By 1860 the gold had pretty much run out. However by then tens of thousands of Chinese workers had emigrated to the U.S., mostly from the Pearl River Delta in the southern Guangdong province. The Chinese quarter of San Francisco had dozens of general stores selling all manner of merchandise shipped in from China. Some one thousand Pearl River fishermen were working San Francisco Bay, and Chinese farmers were mastering the art of vegetable growing in dry California soil.
So where to go from there? Someplace else, obviously. The experienced miners moved inland to exploit silver strikes being made in the areas that would eventually become Nevada and Idaho. Others moved outward along the California coast where they found work fishing, farming and logging. In 1863 a project that would become synonymous with Chinese labor was initiated: the Central Pacific Railroad. Founder Charles Crocker hired the first gang of 50 Chinese laborers in 1850 in hopes of replacing his drunken and unreliable Irish workers. The experiment worked, and shortly Chinese workmen by the hundreds, then thousands, were laying track, digging tunnels and laying bridges throughout the West.
Everywhere they went they brought their food with them. Stationary workers set up shops and planted gardens. On-the-go railroad workmen towed their groceries behind them in rail cars full of dried seafood, desiccated vegetables, dried sausages, bacon, tea, rice and tobacco. However since man cannot live on dried food alone, diets were supplemented by locally available meats and vegetables, also canned goods like corned beef and oysters.
In the 1870’s and 80’s as major railroad projects were finishing, workers would settle in whatever towns presented work or opportunity. Many became merchants, opened laundries and of course became restauranteurs. However just as in San Francisco, white locals were rarely up to the challenge of real deal Chinese cuisine. So standard frontier fare was the name of the game: eggs, pork chops, beefsteak, potatoes, bread, flapjacks and apple pie. Waiters and waitresses were frequently white, but in back the food was entirely made by Chinese hands. In the Southwest where trains can cattle went hand-in-hand, Chinese cooks ran chuck wagons, cooking up biscuits, beans, bacon, pies and coffee for cowboys out on the lonesome prairie.
Still, in their off hours or when at home with family, Chinese workers eschewed American foods in favor of more familiar tastes. Restaurants frequently set up back rooms or kitchen tables exclusively for Chinese customers. The world of stir frys and seaweed was a world where white people most feared to tread. But that was about to change, all thanks to one obscure Cantonese dish that would set a nation on fire.