1901: The boom in Chinese restaurants begins

Thursday, 23 June 2011 13:42 Amy Gwilliam

Some historians say that Chinese restaurants became popular in Chicago because of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which featured a Chinese Cafe, or that they grew out of the famous dinner parties hosted on the East Coast for or by the Chinese diplomat, Li Hung Chang, in 1896.  However, neither story appears to be true.  The Annual Directories for Chicago list these numbers of Chinese restaurants for the period 1890-1915:

1890– 0

1891– 0

1892– 0

1893– 1

1894– 1?

1895– 2

1900– 1

1901– 7

1902– 15

1903– 22-4

1905– 40

1911– 68


The Directories missed one restaurant that opened 1889 (see below).  But it is clear that the Chinese restaurant boom did not begin until after 1900, and that before this Chinese restaurants were scarce in Chicago.

One reader has suggested that the earliest Chinese restaurants were for Chinese only, so that they may not have been counted in the Directory.  And yet the Directory's canvassers, who scoured each neighborhood for changes every year, knew Chinatown well and certainly knew what restaurants looked like.  It seems more likely that very few recognizable restaurants existed in the Chicago Chinese community before 1890, and that most Chinese Chicagoans ate at their workplaces or -- like most single male Chicagoans of all ethnic groups -- in their boarding houses. 

The first known Chinese restaurant in Chicago was the unnamed one in a basement at 329 Clark Street, in 1889.  The first to be noticed by the Directory's canvassers was Hung (or Hing) Far Lo, at 309 Clark Street, in 1893, the same year that the Chinese Cafe opened and then closed at the World's Columbian Exposition.  In 1895, Hung Far Lo was joined by Bung Hong Lo at 319 Clark.  Both, located in the old Chinatown, had disappeared by 1900, when the Wah Sing Co. opened at 221 West Randolph Street.  Wah Sing closed before the next year but was replaced by no fewer than seven new restaurants, three in Chinatown and four elsewhere in the Loop and South Side.  After that progress was rapid.  By 1903 Chinese menus were already appearing in Chicago newspapers.  By 1905 Chicago held forty Chinese restaurants, of which only five were in Chinatown.   By 1915, it held 118, of which no more than six or seven were in Chinatown.  It is clear that the great majority of Chinese restaurants were aimed at European-American customers.  The fad for Chinese food among non-Chinese was well underway.

This population explosion of Chinese restaurants meant that in a short time they passed laundries to become the main employers of Chinese labor.  It also meant that good cooks were in very short supply (which almost certainly influenced the rise of a distinctive Chinese-American cuisine -- see the Chop Suey lecture), and that Chinese-Americans who became restaurant owners had a new opportunity (a) to achieve merchant status in the eyes of the Immigration Bureau and ((b)) to join the upper middle classes in the eyes of non-Chinese.  Successful restaurateurs like Chin Foin were among the first Chinese to achieve real integration with European-American society in the Midwest.

We would be interested to know more about the chronology of the Chinese restaurant boom on the West and East Coasts.  It must have been earlier than 1901, but how much earlier?  And did the idea that Chinese immigrants could make a good living running restaurants for non-Chinese diners originate in the U.S., or did it come from Chinese in other countries?  For instance, by 1891 all lower- and middle-class restaurants in Lima, Peru, were owned and operated by Chinese, and this may also have been true of parts of the Caribbean.  We will not go so far as to claim that the idea of non-Chinese Chinese restaurants was imported to the U.S. from Latin America.  But some kind of foreign connection is possible, given the scope of the Chinese information network of those days.  A number of Midwestern Chinese had close Latin American connections.  Those connections could have made them aware that there was money to be made in running restaurants for non-Chinese diners.

Reuben H, Donnelley, compiler, The Lakeside Annual Directory of Chicago, 1890, 1891, 1892, 18793, 1894, 1895, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1905, 1911, 1915.  (The Chicago Directory Company, Chicago)

Theodore Child, Impressions of Peru, Harpers New Monthly Magazine, vol 82, no. 488, p 262.  1891.