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On the night of 14 June 1904, New York’s Chinatown was plunged into a deep gloom

On the night of 14 June 1904, New York’s Chinatown was plunged into a deep gloom

A dish which arrived with the Gold Rush, spread with the railway and endured prohibition was Chinese by origin, but claimed by America.

For the past 20 years, it had thrived off the city’s seemingly insatiable appetite for chop suey. Every night, restaurants along Moot and Pell were thronged with sophisticates clamouring for a taste of ‘authentic’ Chinese cooking. But suddenly, all that seemed at risk. A few days earlier, a chef named Lem Sen had arrived from San Francisco. Chop suey, he claimed, was ‘no more Chinese than pork and beans’. In fact, he had invented it a decade before, while working at a ‘Bohemian’ restaurant in San Francisco. His recipe had been ‘stolen’ by an American diner, who had since grown rich off the profits. Now Lem wanted compensation. Through his lawyer, he demanded that restaurants stop making chop suey – or pay him for the privilege of using his recipe.

Happily, Lem soon dropped his suit. Even he must have known it was absurd. But the myth of the dish’s ‘American’ origins persisted. Over the next few ’s own and mocked those who were ‘gulled’ into believing that it was really Chinese. Even today, the expression ‘as American as chop suey’ can still be heard.

California Dreaming

There is little truth to any of this. But myths can be revealing. Consciously created to mask culinary realities with nativist pretentions or (in Lem Sen’s case) naive self-interest, the tales told about chop suey are a testament to the United States’ conflicted relationship with Chinese immigrants – and a witness to almost two centuries of curiosity and contempt.

Chinese people began settling in the US in the early 19th century. At first, their numbers were small, and most stayed only for short periods of time. But when gold was discovered in California in 1848, all that changed. Carried by clipper ships, word soon reached Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou that the pickings were so rich that it was possible to dig up as much as a kilo or more each day; and within months, hundreds of eager Chinese were flocking across the Pacific Ocean in the hope of making their fortunes.

San Francisco was their first port of call. Barely more than a village when the Gold Rush began, it was now thronged with people of every nationality – and was growing every day. Most of the new arrivals were men, with little more than a knapsack to their name. They lacked tools, clothing and, above all, provisions. It was to this need that the first wave of Chinese immigrants applied themselves. Though some headed to the gold fields, most set up as merchants, or as restaurateurs; and before long, a host of eateries festooned with yellow flags had sprung up all over town. They soon won a reputation for high-quality food and unusually low prices. An all-you-can-eat meal could cost as little as $1 – less than half the price of the meagre platters on offer elsewhere. The menus were also diverse. Though Chinese dishes were on offer, much of what they served was western in origin – and with rare exceptions, their ‘European’ customers were happy to stick to what they knew.

A History of Chop Suey

The Chinese population grew quickly. In 1851, around 2,700 people arrived in California; a year later, there was almost ten times that number. Inevitably, an ever growing proportion began to go into mining. But they did so in a manner of their own. When they landed in San Francisco, they were met by Chinese merchants who were contracted to supply the major mining firms with labour. They were then attached to a gang and hired out as a group. While this minimised linguistic difficulties, it also meant that they were paid less than Westerners, who tended to be employed as individuals. As a consequence, they were much in demand – so much so that, by late 1852, American miners feared they might soon be out of a job. A wave of hostility took hold. Attention often focused on the supposedly ‘bestial’ character of Chinese food. On 18 June 1853, the Weekly Alta California sneeringly claimed that the ‘Celestial’ shunned beef and bacon in favour of ‘rats, lizards … terrapins, rank and indigestible shellfish’, and ‘small deer’. A decade later, Mark Twain recalled that, visiting Mr Ah Sing’s restaurant, he and his friends had been offered ‘several small, neat sausages, of which … we suspected … each link contained the corpse of a mouse’.

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