The Hawaiian-American Influence on Chinese Cuisine in the 1930s

How did American and Hawaiian cultures and events influence Chinese restaurants and cuisine in Honolulu, Hawaii? First, we need to take a look at the presence of Chinese immigrants in Honolulu. 

The rise of Chinese migration to Hawaii took place during the mid-to-late 19th century. The estimated number of Chinese migrants was about 46,000 people before annexation. Due to a large number of migrants in similar situations of living in a foreign land, it was natural for Chinese migrants to seek those who spoke the same language and share similar cultures and traditions. Chinatown became a place where Chinese migrants could find accommodations for their new lives, connect with their families from the mainland, and have a sense of belonging and familiarity. For example, to keep contact with family members on the mainland, a migrant who didn’t know how to read or write would have to find someone to write a letter for them. Few migrants knew how to read or write in Chinese at the time. Chinatown was also a social center where migrants could gather and visit each other and also hear local news and news from mainland China. The community had a Sunday market that sold herbal medicines and products from craftsmen. Chinatown was home for those who had traveled far from home.4

A major figure named C.Q. Yee Hop (1867-1954) made a huge impact on the growth of Honolulu’s Chinatown. The “American Dream” was C.Q. Yee Hop’s goal for emigrating from China to America in 1886 despite the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act. Although he was young, he overcame many obstacles and hardships. In Honolulu, Hawaii, he started with a one-man meat stall in 1887, which grew to become a multi-department, multi-service supermarket by the 1920-30s. Although he had experienced failure and loss, he grew with knowledge and connections to expanded his businesses. Many of his lifetime achievements include building the C.Q. Yee Hop and Company, Ltd., the Yee Hop Realty, Ltd., the Yee Hop Ltd. (Ranch), the American Brewing Co., Ltd., the Hawaiian Hardwood Co., Ltd., and the Yee Hop & Sons Ltd. He was a leader who provided job opportunities for his family members and the community. He also provided service to the general public and also to many others, such as stores, markets, restaurants, schools, and military transports. He was a man of ambition and benevolence. He was a Chinese immigrant with a successful story fulfilling his “American Dream.”9

C.Q. Yee Hop, Photo from “A Chinese Immigrant’s Success Story”
H.L. Chun, Owner of Yee Hop’s Bar, “Handbook of Chinese in Hawaii”, 1950.

Yee Hop’s Chop Suey was a take-out restaurant that served Chinese cuisine in Honolulu’s Chinatown. The restaurant was owned by H.L. Chun,5 who might be Hung Lum, the son of C.Q. Yee Hop.9 Although it is unclear whether or not C.Q. Yee Hop had owned this restaurant, it is likely that he had an influence on this business. Yee Hop was a major business name in Honolulu’s Chinatown so there’s a chance that Yee Hop’s Chop Suey had belonged to the C.Q. Yee Hop’s family.

1930s Honolulu TH Hawaii Girlie Advertising Matchbook Yee Hop’s Chop Suey, Photo by eBay seller
153 N Beretania St in Chinatown, Google Maps, 2020

The menu contains a dish called “pineapple spare ribs” which may have Hawaiian influence since Hawaii was a dominant producer of pineapples in the 20th century. Sweet-and-sour meats appealed more to Western tastes. Traditionally in Cantonese cuisine, sweet-and-sour pork was not a common dish, but sweet-and-sour fish was a dish that was often cooked. Both sweet-and-sour fish or pork includes no fruit, which differs from the pineapple spare rib dish served at Yee Hop’s Chop Suey.1 

Yee Hop’s Chop Suey Menu, NYPL Labs, 1937

At the time, Hawaii was well known for its pineapples because of its large canned pineapple production. The pineapple canning industry became a notable industry in the United States when the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. was founded in the early 20th century. This company was founded in the American Territory of Hawaii by an American entrepreneur named James D. Dole. Although difficulties in the production and processing of the pineapples occurred, industry innovations were invented to increase the success of this industry. Industry innovations may include the selection of the best quality pineapple for canning, the finding of the cause of severe iron chlorosis, the control of iron chlorosis, the application of mulch paper,  the development of the Ginaca peeler-corer machine, and the creation of nematicides.2 Because of these innovations, Hawaii was the leading territory for pineapple canning production and possessed the world’s largest canneries by the 1930s.7 To appeal to mainstream America, Hawaii’s pineapple industries placed advertisements that emphasized the quality of the pineapple and the cleanliness of the cans.6

Canned Pineapple Recipe Ad
The Seattle star (Wash.) 1899-1947, May 30, 1913, Page 5

These ads also contained recipes using pineapples, such as pineapple upside-down cake, to appeal to many housewives.8 The pineapple component was probably added to spare ribs to appeal to Americans since pineapples are not traditionally used in Hawaiian cuisine but were associated with Hawaii. 

Although I could not find a recipe for pineapple spareribs from this period, I will be basing the recipe on pineapple chicken and fried pigs’ ribs from The Chinese Cook Book (1917).3 The instructions are not that detailed, and some of the ingredients are either too broad or undefinable with today’s vocabulary. I will combine these recipes and follow similar techniques to make pineapple spare ribs.

Fried Pig’ Ribs Recipe from “The Chinese Cookbook”, 1917
Pineapple Chicken Recipe from “The Chinese Cookbook”, 1917

To make pineapple spare ribs, I’ll use pigs’ ribs, vinegar, Chinese rice wine, cornstarch, egg, canned pineapple, green peppers, celery, and minced pickled ginger. The recipe also calls for Chinese sauce but I will replace that with soy sauce. The recipe also calls for Fun Wine, but even after researching what kind of wine it was, I decided to use Chinese rice wine because it is a common ingredient in modern pineapple ribs. The technique I will follow is chopping the pork, canned pineapple, green peppers, and celery into small pieces. Then I will mix and coat the pork with the egg, soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch and fry it in oil until brown. After removing the pork, I will stir-fry the pineapple, green pepper, celery, and ginger for 2 minutes. Then I will add the pork and remaining ingredients and let the sauce simmer until the sauce thickens. 

Although Chinatown was the center where Chinese migrants were concentrated, other ethnicities also lived near or around the area. Yee Hop’s Chop Suey offered cheap deals for their dishes which may also appeal to the American community. Because of the popularity of pineapples to the American audience through the canned pineapple industry marketing techniques, restaurants may have incorporated pineapple into their dishes to appeal to the American audience.  

Pineapple Spare Ribs Recipe: [w/ modified ingredients]

  • 1 lb spare ribs
  • 1/4 can pineapple (20oz)
  • 1/2 cup green bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup celery
  • 1/4 cup pickled ginger
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/4 cup Chinese rice wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1/4 egg (large)

I followed most of the instructions from the recipes.

  1. Cut the ribs, pineapple, peppers, celery, and ginger into pieces 1 1/2 inches long [I should’ve cut the ribs smaller], 
  2. Mix ribs well with egg, soy sauce, salt [I realized I forgot the salt], 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch, and 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Fry in boiling oil until brown. 
  3. Put the pineapple, pepper, celery, and ginger into a hot, oiled pan and fry for 2 minutes. Add the pork. 
  4. Add to the mixture the vinegar, Chinese rice wine, water, and the remaining sugar and cornstarch. Cook until nearly dry. 
Recreating Pineapple Spare Ribs

Notes

  1. Anderson, Eugene Newton. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. 
  2. Bartholomew, Duane P., Richard A. Hawkins, and Johnny A. Lopez. “Hawaii Pineapple: The Rise and Fall of an Industry.” HortScience 47, no. 10 (October 2012): 1390–98. doi:10.21273/HORTSCI.47.10.1390.
  3. Chan, Shiu Wong. 1917. “The Chinese Cook Book : Containing More than One Hundred Recipes for Everyday Food Prepared in the Wholesome Chinese Way, and Many Recipes of Unique Dishes Peculiar to the Chinese, Including Chinese Pastry, ‘Stove Parties,’ and Chinese Candies / by Shiu Wong Chan,” January, xiii. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.loyno.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=agr&AN=CAT11013505&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  4. Glick, Clarence E. Sojourners and Settlers: Chinese Migrants in Hawaii. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1980.
  5. Handbook of Chinese in Hawaii. Honolulu, Hawaii: American-Chinese Publicity Service, 1950. 
  6. Hawkins, Richard A. “Advertising and the Hawaiian Pineapple Canning Industry, 1929-39.” Journal of Macromarketing 29, no. 2 (June 2009): 172–92. doi:10.1177/0276146708329245. 
  7. Hawkins, Richard A. 1989. “THE PINEAPPLE CANNING INDUSTRY DURING THE WORLD DEPRESSION OF THE 1930s.” Business History 31 (4): 48. doi:10.1080/00076798900000084. 
  8. Kim, Alice. “Pineapple Ads on the U.S. Mainland.” HDNP, June 8, 2014. https://hdnpblog.wordpress.com/historical-articles/pineapple-ads-on-the-u-s-mainland/.
  9. Chun, Quon, and Junion Klai Chun. A Chinese Immigrant’s Success Story, 1867-1954: C.Q. Yee Hop Achieves His American Dream. San Bernardino, California: J. Chun, 2015.