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Shopping at Giant Foods: Chinese Supermarkets in Northern California
by: Yee, Alfred
University of Washington Press 2003, $35.00, Hardbound
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Summer Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(2) page(s): 19 and 20
What do any of us know about the food history of an ethnic community? If it is Chinese, the response could is usually 'little to nothing.' If you are Chinese, you may know just a bit, but ten to one, what you really know is how many places there are to purchase Chinese food on the way to or from work and, specifically, where they are. Most importantly, you probably know how important they are in you own day to day existence.
The author knows lots about this topic because he has been in the food business for years and years, the supermarket business specifically. However, we do not seem to glean his knowledge, just a few of his opinions. The book begins with the history of Chinese immigration and information about supermarkets in general, then Chinese supermarkets in particular.
After a recent trip to the west coast, we did wish he was with us because he speaks of the Chinese supermarket demise, while we found them alive and well. We noted they were loaded with Chinese and other Asian foods, some western foods, and with Chinese and other Asian shoppers. We saw their bulletin boards as centers of their communities. We found Asian elders chatting in their respective languages, kids running up and down the aisles seeking friends and specific foods, and young and old loading wagons with mostly Asian foods and beverages. Sure, we did see Hellman's mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, Tide, and Coca-Cola, but not too much of them and other non-Asian foods in anyone's supermarket basket. Though we did not do a real study, rare was the supermarket wagon with more than two or three non-Asian products.
Not knowing about a store's economics, but watching and trying to speak with many employees stocking shelves or trimming vegetables, selling meat and fish and other things, we deemed the stores loaded with shoppers and with visual signs their Asian shoppers felt right at home marketing in them.
Shopping at Giant Foods does educate about earlier roles of Asian supermarkets, Giant Foods in particular. For those who might wish more data to back up Yee's opinions, we felt left in the lurch even with his extensive bibliography, six pages worth. We did enjoy the index to help locate information we recalled reading, but once there, all we found was that we wanted even more.
In fairness, this book contributes insight into some social aspects of Chinese in the retail food business, but only for the years 1930 through 1970. It does speak to Chinese supermarkets selling to non-Chinese clientele. The dozens and dozens of Chinese-owned supermarkets we saw now do lots less of that. Perhaps there is less or even no need because there are ever so many more Chinese and other Asian immigrants who own markets and get their food and in turn feed these businesses and their cash registers.
One of the most fascinating parts of this book are the oral histories of those interviewed. Couple them with the author's personal stories, and the book provides a look at the large role these markets play. While one learn's only about Giant Foods, one really gets a giant taste of Chinese American supermarkets serviced by Chinese Americans selling to more Chinese foods.