A “French” Menu In the Diversified Culture Hub of Shanghai

This selected menu is from a dinner held by the American Association of China at the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai on April 25, 1906.[1] The dinner was held for a British man named George Gray Ward who worked for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company — the one responsible for finishing the ambitious trans-Pacific cable line on that same year.

The drinks and dishes listed within the menu also present a variety of backgrounds and influences. Although the dishes are all listed in French, (which was typical of early menus to make the food seem classy), food such as “mandarin” fish with hollandaise sauce, “Russian” salad, and chicken with flatbread (native to India) were all served at this dinner. This mishmash of food and culture can be better understood if one first considers not only the historical context of Shanghai in the mid 19th and early 20th century, but also the technological advancement that was the telegraph and how that affected the western world.

Shanghai in the early 1900s was a vital port city that had undergone massive growth and expansion into the global trade networks. In 1832, the East India Company’s ship, the Lord Amherst, became the first Western-European ship to reach the city.[2] Efforts to conduct trade in Shanghai proved fruitless, however, as those aboard the Lord Amherst were told that all trade must be done through Canton — the principle port city for China before Shanghai opened its doors to foreign trade.

China had strategically prevented nonnative access of certain ports, like Shanghai, in order to minimize the threat of foreign invasion.[3] Early visitors to Shanghai in the 1830s saw it as “one of the largest urban centers not only of the Far East but of the entire world,” and noted its potential for trade due to its harbor, “commodious wharves and large warehouses” along the river, access to interior China, and the large scale “junk” trade that was already in effect.[4] During one week, H. H. Lindsay reported 400 of these ships arriving in Shanghai.[5] The trade was almost entirely domestic, with the ships carrying products, like grain, peas, soybeans, medicine, tea, silk, and cotton cloth into Shanghai from other cities.[6] During the Opium Wars in 1842, however, British troops seized Shanghai, and officially opened it as a treaty port the following year under the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the war. [7]

Junk ships transporting goods to Shanghai with the Astor House in the background

Foreign officials were overzealous in their desires to establish large-scale trade in Shanghai; expansion was monumental and happened quickly. In 1845, Shanghai exported 6,433 bales of silk, but by 1856, exportation had increased to over 92,000 bales. In 1855, they had managed to export 79 million more pounds of tea than they had in 1844.[8] Shanghai surpassed Canton as the main trade city in China in 1871 when it made up 63% of China’s total external trade. Additionally, due to its large size and population, Shanghai became important in terms of distribution while gradually becoming less vital to the export trade.[9]

Shanghai succeeded as a port city for several reasons. The British managed to develop trade to such an extent because Shanghai was technically a neutral territory that had remained uninvolved in civil or foreign conflict.[10] In doing so, the British grasp on the territory produced many injustices (an evergreen symptom of colonialism) after the Taiping Rebellion of 1853 and during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.[11] Despite this, the development of large-scale trade boosted the economy of Shanghai and helped the city to flourish even further. Geographical location was essential to the expansion of Shanghai as well. The city has access to interior China through the Whangpoo river, a tributary of the Yangtze.[12] The Whangpoo also acts a buffer that provides protection from typhoons and silt buildup that causes the coast to expand.[13] Its location not only midway between the north and south of China’s east coast, but also near the mouth of the Yangtze Kiang provides this city with access to an enormous population of 180 million people.[14] Shanghai would become even more crucial on the global scale in 1906 when the trans-Pacific Cable line was finished, its completed form running from San Francisco to Manila and through the Philippines to Shanghai.

The invention of the telegraph altered the course of history because it made the fast, low-cost transmission of information possible, which in turn spurred economic growth.[15] George Atcheson had this to say about the telegraph in 1925, almost 20 years after the completion of the Pacific Cable Line:

Politically the cable has become indispensable to the furtherance of peace; through its facilities misunderstandings find adjustment before irresponsible or hasty popular feeling might destroy the possibility of amicable arbitrations which usually exists at the inception of a dispute. Adequate low rate facilities also automatically combat propaganda through the resultant generous interchange of news and by alleviating the financial necessity for accepting subsidies which now, with but few exceptions, partially support and control most news agencies outside the United States.” (70)

He also saw it as vital to military superiority, the expansion of exportation and commerce, and better relations with China and Japan.[16] With the historical context of Shanghai in mind, it is not difficult to see why it was selected as a major city through which the Pacific Cable would pass. Connecting the U.S. to Asia by telegraph lines was important not only because the U.S. possessed territories in the Pacific Ocean, but also so that they could make sure China was abiding by the Open Door Policy, which kept trade accessible to foreigners.

Before delving into the construction of a trans-Pacific Cable, it would first be helpful to look back at the expansion of the telegraph in California.

Soon after it’s invention, a telegraph line connecting Marysville to San Francisco through San José and Sacramento was proposed. The project initially began in September 1852, but was delayed until September 1853. The line was completed that same year in October after much grueling labor — men laid 5-7 miles of cable per day — and difficulties, only a week before the deadline set by the state legislature.[17] Following the financial success of this intrastate line, Hiram Sibly proposed a line that would connect the East and West Coast. In April 1861, Edward Creighton helped chose a route for the line that would begin in Omaha and end up in San Francisco by going through Salt Lake City, across the Sierra Nevada, to Sacramento.[18] Creighton built the eastern half of the line while James Gamble would build in the west.[19] The first message was sent in October 1861, many years before the completion of the transcontinental railway.[20]

After these achievements, an even more ambitious project was necessitated — an undersea cable that would connect the U.S. to Asia. Many Americans lobbied for a government-subsidized construction of this line, while the British Eastern Extension Telegraph Company vehemently opposed a government-owned trans-Pacific cable, fearing that inexpensive trans-Pacific communications would detract from the high rates of telegraph traffic from Europe to Asia.[21] These fears were put to rest, however, when a private company, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company took up the task of building this line, preventing a government-owned trans-Pacific cable.[22] Thus, a cable connecting San Francisco to Honolulu was laid in 1902.

Later on in 1903, this line connected to Manila through Midway and Guam.[23] The Danish-owned Great Northern Telegraph Company and the British-owned Eastern Extension, the Australia and China Telegraph Company, once again blocked the construction of the line into Shanghai from Manila. Specifically, they evoked the monopoly rights given to them by the Chinese Telegraph Administration in 1881, which would continued until 1930 as of an agreement made in 1900.[24] These companies withdrew their opposition once the U.S. gained control of the Philippines, and the Pacific Cable Company finished the connection to Shanghai in 1906.[25] Suspicions as to the Pacific Cable Company’s motives developed once it was found out that 75% of their shares were held by the Great Northern Telegraph Company, the Eastern Telegraph Company, and the Eastern Extension, all of whom opposed the U.S. government-owned line and had exclusive cable privileges in China.[26]

Entrance Hall of the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai

With the historical context of Shanghai at the end of the 19th century and the impact of the telegraph during the same time, this menu from 1906 in Shanghai for the American Association of China is quite reflective of its time period. The menu is for a dinner held in honor of George Gray Ward, a British man who worked for the Pacific Cable Company. According to his obituary in the 1922 Institution of Electrical Engineers, he was a prominent figure in the telegraph industry of the late-1800s and early-1900s. In 1884, he became the general manager of the Commercial Cable Company, eventually being promoted to vice-president in 1890. After his promotion, the company laid the Pacific cable in 1906, the same year as this dinner. He was also decorated with the “Order of Commander of the Rising Sun” by the Emperor of Japan.[27]

Beyond this dinner being for the Vice President of the Commercial Cable Company, the food that was actually served is also reflective of Shanghai at the start of the 20th century. The alcohol served is all clearly imported from foreign sources, and, again, the food had adopted a French name, despite its various origins. There was boiled mandarin fish — which seems to connect with either Shanghai or Chinese cuisine — but served with hollandaise sauce (which is French). The “saladé á la Russe” refers to a Russian salad, consisting of potatoes, eggs, vegetables, meat, and mayonnaise. There’s also a listing of plum pudding served with brandy sauce, which may have appealed to Mr. Ward specifically (as he was English, and the dessert remains popular in Great Britain today).

The menu as a whole reflects the way Shanghai and the cultural diversity held there at that point of time. While the 1906 dinner may have been designed for Ward in particular, the availability and the specificity of courses offered represents how the diversity of Shanghai cuisine expanded and flourished over time.

Written By: Madelyene Perault

Considering how Shanghai

This varied menu reflects the Shanghai in which it was served as this city had also become a hub for contact between many different cultures.

Written By: Madelyene Perault

Originally Published: April 27th, 2018 || Last Updated: May 23rd, 2022

A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection


  • [1] “American Association of China.” New York Public Library Menus, 1906. http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/24833/explore
  • [2] John E. Orchard, “Shanghai,” Geographical Review 26, no. 1 (1936), 4, doi:10.2307/209460.
  • [3] John E. Orchard, “Shanghai,” 7.
  • [4] Orchard, 6.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Orchard, 5
  • [8] Orchard, 7
  • [9] Orchard, 8
  • [10] Orchard, 9
  • [11] Orchard, 10
  • [12] Orchard, 11.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Tomas Nonnemacher, “Law, Emerging Technology, and Market Structure: The Development of the Telegraph Industry, 1838-1868,” The Journal of Economic History 57, no. 2 (1997): 489, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.loyno.edu/stable/2951052.
  • [16] George Atcheson, “The Cable Situation in the Pacific Ocean, with Special Reference to the Far East,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 122 (1925): 70, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.loyno.edu/stable/1016451.
  • [17] Alice L. Bates, “The History of the Telegraph in California,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California 9, no. 3 (1914): 181-2, doi:10.2307/41168703.
  • [18] Bates, “The History of the Telegraph in California,” 183.
  • [19] Bates, 184.
  • [20] Bates, 185.
  • [21] Atcheson, 76.
  • [22] Atcheson, 77.
  • [23] “Memorandum on Cable Communications in the Pacific,” Memorandum (Institute of Pacific Relations, American Council) 1, no. 16 (1932): 3, doi:10.2307/3024788.
  • [24] “Memorandum on Cable Communications in the Pacific,”1-3.
  • [25] “Memorandum on Cable Communications in the Pacific,” 3.
  • [26] Atcheson, 77.
  • [27] “George Gray Ward,” Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/George_Gray_Ward

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