Joseph Eng was an immigrant who migrated from China to the U.S. in 1911. After settling in Chicago, Eng had opened three restaurants in the 1920s: the Paradise Inn, the Tea Garden, and the Chicken Shop. When the Great Depression hit, he lost all of them. Left with only $300 USD in his pocket, he was left to open a fourth business in the 1930s — the restaurant of Hoe Sai Gai, located at 75-85 West Randolph Street in Chicago, Illinois. Furnished with the beautiful Ming Room, graceful design to its dining rooms, and a successful Chinese-American fusion menu, the restaurant flourished for 30 years. It was eventually demolished in 1962, the real estate used for the Daley Center, the still bustling civic center that stands in downtown Chicago.
Chinese cuisine is a favorite among many Americans from its early development to its current popularity due to their value and ubiquity. During the early development of Chinese restaurants, Chinese food was delicious, but the selling point was the convenience these restaurants offered. They had long hours, quick service, and cheap prices which fit the socioeconomic background of many individuals. Meals at Chinese restaurants often cost less than a dollar and were large and hearty where a fancy French restaurant might cost as much as $5. Those who could not afford more expensive restaurants also found Chinese restaurants to be not only a perfect place for cheap and delectable food, but also a nice place for an outing.
Chinese restaurants gave individuals the opportunity to experience a new culture while showcasing that doing so was not a privilege to only the elite and aristocratic. Catering to middle and working class patrons saw to a sustained increase to the restaurant’s clientele. If individuals wished to experience a new cultural experience, they could do so both at a local establishment and at an affordable price — making places like Hoe Sai Gai an accessible, outlet for one’s tourist urges.
With the popularity that Chinese restaurants have these days, some may find it surprising to hear that during the early 20th century, these restaurants almost went extinct. This extinction was due to other restaurants owners feeling threatened by the sudden rise in popularity and competition of these new, rising businesses — competition that not only took customers, but also the jobs of less successful restaurants.
In Chicago, proposals were made that restricted these restaurants from lots of things, making it difficult for these businesses to operate. Such legislation included restricting any construction permits, banning live music, applying additional taxes, and restricting restaurant licenses only to those with American citizenship. In this way, those who opposed the idea of Chinese immigrants coming to America and operating a business could attempt to curb their success. Such restrictions were put into place under the ideology that Chinese immigrants were deflating the value of the city and its property.
In the face of this numerous obstacles, Chinese restaurants still continued to grow due to a loophole the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Specifically, the act barred Chinese individuals from immigrating into the US, with exception to those who were students, teachers, diplomats, or merchants. At first glance, the act seems to implement a straightforward wall that barred individuals who would work in the food industry — until a clever argument was raised that a “restaurateur” qualified as a merchant. After successfully rationalizing that restauranteurs, or restaurant owners, could and should be allowed into the country, the number of Chinese restaurants in popular American cities increased significantly.
This, however, was not the end of the struggles. These restaurants then had to prove that they were “high grade” by making an equivalent modern amount of $80,000-$150,000. This explains why restaurants like Hoe Sai Gai were on the more expensive and lavish side during the time of early Chinese restaurants. These establishments had to work hard in order to overcome these hardships and to prove that they were deserving of being in business despite cultural differences and racial discrimination. By doing so, Hoe Sai Gai were able to build a reputation for themselves as one of Chicago’s popular Chinese-American restaurants.
Two menus were offered at this restaurant in order to accommodate both patrons who came for authentic Chinese cuisine and patrons who had no interest in doing so. It was common for restaurants of non-‘Western’ origin to deal with such a division; in refusing to do so, they would not be able to satisfy all of their willing customers and would lose a large portion of their clientele. This factor can easily explain why one side of Hoe Sai Gai’s menu has Chinese dishes whereas the other side has American dishes. This also presents the difficulties and adjustments needed due to cultural differences. In accommodating non-Chinese customers, chefs are required to do extra labor to prepare and cook a variety of dishes — without additional costs that could be attributed to doing so.
What is interesting to note is that this menu points still falls under the array of Chinese restaurants that remained less expensive than non-Chinese, mid- to upper-scale restaurants. Hoe Sai Gai may have been one of the more expensive Chinese restaurants, but the expensive, non-Chinese dishes offered — such as lobster and filet mignon — remained much cheaper than they would have been had a patron gone to an upper-class French restaurant. The most expensive Chinese dish offered on this menu was Chow Lone Harr, a whole baby lobster cooked Cantonese style, at the cost of $2.75. The most expensive American dish offered on the menu was Porterhouse Steak at the cost of $3.25; only 50¢ more than the most expensive Chinese dish.
Although the cooks at these restaurants wanted to maintain the authenticity of the Chinese dishes they serve, both American tastes and available ingredients began eroding at the original recipe. Chefs at these Chinese-American restaurants would use what local and common ingredients, slowly integrating a more ‘American’ flavor into the dishes served. In adjusting to American taste, traditional Chinese dishes started adding American vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, and onions. The attractive culinary palate of sweet and sour began to be heavily implemented into the traditional spicy and savory taste of Chinese food. In adapting to American appetites, more dishes morphed, becoming sweeter, boneless, and more heavily deep-fried renditions that were often much more unhealthy than the original dish.
Hoe Sai Gai Menu – http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/58479/explore
In the wake of chefs both accommodating American desires and using new ingredients, a range of new dishes were created. Unauthentic as they were, they grew in popularity, and are well known staples of Chinese-American cuisine today. One such dish was chop suey: a mixture of meat and vegetables with strong flavors. It was (and still is) thought to be a traditional Chinese dish when it reality it was not; this dish is nothing more than leftover ingredients thrown together. Chop suey, at its core, displays the value in Chinese culture of not wasting any food — and in Chinese-American cuisine, this was realized by using creating a dish of leftover ingredients.
Not having strictly set recipes for their menu items gave Hoe Sai Gai both flexibility and variety. With different versions of both chop suey and other Chinese-American staples, patrons’ individual tastes were matched with the creation of what was, essentially, the same meal. Chop suey in particular catered to American patrons who wanted a more ‘exotic’, yet unexpensive dish.
Another widely-known Chinese-American dish is chow mein. Like chop suey, Hoe Sai Gai also offered chow mein in both a traditional Chinese way and an Americanized way. Chow mein is stir-fried egg noodles that are mixed with meat, vegetables, and sauce resulting in a blend of flavors. By being stir-fried, this causes the noodles to have a crunch in it — complying with the American preference for fried food. The more authentic version of this dish is lo mein, which is hand-tossed. This results in a softer texture, and is often cooked with more vegetables and sauce resulting in distinct flavors.
It’s evident how the gradual Americanization of Chinese cuisine caused dishes to slowly become less healthy over time. Offering these new Americanized dishes to the public, however, drew in customers — giving unfamiliar, non-Chinese patrons an incentive of security while dining on a cuisine that was, to them, ‘exotic’.
Written By: Vi Nguyen
Originally Published: December 16th, 2021 || Last Updated: May 2nd, 2022
A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection
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