According to my mom, the lazy Susan at Chinese dim sum places (the big rotating disk in the center of the table) was started by my dad’s grandfather in San Francisco, which sounded to me like a “your grandmother was a long-lost princess” thing for Chinese people. I, along with many travel guides and restaurant reviews, believed the lazy Susan was an old, “authentic” part of Chinese cuisine, a literal centerpiece of Chinese dining. However, its modern use is actually traced back to 1953, when Chinese American men named Johnny Kan and Dr. Theodore Lee (that’s my last name; albeit, a very common one) implemented it in a Cantonese-style restaurant.
Though I’m still not sure how much water this story holds, it begs the question, how much of Chinese American history has been falsely attributed to to market it as “authentic”? As it turns out: it’s a lot.
Placing authentic cuisine on a pedestal often eliminates a rich history of immigrant families and washes over the accomplishments that past immigrants achieved in the face of overt racism. This contributes to a false dichotomy between someone’s ethnic history and life in America, continuing the perception of ethnic Americans being perpetual foreigners and reinforcing the idea of a “white America.”
In 1849, Chinese Americans began immigrating to California during the Gold Rush, where many Chinese immigrants founded restaurants selling inexpensive, high-quality food to gold miners. They used easily accessible, local ingredients and worked to cater to the tastes of other Americans (the most popular dish in the 1910s — “chop suey” (杂碎) — directly translates to leftovers).
This influx of immigrants resulted in a rise in racist rhetoric, painting Chinese immigrants as part of a “yellow peril.” The most popular caricature depicting the culmination of the fear of Chinese immigrants was Dr. Fu-Manchu, the villain in Sax Roehmer’s series of crime visual novels. He was depicted with exaggerated yellow skin, slanted eyes and wearing traditional Chinese clothes. He was characterized as a cold, calculating “devil doctor.” He would continue making appearances in film and media, often as a white man dressed in yellowface, well into the 1940s.
By 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment came to a peak in the Chinese Exclusion Act, placing a ban on Chinese laborers entering the U.S. This was the first law restricting immigration into the U.S., and was renewed again in 1892 by the Geary Act.
However, there were a handful of crucial exceptions to these acts — one of them being merchant visas. After all, if there’s anything the U.S. government loves more than hating ethnic minorities, it’s capitalism.
After all, if there’s anything the U.S. government loves more than hating ethnic minorities, it’s capitalism.
Merchant visas allowed many Chinese people into the U.S., creating a viable loophole for immigrants to bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act. As a result, many Chinese immigrants opened restaurants upon arrival. Chinese food literally served as passage into the U.S., and for many, a chance at a new life.
Even so, life for Chinese immigrants remained an uphill climb. As an extension of the fear of “yellow peril,” many restaurateurs struggled to obtain loans due to racist banks, leaving many to operate on extremely low costs and work overtime.
In spite of these struggles, restaurant owners innovated new kinds of food, creating new niches in the culinary sphere that altered traditional Chinese flavors into something more palatable for white consumers. Dishes like chop suey, broccoli and beef, chow mein, chow fun, egg rolls and some variations of kung pao chicken gained popularity. Dishes became sweeter, boneless and more deep-fried. Think Panda Express.
By marketing these Americanized dishes as “exotic,” while staying palatable for American audiences, Chinese food as a whole gained popularity in the West, improving the overall disposition towards Chinese people as a whole.
In fact, this popularization of Chinese cuisine played a major role in the Magnuson Act in 1943, which officially repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This phenomenon of food contributing to political activism actually has a name, known as culinary diplomacy. Official culinary diplomacy programs have been created in countries like Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and Israel. As the saying goes, the fastest way to the heart is through the stomach.
So for all the good it’s done for Chinese immigrants, why do so many people misattribute and denounce Chinese American food?
The creation of a binary between the East and West is a tale old as time, with the terms “occident” and “orient” dating back to the 14th century, and “West” and “East” remaining prevalent today, often materializing in “China vs the U.S.” This binary makes it difficult for many to conceive of an “in-between,” a diaspora that isn’t quite American and isn’t quite Chinese, with loyalty to both and neither all at once.
For many, it’s easy to call anything that seems vaguely Eastern “Chinese.” In sociolinguistics, this is known as adequation — the similarities between Chinese American food and Chinese food are shorthanded into one, and the history differentiating the two are pushed to the background.
This false dichotomy between China and America further contributes to the idea that Chinese people are perpetual foreigners – permanently relegated to the status of immigrants, and never truly American. While it may seem like overt and de jure racism is a thing of the past, it has been creeping back into the country. From racist remarks spurred from COVID-19 to the Atlanta shooting, there has been a significant rise in hate crimes throughout the U.S. Earlier this year, a Texas bill was drafted that would effectively ban Chinese immigrants from buying a house, begging the question of how much anti-Asian sentiment has really decreased since the early days of the nation.
Even in California, one of the most liberal states in the U.S., there is far from an absence of anti-Asian sentiment. Although demographically UC Santa Barbara is nearly 20% Asian, during a trip to downtown Santa Barbara, my friends and I were met with passing comments to “go back to your country.” Many of them don’t realize that members of my family have been in the United States for five generations — longer than many white families.
While chop suey may not save us from racism, it’s important to remember the major role that culinary diplomacy played in allowing Chinese immigrants into the U.S. in the first place. The next time you go to a dim sum restaurant and spin the lazy Susan, remember that it (and many of the other things on your table) aren’t from China, but from Chinese Americans — with a unique culture and idiosyncrasies that you can’t find anywhere else. Where else can I get a horoscope reading at the end of my meal?
Your favorite Chinese restaurant may not be “authentically” Chinese, and it’s great that it isn’t. It’s authentically Chinese American — and that is something to be celebrated.
Elizabeth Lee wants us to reconsider our views of “inauthentic” cuisine, especially because SF Chinatown has really good fast food dim sum.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 12 of the May 25, 2023 edition of the Daily Nexus.
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