So what first brought Chinese food to American shores? The answer: gold. It was the discovery of gold by one James W. Marshall of Sutter’s Mill in 1848 that caught the attention of merchants and tradesmen in Hong Kong, which was a cosmopolitan place in those days. Chinese entrepreneurs were well accustomed to dealing with European, English and American traders by then, and had little compunction about following the trade routes backward through Polynesia and up the American West Coast. The first dozen Asian 49er’s arrived by boat in San Francisco Bay in well, 1849.
More soon followed — mostly from the Pearl River Delta area northwest of Hong Kong — bringing with them basic food supplies like rice, dried fish, pickled vegetables and pots of condiments. Just add a few New World vegetables or meats and bingo — you had a meal. When the essentials ran out the solution was simple: nip back across the Pacific for more. As outlandish as it sounds, the Chinese had a big geographical advantage over the white folks in the supplies department. Whereas it took the lo fan in California about three months to receive goods sent by land (a land that included rivers, mountains and deserts) from New York, a boat that left from Macau could be unloading at Telegraph Hill after only about six weeks.
That was important considering the state of San Francisco at the time. Less a city than a supply dump surrounded by a campground, it had little infrastructure to sustain the wannabe prospectors that were pouring into it from all corners of the globe. And this was where some of the cannier Chinese merchants had an inspiration: instead of digging the gold up themselves, why not trade food for it? Your average San Franciscan was long on cash but extremely short on even the most basic comforts, like hot meals. But what to serve to the members of a polyglot culture who found most Chinese food — dare I say it — disgusting? The answer: whatever the heck they wanted to eat.
Of course the Chinese weren’t the first to create restaurants in San Francisco. However they were some of its most successful restauranteurs. Not only did many of them know how to cook for large groups (food catering as an industry dates back to the 11th century in China) they understood — if they didn’t quite agree with — European tastes and dining habits. Thus the first Chinese restaurants in America catered to Asians and Westerners alike, serving up curries and stir frys on the one hand, thick slabs of disgustingly rare meat and reeking cheeses — accompanied by knives forks and spoons — on the other. They were a safe bet for those who wanted sameness and an entertaining change of pace for diners in search of novelty.
They were also a considerable value. In 1850 in San Francisco an all-you-could eat Chinese meal (yes, they had those then too) could be bought for a dollar, an exorbitant some to be sure, but far less than the typical $2.50 that a normal plate of grub cost. So in a town with few women, where most people ate out three times a day, the gold piled up quick. More than a few Chinese restauranteurs sailed home to Guangzhou after only a year or so in business fat, happy and set up for the rest of their lives.
So began Chinese food in America, adulterated from the start, inauthentic to its core. It’s remained that way for 150 years, and Amen I say. Amen.