A Transcultural Study of the Acculturation of Consumer Goods, 1918-1933

New York

researcher: Sonja Weishaupt

Chinese Food in New York
“Those marvellously strange restaurants that have become as familiar as our own living rooms—the ones with red banquettes, dim lights, gleaming golden idols, and odd-sounding entrées (Jade on a Bed of Coral and General Ching’s Chicken, whoever general Ching was)—were begot by a set of circumstances peculiarly American: the émigré’s dream, the immigrant’s reality—and a dash of entrepreneurship.” (Lovegren 2005: 85) What is described here is how cultural identity is created in a contact zone: In a mixture of ethnification and self-ethnification, the ‘Chinese’ immigrants constructed completely new dishes – ‘Chop Suey’, for example, is a thoroughly American dish – and particular Chinese-American style restaurants. Surely, many immigrants were forced into kitchen work by economic necessity – and the fact that European-descended US-Americans often denied them other jobs. However, in a fascinating case of remodelling, many immigrant entrepreneurs managed to turn the mark of otherness into a marketing asset. Here, fiction (‘the émigré’s dream’), fact (‘the immigrant’s reality’), and agency (‘a dash of entrepreneurship’) together model a new reality: Chinese food in New York.

New York City alone had about four hundred chop suey houses in the 1920s, and Chinese restaurants were the main Chinese presence beyond Chinatown (Wang 2001: 73-74). “All New York gleams at night with chop suey restaurants,” the English journalist Stephen Graham wrote in 1927 (cf. Denker 2003: 97). What began as a venture to provide a taste of home to immigrants now catered the exotic desires of American taste buds (cf. Bonner 1997: 95-112). Consequently, a central task of this study will be the analysis of the category ‘taste’: the acculturation of taste, and the cultural determination of taste. How did New Yorkers actually come to like Chinese food? It will be a central objective to understand how food tastes are formed within a discourse of exoticism and ethnicity: menus, newspaper reviews, advertisements, shop signs and designs – together they turned the ‘yellow peril’ into desirable object. It is this transformation that is the central object of this study. Also, the study will have to analyse in how far the Chinese immigrants adopted the US-American capitalistic system, or, on the contrary, how cultural and economic techniques imported from China helped to form modern consumer cuisine.

Food, like every consumer good, is more than just a material good. In the words of Terry Eagleton: “If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable”, a “floating signifier” (Eagleton 1998: 204). However, as it is central to the overall study, such discourses have to be checked against the material changes entangled with the semantic: How were dishes adapted to American tastes and resources? Who had an interest in creating such business ventures? Which general changes in society furthered the need/desire to ‘dine out’ (cf. Finkelstein 1989)? Furthermore, food is an excellent example for the transformation of a material thing into a commercial consumer good. Although food has always been an object, which people, quite literary, consumed, it had to undergo a striking transformation to become a modern consumer good, that is, a good that caters for demands that go beyond our natural need for nourishment (cf. Mannur 2005). How did a need become a desire? Finally, this sub-study differs from the other three studies by analyzing a ‘foreign’ product that is actually produced right where it is consumed – and nonetheless experienced as exotic: What is Chinese about a dish cooked in New York from American ingredients?

Although food in general has become a serious object of cultural studies (cf. Mintz 1993 & 1996; Counihan / Esterik 1997; Cadwell / Watson 2005; Wilson 2006), as well as the globalization of ‘ethnic’ food (Cwiertka 2001), the particular case of Chinese food in New York remains surprisingly little studied, at least in academic terms (compare the studies on Chinese food in Australia, Canada, Japan, and the Philippines in Wu / Chenung 2002 and Powers 1998). Furthermore, the study of food has recently become part of a general interest in taste (Korsmeyer 2005), turning food into a consumer good with widely resonating social consequences (cf. Bourdieu 1984; Rich 2005).

Whereas the literature (and cinema) as well as the political history of the Asian-American experience have been well researched (cf. Chan 1991; Ng 1998; Ono 2005; for New York especially see Wong 1988; Tchen 1999; Wang 2001), their everyday material culture has been less so. If studied at all, food often is degraded to being the subject material of more ‘serious’ forms of cultural expression, literature for example (cf. Wong 1998; Ho 2005). In this study, however, food will be considered as a cultural entity worthy of an analysis on its own terms.

Resources are held by the New York Public Library, New York Municipal Archives, and the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (New York). A perfect starting point is the excellent “Have You Eaten Yet? The Chinese Restaurant in America”-exhibition held by the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in 2004/2005 and currently travelling the USA, which features a large collection of menus and advertisements. Personal accounts can be found in memoirs of the time (e. g. Glick 1941).