Why is Chinese food in America so different from what we see in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong? The film, The Search of General Tso, provides an insight to this phenomenon as it traces the history of a dish particularly popular with the Americans — General Tso Chicken. The film brings its audience to Hunan, China where the namesake is from, and to Taiwan to locate the creator of those sweet-spicy deep fried chicken. What at first looks like a superficial quest to ascertain the ownership of a dish turns out to be a bigger story about Chinese American history.
The items found in New York City’s Chinese groceries today, I can imagine, are baffling to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. What is one to do with a whole packet of duck tongues, black fungus, and dried bean curd sticks? (Answer: braise it, stir-fry it, and stew it, respectively) The very same items in the 1970s, a time when Chinese and all things about them were very much considered exotic, would have been deemed mysterious, or even dangerous, and required a caption to go along for the uninitiated. Perhaps seeing a need there, Milton Glaser, the man behind the overly adapted I love New York logo, created a chart-like poster to guide one through a Chinatown grocery. It explained items like preserved celery cabbage, thousand-year eggs, and even provided instructions for calculating with an abacus.
Commissioned by the International Design Conference, the poster was created in 1972—the same year Nixon went to China after decades of hostility and distrust between the two nations. Then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En Lai hosted a meal in Nixon’s honour and the live broadcast sparked off an explosion of interest in Chinese food. Prior to that, during the Cold War, communist and Chinese were synonymous to the Americans and so was their hatred towards them. Therefore, only in 1972 and the subsequent years would Glaser’s poster be of use to the mainstream Americans.
At the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) Annual Meeting & Conference this month, I presented a paper on the feminization of the early 20th century Chinese men in America, and how it led them to accept the traditionally feminine task of domestic cooking. The following is an adaptation of my five minutes speech. I have added more information for a more complete picture of my research.
I have always wondered why in my family, it is my father and my grandfather who cook. Now, we are not Americans, we are Singaporean Chinese, but like the story of many Chinese in the United States, my grandfather and his kinsmen from South China sought jobs in a foreign land. Women didn’t tag along, so the men cooked for themselves.
I wondered if this was the case for the American Chinese. Indeed, this was what sociologist Rose Hum Lee observed in her 1956 study on the marital relations of Chinese families in San Francisco. She noted that the husbands brought home groceries and taught their wives cooking. This was unthinkable in a patriarchal Chinese society.
Well, the men in America were no typical Chinese. They came to the United States in their youth and reached adulthood without too much womanly concern for their welfare, until the US government loosened its grip on Chinese immigration in 1947. Prior to that, the Chinese were the most hated community in the United States, because of reasons illustrated in the following picture. They were perceived as economic enemies who monopolized the industries, leaving the white men jobless. The results were institutionalized discriminations that I argue attributed to the egalitarian division of labor in Chinese’s marital homes as observed by Lee.
In 1882, United States enacted the Exclusion Act to restrict Chinese immigration to the United States. Prior to that, the Chinese community was already a predominantly male society because Chinese female immigrants were thought to be prostitutes, and therefore denied entry. Married Chinese men had little chance to reunite with their wives, while the bachelors could not start a family. Because these men could not demonstrate heterosexual norms, there were doubts on their sexuality. The early Chinese immigrants in the United States sustained the image of lesser men.
Boston University announced last month that it would add 15 new Chinese dishes to its residential dining menus. But the dishes did not impress the very people the dining services were courting.
In the comments section of the announcement published on BU Today, a news and information website managed by the university’s marketing and communications office, a student named Phyllis wrote, “I am from Beijing, China. The sad thing about this news is that none of the new added food item I have eaten or even heard of when I was in China… It is still American-Chinese food.”
Adding new Chinese dishes was part of BU’s effort to retain the Chinese students in campus housing after the mandatory stay period in freshman year. While 75 percent of American and non-Chinese students return to campus housing in their sophomore year, less than half of Chinese students do so, according to BU Today.
Other BU students from China and Taiwan expressed a similar sentiment. Most found dishes like “Sichuan chili chicken and eggplant, sticky rice”, “pho chicken bowl, ramen noodles” and “soy caramel beef lettuce wrap, glass noodle salad” perplexing. “Caramel beef?” said Jiaan Yu, a sophomore from Nanjing. She frowned and pulled back her head as she read the list of dishes. “Seriously these are Chinese food?”
The operatic sounds of boisterous voices, and rice bowls jingling as chopsticks dig in.
The ceramics clanging in the hands of acrobatic servers, among the familiar din of a Chinese restaurant
that comforts a lonely sojourner.