890's was as a lobboygow, a pidgin Chinese term for tour guide. He sold tours to bourgeois people looking for cheap thrills. He would walk them through Chinatown, pointing out innocent-looking pedestrians and falsely identifying them as notorious tong hatchet men. Women, Chinese or Caucasian, glimpsed in an upstairs window were liable to be labeled as slave wives.

Connor’s prize exhibit was a spurious opium den, a tenement flat haphazardly furnished and occupied by a white woman named Lulu and a half-Chinese man named Georgie Yee, who were passed off as addicts. Connors would not escort just anyone on these tours so ordinary ‘pikers’ took ‘rubberneck wagons’ that plied down from Times Square. Connors was much in demand as a guide for celebrities such as Sir Thomas Lipton, members of German and Swedish royalty, and other muckity-mucks.

In 1904, the publisher of the Police Gazette printed a collection of Connor’s routines called Bowery Life. Its cover identifies Connors as Mayor of Chinatown, which he most assuredly was not. That distinction was reserved for Connor’s friend Tim Lee, head of the On Leong tong. Bowery Life was illustrated with a few Chinatown street scenes and documents Connor’s wildly imaginative dreams of wealth, such as:
Me headqua’ters would be da Waldorf, but I would
hev a telephone station in Chinatown, so I could git
a hot chop suey w’en I wanted it quick.

Another famous man of the period, Jacob Riis (1849-1914), the journalist, photographer, and social reformer who advocated for the building of parks, model tenements, and rent controls for lower-class housing, wasn’t as nice a man as it seems. I am indebted to Riis for I have lived for two decades, rent stabilized, in an 1898 structure that is the only tenement building designated a New York City landmark. Still, it is only fair to report that Riis believed in the assimilation of ethnic groups. He was the sort of immigrant who becomes a rabid nationalist in his adopted country and brooks no deviance. He was least helpful to those ethnic enclaves that were most faithful in keeping up their traditions and language--in particular the Chinese, whom he loathed.

There is one last character from the 1900's whose name alone is worthy of mention. English transliterations of Chinese names being the wild guesses they often are, the birth name of a man who came to be known as Mock Duck is not known. There are many tales of 'Mr. Duck,' who wore chain mail, carried two revolvers and a hatchet, and was widely feared for his favorite fighting technique of squatting in the middle of the street, shutting his eyes, and firing both guns in a full circle around him. Affiliated with the Hip Sing tong, Mock Dick helped burn down the On Leong boarding house on Pell Street.

A city guidebook from 1948 still identified Pell and Doyers Streets as Hip Sing territory and Mott Street as belonging to the On Leong. Doyers Street was a 'no-man's-land' in the war between them. This crooked little street soon earned the nickname of 'bloody angle.' The year 1909 was the bloodiest year of gang battles in an era when more than three hundred fifty Chinatown residents met violent deaths. Like Chuck Connors, Mock Duck was such an intriguing character that others assumed his famous name. In one such case, Mock Duck was selected as the moniker of the pigtailed drake in George Herriman’s popular cartoon called Krazy Kat.

Delmonico’s was easily the most famous restaurant of its time. In an attempt to be continuously on the beachhead of the social movement, it changed venues six times in half a century. Upon being transferred uptown in 1876, Police Captain Alexander “Clubber’ Williams spotted a well known criminal lawyer dining at Delmonico’s and said to him, “you’d better behave yourself, or you won’t be coming in here for any more of them juicy beef steaks you’re always eating.” The lawyer replied, “ speaking of that, inspector,” referring to his promotion, “that’s a pretty juicy tenderloin they just handed you.” Ever after, the west-teens neighborhood became know as the Tenderloin. This is but one of many Delmonico legends, and it’s no wonder that Mon Lay Won blatantly did all it could to associate with a proven winner.

The menu from Mon Lay Won Company, the Chinese Delmonico, at 24 Pell Street, telephone 459 Franklin, states “Our Annex Dining Hall Fitted Up Expressly to Serve DINNERS FOR CLUBS and PARTIES.” Such special dinners cost only seventy-five cents, a dollar or two dollars, per person. The restaurant’s name, Mon Lay Won, means “ten thousand miles cloud” or something like “its a gorgeous day.” For Chinese people, the number ten thousand symbolizes great abundance, analogous to a million, for English speakers.

The menu cover carries a monotone reproduction of an oil or perhaps a brush and ink painting of a lady sitting outdoors. The middle-aged woman carries a fan that has another popular, and typically analogous Chinese folk expression, ching fung/mai yu meaning 'clear wind/bright moon.' Her hat, sandals, dress, coat, and jewelry are from the Qing dynasty. She is seated on a ceramic outdoor garden chair at a table. Chinese writing on the tablecloth translates as 'Drink wine at the ten thousand miles cloud storyhouse tower.' The rest of the scene is filled with a pile of books, a teacup, a vase of flowers, mountains, trees and a pagoda, trappings that a status-seeker would ordinarily include in a commissioned portrait.

It is interesting to note that the books are piled neatly and bound with string. Perhaps the sitter has the same qualities as rich people in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whose books are always perfectly aligned. There will always be people who pretend to be intellectual but in actuality absorb what little culture they get in a second- or third-hand manner.

The painting is not skillful, the proportion of the figure is wrong, and it appears that the painter may have been trying to cross cultures by combining classic Chinese painting techniques with newly-learned western methods. There is a signature by the host/master/owner of the restaurant. The translation of this signature is not simple. It reveals another menu mystery waiting to be solved as Chinese people seldom write their name with four characters like the signature thereon, which is: Gau Chow Gu Chen. It might be that the signer was, like the sitter in his painting, a person of little education with grand pretensions.

It is common for Chinese painters and poets to take nom d’artiste but in such cases one’s given first name is traditionally dropped from the signature. Gu Chen means 'lonely well,' and this is an appropriately metaphoric name to be chosen by a bachelor very far from home. Maybe Gu Chenjust did not know he was supposed to drop his given name after taking an artist’s name. I will continue to research and refine these educated guesses, but for now they seem to fit well with what we know of the character and nature of one of the first Chinese restaurants in the United States, the Mon Lay Won Company.

Turning inside the menu, there are listed several intriguing a la carte orders not often found on modern menus. A variety of omelets all contain herbs, a dish of Plain Fried Sharks’ Fins sold for a dollar and a half, Chow Mein is spelled Chow Min, Stewed Corn with Meat costs thirty-five cents. Fried Lobster in Rice set a diner back half a dollar while Chinese Water Nuts--Raw, went for fifteen cents. (In the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood of Kowloon, Hong Kong, you can still buy flimsy skewers with four giant water chestnuts for well under a dollar.) Stuffed Chicken Wings at two-fifty is the most expensive item on the menu. I have tasted these boneless wonders in Thai restaurants but never in a Chinese one (the editor makes these Chinese delights often and has yet to invite my tasting them). Dessert included imported Chinese preserves in fifteen and twenty-five cent portions including Golden Lilies, Star Fruit, Li Chee Nuts, and Horton’s Ice Cream, served during summer season only. Tea selections included the top dollar Lin Som for twenty-five cents a pot (one wonders if Thomas Lipton taste tested this tea on Connor’s tour); Long Suey and Suey Shin at fifteen cents per pot, and oolong for only a dime. In keeping with the then Chinese occupation of selling tobaccos, Mon Lay Won restaurant uses the large typeface on its menu to advertise the 'FINEST QUALITY of CIGARS & CIGARETTES' and adds an additional pitch to smokers for Pang’s Celebrated Chinese Cigarettes: 'Try them, 10 and 15 cents a package.'

The real kicker on my two hundred dollar menu, though, the thing that kept me awake at night when I did not own it, is the acrostic written by Jimmy, Mon Lay Won’s proprietor/poet laureate and apparently self-made aesthete. How could I have any self-respect as a menu collector if I passed up this self-referential gem with a poem about menus right on the menu? For those who want to see it, a copy appears in the hard copy of this issue.

One cringes at the thought of the racist barbs that Jimmie, who seems to have too many Chinese names but only one English moniker, absorbed from the likes of Chuck Connors or Big Mike Abrams. But who knows, Jimmie might have even self-perpetuated racial stereotypes of the subservient Asian, in order to entice customers seeking an experience of exotica. Racism and self-exploitation both still factor heavily in the Chinese food industry. Perhaps this dichotomy can be further understood in the light of the poignant tale of a young Korean-American friend who confided that she felt sad during a year’s study in China when she realized that, unlike in Michigan, she was no longer singled out for special treatment, be it good or bad, just for her Asian appearance.

The same friends who in 1981 wanted to go for a prix fixe meal for thirty dollars are now frequently paying more than fifty dollars for a meal and they are shocked by my purchase. “You paid two hundred dollars for a take-out menu,” they query incredulously. To them I can now offer this ever-so-long article as proof of the inspirational power of a simple-looking paper menu. I can also advise that the day after I finally broke down and bought the menu, I was hired by a dot.com to present a lecture on my collection. The fee was four hundred dollars. That made half of that seem like a pretty fair bill of fare.

But the saga is not over. Just last month, a friend called to say that he saw a Chinese menu for sale on e-bay. He bid successfully for me, but now I have ordered a new computer so I can do my own auctioning. I feel compelled to acquire these treasures. The glory days of free menu collecting seem to be fading away. I think I’ll go down to get a two-bucks-fifty rice plate after I say thanks to the Lees of Forest Hills, Lora, Effi and Chi, Dena Sievert, Susan Shaughnessy, and Alyson Ryley.
Harley Spiller’s collection contains many old Chinese menus that people have donated from their scrapbooks. Please feel free to contact him to conduct research, and do consider making donations of menus to this important and unique library. Contact this magazine and they will get you together to do so.

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