Recognizing Chinese contributions during Chinese New Year 2021
When I was in the middle of 8th grade (see photo), my family moved from my beloved town of Harrodsburg, Kentucky to Danville, Virginia. This was the forth major move and relocation for me. And, I would be entering my sixth new school. It was another traumatic move for me. Yet, as with all new places, there are amazing people to meet. And, of course, wonderful experiences you wouldn’t get otherwise. One particularly memorable new experience was eating in a Chinese restaurant for the very first time.
One dinner in a Chinese restaurant and my life was changed forever
Almost like it was yesterday, and not 45 years ago, I remember my parents taking us to our first Chinese restaurant. We ordered the family four-course dinner.
That first egg roll was nothing short of mouth-watering amazing. Trying the Wonton soup with that oddly shaped glass spoon was both challenging and delicious. We had sweet and sour pork, shrimp and peas in a white sauce, and beef with broccoli. And, fried rice. Who ever came up with such a delicious way to eat rice? The food was incredible. And that one new experience turned into a life-long influence.
A year later, I had do a project about an Asian country. I immediately knew I wanted to find out more about China. By way of Chinese cooking. So, I picked up the phone – the kind with the rotary dial – and called the restaurant. I asked if they would give me a tour and let me take pictures of how they make their dishes. Much to my delight, they agreed.
A 9th grade Chinese restaurant project and some fascinating history
These photos were taken by my 14 year-old self for my project. It was 1975. I had a Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera with the trademark flashcube, the Magicube. The report is long gone. But funny that I saved these photos, poor quality and all. Clearly, learning about the food, cooking techniques, and different ingredients first-hand made a lasting impression on me.
Then, a few months ago, I heard an interesting statistic about Chinese restaurants. The reporter asked which restaurants are most prevalent in the US. Of course, I knew it was McDonalds. Nope. Turns out, there are more Chinese restaurants in America, by far, than any other. In fact:
Today, according to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, there are over 45,000 Chinese restaurants currently in operation across the US. This number is greater than all the McDonald’s, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy’s combined.”Time Magazine, as of 2016
To make it even more impressive, the first Chinese restaurants have been around since before the Civil War. They can be traced back to 1849 in San Francisco. That’s because Chinese laborers who were laying the railroads and mining for gold wanted familiar fare.
More interesting perhaps is where the longest-running Chinese restaurant is located. Did you guess Butte, Montana? The Peking Noodle Parlor in Butte has been continuously running since it opened in 1911.
A difficult past
That there are so many Chinese restaurants is not a result of us loving the food. In fact, this $3 to $4 billion a year industry has a painful past. There are so many Chinese eateries because of immigration laws from the late 1800’s.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 explicitly barred Chinese laborers from immigrating or becoming US citizens. Yet, the country wanted and needed the physical laborers. There was one way for Chinese individuals to come to the US. They could obtain “merchant status” by opening a restaurant.
In turn, their merchant status allowed the business owner to travel back to China. He could then bring back employees to cook and support the restaurant. The results were a boom of new Chinese restaurants.
According to MIT legal historian Heather Lee, the number of Chinese restaurants doubled from 1910 to 1920. Astoundingly, the number doubled again from 1920 to 1930.
One woman leads the way for authentic, regional Chinese food in America
The first 100 years of making Chinese food in America was largely in the Cantonese style. And, traditional ingredients were often modified for the European-American palate. But in 1960, Cecilia Chiang arrived in San Francisco to visit her sister. She noted that there were no northern China food options. Through a series of interesting events, she opened a restaurant. And, decided to cook the food she grew up on from northern China.
It was a fledgling effort at first. She didn’t speak Canton, so had difficulty communicating with the vendors. Furthermore, as a woman, she suffered from considerable discrimination in the business community.
But, her perseverance paid off. By 1968 she opened a 300-seat restaurant in Ghirardelli Square named “The Mandarin.” It became a very successful restaurant, catering to San Francisco’s high society. After nearly 25 years, she sold the restaurant. Later, in 2006, it closed its doors permanently. Yet, her story doesn’t end there.
Building on the family tradition
Philip Chiang, Cecilia’s son, is a successful businessman and baby boomer. Turns out, he followed in his mother’s footsteps. He’s the co-founder and owner of the world-wide, wildly successful, P.F. Chang restaurant chain. Before COVID, it was nearly a $1 billion a year business. Philip was the first chef at the first P.F. Chang’s. He brought his love of authentic northern Chinese food that he learned from his mother to the plate.
The P.F. Chang’s we know today started in 1993. The concept they built around was honoring and celebrating the 2,000-year-old tradition of wok cooking. The chefs do all cooking from scratch, including making signature sauces. There are over 210 restaurants in the US. Plus, more than 95 restaurants in 25 countries. Now that is building on a mother’s legacy!
Today, Cecilia is recognized and credited with bringing regional Chinese cooking to America. She’s often put in the same category as Julia Child. Both women were highly influential in bringing new food to the US. Well before there were entire TV networks bringing new recipes into our living rooms every day.
Cecilia died in the fall of 2020. She had just celebrated her 100th birthday.
Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and other Chinese treasurers
February 12th marks the first full day of Chinese New Year 2021. I am amazed when I think how Chinese culture has become an integral part of my family’s life. It’s extended well beyond that first egg roll in Virginia.
Years ago two wonderful Chinese girls became part of our family. One was an exchange student. The other a college friend of our older daughter. They’ve introduced us to such interesting parts of their lives and cultures that we otherwise wouldn’t know about. Most notably, the Mid-Autumn Festival. This celebration is steeped in ancient mythology and marked by giving moon cakes as gifts.
Both of our daughters studied Mandarin, the language, not the food. They each earned a Black Belt in a Chinese form of martial arts. They both had the opportunity to visit China and walk on the Great Wall. We’ve met our Chinese girls’ parents when they visited the US. They brought us Chinese green tea and silk scarves. We made them a traditional turkey dinner.
The opportunity to exchange ways of life, traditions, and new ideas is incredibly fascinating. You learn new things that you had no idea about. Perhaps more importantly, you take a step back to reassess how you see your own world.
Cultural exchange is something I know I want to continue throughout my retirement years. What’s that old saying? The more you think you know, the less you really know.
The special influence of Chinese food
Our daughters live 2,500 miles away. They are happy and healthy and loving Minnesota. But, the distance makes it impossible to get together casually. Or just “pop in” to see what Mom’s making for dinner. The distance felt even greater once COVID hit.
The girls came up with an idea to have dinner once a week via Skype. This has become a really fun family touch point. Turns out you can laugh just as hard over Skype as you can when we’re all sitting around the same table.
To make these weekly dinners more like dinner at home, we decided to cook the same meal each week. I cook in Massachusetts. Younger daughter cooks in Minnesota. Last year, we made a variety of new and favorite dishes. But this year, we decided to try something new. We’re going to make Chinese food for dinner.
Each week, younger daughter and I cook from the same cookbook. The Easy Chinese Cookbook by Chris Toy makes Chinese restaurant food truly easy to make. We try a new dish each week. This week we’re going to try Crispy Lo Mein with Chicken. Yum.
So, why Chinese cooking?
Chinese food happens to be our favorite food. For all four of us. Since we can’t meet up in person, we’ll just make new dishes and experiment on our own.
Since the girls were tiny, we’d take them to our favorite Chinese restaurant. There was always something there that our picky and pickier eaters would eat. We’ve celebrated many New Years Eve’s at Mandarin Cuisine in Needham. We’ve ordered amazing meals in every city we’ve visited from London to New York, and in Edinburgh and San Jose.
Looking back at the places we lived, the Chinese eateries were always the top choice for Dan and me. We started dating back in college. Rochester, New York, had an amazing restaurant, the Shanghai Chinese Restaurant. We’d go there for date night and with friends. Once we arrived in Minneapolis, we quickly found a few favorites, including Lee Ann Chin.
Without realizing it or planning it, Chinese food has become an American staple. With over 45,000 restaurants to choose from, in almost every town, it’s pretty much American’s most popular dinner choice. This post is recognizing a most interesting culture that has brought so much to our tables for 170 years. And still going strong. It’s truly a remarkable story.
And, now, on to this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations. It’s the year of the Ox. Oh, that’s me! And all Boomers born in 1961 or 1949. Better order some Chinese take out to celebrate!
Read more about the fascinating history of Chinese restaurants, food, and culture in the US:
Time Magazine reports on a brief history of Chinese food in America
For great photos and more interesting history click here
Read about this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations
And, for a helpful guide to your own retirement, read my book about planning for retirement.