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Diners Describe the First Chinese Restaurants in America

The first Chinese eateries in America sprang up in 1850s California and catered to Cantonese miners and railroad laborers. Known as "chow chows" (Chinese slang for anything edible), they were identified by yellow triangle signs. By the 1880s San Francisco's Chinatown community supported several upscale Chinese dining establishments. Reviews from non-Chinese diners were mixed. Most were impressed with the opulent surroundings that many compared to Delmonico's, a fine dining restaurant in New York City. Some enjoyed the food, which was usually an Americanized version of traditional Chinese cooking, while others found the strange smells and textures distasteful.

Lee Chew Explains the Popularity of Chinese Cooking

The rat which is eaten by the Chinese is a field animal which lives on rice, grain and sugar cane. Its flesh is delicious. Many Americans who have tasted shark’s fin and bird’s nest soup and tiger lily flowers and bulbs are firm friends of Chinese cookery. If they could enjoy one of our finer rats they would go to China to live, so as to get some more.

American people eat ground hogs, which are very like these Chinese rats, and they also eat many sorts of food that our people would not touch. Those that have dined with us know that we understand how to live well.

A White Diner on the "Delmonico of Chinatown"

Crossing the street, we find ourselves in the finest café, the Delmonico of Chinatown.  We ascend to the second floor, which is the aristocratic portion of the building, and enter a spacious apartment, whose walls are profusely decorated with carved paneling.  Fancy chairs and capacious tables are placed about the room.  We seat ourselves at one of the tables, and are served by a Chinese waiter with an assortment of dainty dishes, but we do not know what we are eating; the food may be a concoction of choice morsels of rat, cat, or dog, or a combination of all three.  Only the better class of Chinamen use this room; others are served on the first floor.

An East Coast Visitor Enjoys Late-Night Tea

It being nearly midnight we adjourned to a neighboring restaurant, a place more civilized than anything we had seen.  In a room handsomely ornamented with wood-carvings, and papered and frescoed in modern style, we sat upon teak-wood chairs and sipped from tiny cups the genuine [tea].  It was fragrant and delightful. 

Source | Lee Chew, "The Biography of a Chinaman," Independent, 15 (19 February 1903), 417-423; Charles M. Taylor, Vacation Days in Hawaii and Japan (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1898), 27-28; Mary H. Wills, A Winter in California (Norristown, PA: Morgan R. Wills, 1889), 113-114.
Creator | Lee Chew; Charles M. Taylor; Mary H. Wills
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Lee Chew; Charles M. Taylor; Mary H. Wills, “Diners Describe the First Chinese Restaurants in America,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 25, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/623.

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