The “Chop Suey Craze” that engulfed large American and Canadian cities in the early decades of the 20th century (see http://www.asian-studies.org/eaa/Hayford_16-3.pdf) might be viewed as a positive reaction to the American and Canadian Chinese Exclusion laws that began in the U.S. in 1882 and continued until 1943 when the U.S. needed Chinese support in the war with Japan. The demonization of Chinese immigrants by American labor activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gradually gave way to an admiration of some, but by no means all, aspects of the immigrant Chinese and their culture.
... Chinese family-run restaurants responded to the growing interest in Chinese food in various but conflicting ways. Elaborate Chinese restaurants opened in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and cities in Canada. To entice patrons, the restaurants featured organs, live orchestras, dancing, and, in the case of the Forbidden City restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, live shows that highlighted Chinese- and Japanese-American performers. The high cost of opening and maintaining such elegant venues usually required numerous backers and partners, all with deep pockets. Alas, the Depression did in those places when people had little money to spend on eating out, Chinese or not.
... On the other side were the mom-and-pop (and the kids) takeout-and-delivery restaurants, the “chop suey joints,” often located in marginal neighborhoods and serving up the pseudo-Chinese cuisine favored by the untutored: chop suey, chow mein, egg foo young, egg rolls, super-dried “chow mein noodles,” and fortune cookies (reportedly invented in the United States).
... What life was like on the other side of the counter and in the kitchen has not been largely documented, but John Jung’s book bridges that gap. His history of life in Chinese restaurants in the small Southern (he was born in Macon, Georgia), Midwestern and Western towns where Chinese located to make a living is an important historical survey that contributes significantly to the recorded realities of Chinese life in the United States. Many are the Chinese restaurants that no longer exist and that are known today only through old telephone books and business directories. No doubt families still have memories and hold documents on those businesses, but if no John Jung looks for them they will not be found.
Chinese men did not cook in China unless they operated eating establishments as restaurants or street stalls, so why did they do so in America? The answer is to be found in the anti-Chinese activities and laws of the United States. The Chinese came here originally to find their fortunes in California’s gold mines in the mid 19th century, but when the gold was gone and Chinese labor helped complete the Trans-Continental Railroad, the Chinese had to find other means of livelihood. Thus, they provided services for White Americans, such as laundry and cooking, thereby becoming identified in the non-Chinese imagination as low-skilled laborers who were particularly adept at washing and cooking. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: this is what you can do so this is what you will do. With severe limitations on their employment opportunities, the Chinese made the most of the few opportunities afforded them, and yet prospered through hard work. And that’s how they wound up in restaurants.
...The numerous evocative photographs of people, restaurants, and menus included in the book provide valuable visual documentation. No doubt, many of the people and places depicted exist otherwise only in memories. Vignettes of individuals bring to life the personal blocks that build the larger story. The author takes a geographical approach to documentation of Chinese family restaurants and in so doing provides in-depth revelations about individuals and families. Who even knew there was a Chinese restaurant in Greenville, Mississippi, and in Savannah?
... Jung’s other books document life in Chinese laundries and in grocery stores in the Deep South beginning in the 1870s. What he documents are aspects of Chinese-American life that otherwise would be lost to history, and in recording these histories Jung has preserved slices of life that are rarely, if ever, treated in academic writing. In so doing, John Jung has rescued from obscurity the personal struggles and successes of immigrants who had little going for them except determination and hard work. Jung himself is an example of where it all led: he earned his PhD from Northwestern University and was a professor of psychology at the University of California, Long Beach, for four decades before shifting gears and embarking on a new career researching, speaking, and publishing on largely-unknown facets of Chinese-American life.
We are all beneficiaries of his dedication and his scholarship.