Western Culture Meets Eastern Culture

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 called the Paradise Inn, the Tea Garden, and the Chicken Shop, however, he lost them during the Depression. This left him only $300 USD to open up Hoe Sai Gai in the 1930s located at 75-85 West Randolph Street in Chicago, Illinois. Although it gained large attraction and popularity from high clientele due to the beautiful Ming Room, design, and its Chinese-American fusion menu, the restaurant was demolished in 1962 in order to make room for the Daley Center.

Hoe Sai Gai Interior – http://www.consumergrouch.com/?p=7937

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 also showcasing that it is not a privilege that only the elite and aristocratic crowd could do, resulting in a large increase in the clientele. What also helped increase the popularity and number of consumers was tourism because others who came to visit also wanted to share the same feeling and enjoyment of experiencing a new culture. 

With the popularity that Chinese restaurants have currently, some may find it surprising to hear that during the early 20th century, these restaurants almost went extinct. This possible extinction was due to other restaurants that felt threatened by the sudden rise in popularity leading to stronger competition. This competition involved not only taking customers, but also job opportunities. In Chicago, proposals were made that restricted these restaurants from lots of things making it difficult to operate, including  restricting any construction permits, banning live music, applying additional taxes, and restricting restaurant licenses only to those with American citizenship. This was the way that those who opposed the idea of Chinese immigrants coming to America and taking their business attempted to control the immigration. These people viewed this decision as balancing out their ideology that the Chinese people are deflating the value of their city and its property. They found that the Chinese immigrants lowered the value of their city, so as punishment, they enforced all these additional struggles onto them.

The way that Chinese restaurants were able to grow from this obstacle was due to a loophole in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act barred Chinese immigrants except the ones who were students, teachers, diplomats, or merchants. After successfully proving that a “restaurateur” was qualified as a merchant, the number of Chinese restaurants in popular American cities increased significantly, however, that 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. They had to work hard in order to overcome the hardships and to prove that they were deserving of being in business like any other restaurant despite the cultural differences and racial discrimination they faced. By doing so, they were able to build a reputation for themselves as one of Chicago’s popular Chinese-American restaurants.

In order to comply with those that want to eat authentic food versus those that do not, two different menus had to be available. Restaurants had to deal with this divide in order to satisfy all customers because if they lost either all of their Chinese customers or all of their non-Chinese customers, they would lose a large portion of their clientele. This may explain why on Hoe Sai Gai’s menu, one side has Chinese dishes whereas the other side has American dishes. This also presents the difficulties and adjustments needed due to cultural differences. These chefs do extra labor in order to accommodate and satisfy their non-Chinese customers. They make sure to provide a variety for both cultures and they put in the extra work without additional costs to the dishes. What is interesting to note is that the menu seemed to maintain the ideology of non-Chinese restaurants being more expensive than Chinese restaurants. Hoe Sai Gai was one of the more expensive Chinese restaurants, yet they still sold non-Chinese dishes at much cheaper prices compared to the average non-Chinese restaurants. The menu offers items fit for the upper-class elites such as lobster and filet mignon while still being cheaper than if someone were to go to a French restaurant and order those exact dinners. The most expensive Chinese dish offered on the menu is 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 is a Porterhouse steak at the cost of $3.25; 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, American tastes and ingredients began taking away the authenticity. Chefs at these Chinese-American restaurants would use what ingredients were local and available due to not only the difference in ingredients between cultures, but also to adapt to the taste of those in America. To adjust to American taste, traditional Chinese dishes started adding American vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, and onions. These dishes were also converted into sweeter, boneless, and more heavily deep-fried renditions.  This led to major differentiations between traditional Chinese and Chinese-American dishes: Americanizing these Chinese dishes started to make them unhealthy. The continuing increase in sweetness for Chinese-American dishes contrast in flavor to traditional Chinese flavors of being spicy and savory. The increase in frying food items also led to the growth of unhealthiness on top of the increasing sweetness.

Hoe Sai Gai Menu – http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/58479/explore

To accommodate not only the American palette, but also the lack of native ingredients, chefs created dishes that strayed far from the authenticity of traditional Chinese cuisine, which resulted in many popular dishes today. One dish that was loved by many and gained widespread popularity was chop suey, a mixture of meat and vegetables with strong flavors. It was thought to be a traditional Chinese dish when it actually is not at all. This dish is nothing more than leftover ingredients thrown together. The dish displayed the value in Chinese culture of not wasting any food, therefore, by using leftover ingredients, this lessened waste. Not having a set recipe produced a lot of openness in creating different versions of this dish as displayed on Hoe Sai Gai’s menu. By having a variety, this accustoms to everyone’s individual taste while still simultaneously eating the same meal. This dish offered the exotic taste that some individuals were looking for while also remaining inexpensive. What made this Amercanized was that the leftovers were usually American ingredients meaning that the resulting dish was actually more American than Chinese. Another widely-known Chinese-American dish is chow mein which Hoe Sai Gai also offered variability in, but was also a victim of Americanization. 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 which complies with the American preference for fried food. The more authentic version of this dish is lo mein which is hand-tossed resulting in a softer texture, and is cooked with more vegetables and sauce resulting in distinct flavors. The evident Americanization of these dishes causes them to become unhealthy, but by offering Americanized dishes to the public, this helped draw in more customers since there were many non-Chinese individuals that wanted the idea of tasting and eating something exotic.

Bibliography

Adhiyaman, Akshitha. “Authenticity: The Evolution of Chinese Food in America by Akshitha Adhiyaman.” Noodles on the Silk Road, July 4, 2018. https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/noodles/2018/07/04/authenticity-the-evolution-of-chinese-food-in-america-by-akshitha-adhiyaman/.

Betsy. “That Great Street – Not State Street – Randolph, Once upon a Time.” Consumer Grouch, July 10, 2020. http://www.consumergrouch.com/?p=7937.

Eng, Monica. “How Chinese Restaurants Nearly Became Extinct across U.S.” chicagotribune.com, February 27, 2018. https://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/ct-food-chop-suey-houses-history-0214-story.html.

Eng, Monica, and Tribune staff reporter. “The Rise and Fall of Chop Suey.” Chicago Tribune, November 3, 2005. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2005-11-03-0511030163-story.html.

Nguyen, Thomas. “Thomas Nguyen: The Development of Chinese Cuisine in the United States.” CHN/ITAL370W Noodle Narratives Summer 2019, August 10, 2019. https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/noodlenarratives/2019/08/10/thomas-nguyen-the-development-of-chinese-cuisine-in-the-united-states/.

Song, Steven. “The Influence of Chinese Immigrants on Food in the U.S.” ArcGIS StoryMaps. Esri, December 1, 2020. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/ec0ba05d3e5740ffbbb2d968f83894a7.Yong Chen. 2014. Chop Suey, USA : The Story of Chinese Food in America. Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History. New York: Columbia University Press. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.loyno.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=871562&site=eds-live&scope=site.

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