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Dec 17, 2005 08:39 PM

Why Chinese food in New York was horrible until recently

  • b

I posted this on the Manhattan board about a certain restaurant in New York's Chinatown:

"I've never eaten there but I have looked in. It dates from the 1930s. At that time, the INS in its wisdom didn't let in any Chinese who could cook, so you'd have your choice between sweet and sour glop and gluey chop suey. I suspect it's that way today. It looks like the kind of place they'd film a 1940 film noir... you know, the kind where the narrator says, "I finally found Louie the Mutt in a greasy dive in Chinatown, the kind of joint where you could keel over from food poisoning and the waiters wouldn't notice." "

Someone asked me what the INS had to do with it. A lot. Here's the situation as I know it. If I have the history wrong, please correct me

Between 1850 and 1882, a large wave of Chinese immigrants broke upon our shores. Overwhelmingly male, they were poor laborers willing to do the most menial, difficult, demeaning work... and that's the work they were offered. None of them were trained chefs, few if any had ever eaten really good Chinese food. They were too poor. Then, in 1882, the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts were passed. These prohibited any Chinese not already here from entering the country. No Chinese people were allowed to become citizens.

And so, over the years, the Chinese population dwindled away, and Chinatown became an aging bachelors' club. They rarely ate out, except in coffehouses. (They did, funnily enough, develop a craving for canned creamed corn cooked with fish; that was their one culinary contribution.) Rich new immigrants, the kind who would demand high-quality Chinese food, couldn't enter. And if they had, they couldn't find a chef capable of cooking it, and they couldn't import one.

In the meantime, somewhere around the turn of the century, Americans began their love affair with Chinese food. (Before about 1890, it was thought disgusting and newspaper cartoons depicted Chinese eating rats.) But they couldn't get good authentic Chinese food (because the chefs could not be imported) and besides, they didn't want it. Some anonymous unsung hero invented a gloppy stew made from cornstarch and leftovers and called it "chop suey" and Americans couldn't get enough of it.

All this changed beginning in the late sixties. The immigration laws were finally liberalized, and Chinese immigrants once more poured in. Some were rich and wanted good food, and others were trained chefs who could cook it. And they weren't only Cantonese. Chefs and patrons from Taiwan, Shanghai, Fujian, even from Urumchi and Harbin came to spice up our lives.

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  1. Prior to World War II, "dining out" was generally truly a special occasion and nearly always meant French or Continental food. Even Italian food as we know it wasn't truly popular until after World War II.

    Most Americans still don't like authentic Chinese food -- while the New York-style Chinese food that everyone knows is quite tasty, it is certainly not "authentic". (I don't know that authenticity is such a desirable thing, actually -- if you want the true experience, go to China.) Ask somebody when the last time they ate soup with congealed pig's blood was, or tripe with liver sauce, or duck's webs and hoisin sauce, three mainstays of the Cantonese diet (when in Guangzhou).

    10 Replies
    1. re: Das Ubergeek

      Pig's blood cubes (it's not in soup tho), beef tripe and duck's feet (haven't seen it served with hoisin sauce either) are all served in most of the dim sum places in chinatown that have the carts.

      1. re: Jasper

        Yes, I have had all three and they are delicious!

        1. re: Brian S

          Yes, but you're a Chowhound. Ask one of the "mundanes" in New York whether they've ever had it -- chances are that the squick factor is pretty high for most people on that stuff.

          Chinese food as most people order it (General Tso's chicken, orange chicken, Mongolian beef, wor wonton soup) isn't exactly the pinnacle of cuisine, you know? I love it, it's tasty, but someone from China, even in 2005, would look at it and go "OMG STUPID AMERICANS WTF".

      2. re: Das Ubergeek

        I didnt arrive in NY until 69 but my sense was there were a handful of fine chinese cooks cooking both simple and fancy dishes in the US before the wave of growth.

        For example, there was an excellent restaurant serving classic cantonese dishes in my cols. Ohio hometown - the tastes of those dishes were correct - and there werent industrial eggrolls in those days either, so what you got was delicious.

        When I arrived in NY there were a whole flock of well established restuarants cooking excellent NE cuisine on the upper west side, among them Harbin Inn, Chun Cha Fu (?) and Great Shanghai. Mandarin Inn in Chinatown, also. Ill never forget a waiter at the second, in the early 70s scold me for ordering just a couple of types of dim sum starting out (they offered the northern kind of flaky pastry buns with sesame or with radish filling) - "In a big restaurant you dont order a bowl of soup" he said.

        there were good cantonese places in Chinatown, but it was hard to penetrate them in those days and get the delicious dishes.

        1. re: jen kalb

          Where in Columbus did you find excellent Cantonese? I probably missed it when I was there from 1970-80. I certainly didn't try most of the Chinese places in town; I guess I wasn't as adventurous an eater back then. Though I still remember one place downtown was busted for serving cat.

          But I am interested in knowing what I missed.


          1. re: e.d.

            Ming Tsai grew up in Dayton working at his parent's restaurant - I wonder if it's still there and if it was remarkable then (or now).

            1. re: e.d.

              jong mea on E. Broad, long gone; think they had an affiliated rest. in Indy. When I lived there, there were basically only 3 Chinese restaurants in Cols area, one on the West side (Ding Ho?) one in Olentangy village and Jong Mea. so the world has really changed.

              dont know about the cat story, tend to disbelieve.

              1. re: e.d.

                I think "busted for serving cat" is a racist urban myth that's been applied to any number of Chinese restaurants in the US.

                1. re: Rico Pan

                  Yes, it is often an urban myth etc. But I'm not making this up. Really happened back in the 70's. I had never eaten at the place, but it always ran newspaper ads for its cheap lunch specials.


            2. re: Das Ubergeek

              "Ask somebody when the last time they ate soup with congealed pig's blood was, or tripe with liver sauce, or duck's webs and hoisin sauce, three mainstays of the Cantonese diet (when in Guangzhou)."

              If you think those are the three mainstays of Cantonese diet (Guangzhou or otherwise), you need to expand your dining horizon.

            3. Interesting - I never knew this, but it explains a lot, especially the explosion of the quality and different types of Chinese cuisine in more recent times. Knowing that Chinese immigrants came over for the gold rush and helped build the transcontinental railroad, I used to wonder why the food was so monolithic - and often, so bad!

              I came to the US in 1962, having grown up in Japan. I still remember the wonderful food in Yokohama, the Chinatown for the entire Tokyo metropolis, and while I never put a specific label on it at that age, I knew it was different. The Yokohama train stations were renown for their shumai. I could never get anything like that here in the US when we came over.

              In doing some quick research, I found this article. It bears out the facts as you state in terms of the 1882 Exclusion Act - which basically stayed in effect until the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It does touch on food, but not in enough detail to talk specifically about the quality and regional issues.


              1. Chinese food as gourmet fine dining experience has fallen out of fashion in NY.

                Most younger people only know "takeout"

                That is changing. There is a revival of fine Chinese cuisine in NY.

                How much pasta can you eat, anyway?

                9 Replies
                1. re: Fleur

                  It has never fallen out of fashion ... among Chinese! However the younger generation has slightly different tastes, and a bunch of restaurants featuring bright neon and plastic decor and dishes from many regions (including such "delights" as spaghetti with chicken and melted cheese) have sprung up to serve them. Most of those places offer traditional dishes as well and do them very very well (in an attempt, usually successful, to attract the older traditionalists as well).
                  I would never in my life eat takeout. It ruins the presentation... and the atmosphere.

                  1. re: Brian S

                    Then you're missing something.

                    In the last few years -- mostly thanks to Chowhound -- I've been exposed to a lot of "authentic" Chinese food, both gourmet and in little holes in the wall in Chinatown and other Chinese enclaves.

                    But that doesn't mean I still don't occasionally call my local Chinese-American delivery place. It's comfort food to eat in my jammies when I'm too tired to shop or cook or even deal with a restaurant. In fact, there's some beef with snow peas, BBQ pork fried rice and garlic shrimp in the fridge right now.

                    And I thank God for delivery hot and sour soup when I'm laid low with some nasty virus.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      For me, to eat alone in my apartment is horribly depressing. For you, it's a relaxing, stressfree treat. I think there are some areas of food esthetics where it is possible to make objective value judgments. This isn't one of them. Whatever makes you happy is best. Bear in mind, though, that what makes that takeout food so delicious is huge quantities of invisible, luscious, but very high calorie oil.

                      1. re: Brian S

                        What makes restaurant food delicious is huge quantities of invisible, luscious, but very high calorie oil (or butter) -- chefs are not afraid to amp up the calorie content if it'll taste better or richer, and it doesn't matter if you are eating it "for stay" or "to go".

                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                          A lot of authentic Cantonese food, served in restaurants, has less oil than the takeout version. E.g. steamed fish, some of the casseroles.

                        2. re: Brian S

                          Some day, Brian, you'll reach an age where you'll begin to resent the tyranny of a rich social life. Home delivered foods, catalogue shopping, satelite hi-def TV and other agoraphobic delights best enjoyed in flannel pajamas will hold immense appeal. Last week, for instance, I was in Reno, Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle. It was mostly business, but I flew first class, stayed in fine hotels, ate excellent food and partied with some highly entertaining and/or attractive people; all on the company dime. What could be better, you ask? I'll tell you what could be better-lolling about the crib in your bathrobe (the one your wife keeps trying to give to the Amvets) with a beer at your elbow, a fat hooter at the ready, some great Chinese food on the way and a whole week-end of football on TV. Sooner or later, you'll come to realize that this is what life is really all about.

                          1. re: flavrmeistr

                            Flavrmeistr is a wise man. I done the same type of traveling and while I like it very much, I'm also happy to enjoy the simple pleasures of home.

                        3. re: Ruth Lafler

                          My feel-bad soup of choice has drifted from Korean hot and sour to Tom Ka Gai to Pho and now to Szechuan beef noodle. This is the stuff that will put the lead back in your pencil. It is nourishment for the body and medicine for the soul.

                        4. re: Brian S

                          I dunno, Brian, I've been in some incredibly divey Chinese places in New York where I ended up wishing I could have taken the (great) food out of the (crappy) surroundings. I do have to say, delivery in Manhattan takes the cake -- nowhere else in the country do so many restaurants deliver so cheaply.

                      2. Historically pretty accurate up until the 60's. But even with the liberalization of the migration laws (before the 60's there were quotas for different countries. China had one quota. But of course very few people migrated from China. Hong Kong was lumped in with the quota for Great Britain. Therefore very few Chinese from HK could immigrate either.), Chinese cooking was good only in very few places with large concentrations of Chinese, such as San Francisco.

                        In the early 80's large numbers of Taiwanese migrated to the US, partly due to exceptional economic conditions in Taiwan (people were getting very wealthy). Wealthy Taiwanese don't want their children subjected to the mandatory military draft, so they sent their children to Monterey Park, while the parents remain in Taiwan to make money. A couple of Chinese from LA went to Taiwan to drum up the attraction of Monterey Park, which led to the establishment of the first Chinese suburb.

                        In the late 80's huge wave from Hong Kong migrated outward, mainly to Canada, because of the treaty between China and Great Britain to return HK to China.

                        These two more recent events directly led to the huge jump in the quality of Chinese food in Canada (Vancouver and Toronto) and the US (mainly Monterey Park).

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Peter

                          The Nixonian "detente" policies of the early seventies brought a large high-end Chinese population to the Washington DC metropolitan area. Though there is only a nominal Chinatown in DC proper, the outer suburbs are loaded with many outstanding restaurants supported by large immigrant populations from virtually every province of China. It's a truly wonderful aspect of life here in the Nation's Capital.

                          1. re: Flavrmeistr

                            Usually, it's revolutions that benefit DC gourmets as embassy chefs defect. Mengistu came to power in the early 70s, and suddenly... wonderful Ethiopian restaurants all over Adams-Morgan.

                            1. re: Brian S

                              Winners or losers, they all show up here eventually. Which is fine with me.

                              Allah enjoys infinite variety.


                            2. re: Flavrmeistr

                              The weird thing is that I really miss DC's Asian food - not just the Taiwanese dimsum at A & J's (have yet to find as good a fan tuan here), or pho at Seven Corners. For some reason there's just more variety of Asian food in DC, despite us having a larger population.

                              More importantly, Peking Duck House does not have as good duck as Virginian duck houses! If someone can help me find good fan tuan, I would be very grateful - Ren Ren in Flushing isn't bad, but I'd like better. Also the same with peking duck...

                          2. I'm the "someone" who called you on your statement "the INS in its wisdom didn't let in any Chinese who could cook." I'm well aware about the change in immigration rules that happened at the turn of the century but the cartoonish way that you phrased your comment begged for a response. Yes, the immigration policy kept out great Chinese chefs. It also kept out great Chinese doctors, plumbers, and baseball players. Why single out chefs?

                            Oh yeah - Chinese food in New York wasn't "horrible until recently." In the late 1970s, over 25 *years* ago, I worked for HRA at 250 Church Street for 4 years, a 10 minute walk from Chinatown. By that time there was a turnaround underway in Chinese restaurants and there were a number of good to great choices available. House of Taiwan, a first rate Szechuan restaurant, was where I introduced my kids to Chinese food when they were 5 and 6 years old.

                            Hwa Yuan, at both it's East Broadway and Main Street Flushing branches was also serving great Szechuan food 20 years ago. I'm sorry you missed it.

                            Yes, the overall improvement in the range of Chinese cuisine has continued but as long as we're talking about history it's always nice to get the facts right and avoid overly broad statements.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Bob Martinez

                              You wrote: "Oh yeah - Chinese food in New York wasn't "horrible until recently." In the late 1970s, over 25 *years* ago"

                              By recently, I meant after 1965, when the immigration laws changed. I'm not that old, I should hasten to add. I was just taking a historical perspective.

                              1. re: Brian S

                                I'm crossposting back to the Wo Hop thread on the Manhattan board because most of what I have to say IS about their food. However, for this thread, I just want to point out that a lot of good food in small ethnic restaurants is produced by those whose backgrounds are more "home cooking" than "formally trained chef". The immigration policies didnt really touch that back in the 60s or even now. I doubt Mina came here (I think she's an immigrant, yes?) listing her occupation as chef. It's still very good. And a lot of Chinese restaurants in Manhattan's C'town were similarly very good in the '60s & '70s. And I am that old to remember.

                              2. re: Bob Martinez

                                "Yes, the immigration policy kept out great Chinese chefs. It also kept out great Chinese doctors, plumbers, and baseball players. Why single out chefs?"

                                Great Chinese doctors, plumbers, and baseball players are discussed over on our sister sites Pillhound, Pipehound, and Ballhound, respectively