1849 & 1882: Mythical American Chinese Restaurants


The Internet contains many references to a San Francisco Chinese restaurant named "Macao and Woosung," started by Norman Asing in the year of the California Gold Rush, 1849.  The restaurant is said to have been the first of its kind in America and to have been such a success among European-Americans that it launched a fad for Chinese food that has lasted until modern times.  Several websites go on to say that by 1882, Chinese restaurants were in most major American cities.

We do not think this is true.  Norman Asing was indeed a real person.  He became an important spokesman for Chinese rights in the 1850s and was a successful businessman who may have opened a restaurant along with his other ventures.  However, that restaurant, even if it survived more than a year or two, certainly did not kick off any fad for Chinese food among non-Chinese diners.  As late as 1885, the Board of Supervisors' detailed map of San Francisco's Chinatown shows several hundred general merchandise stores, ten barber shops, ten-odd laundries, a hundred-plus gambling halls, 17 opium dens, 69 Chinese brothels, 36 white brothels, 13 temples ("joss houses"), and a total of 13 restaurants [data & map from Farwell 1885].  Even if most of these restaurants served mainly white customers, and there is no reason to think they did, this hardly constitutes a popular fad. 

In Chicago in 1882 we know of no indication that there were any Chinese restaurants at all.  It was not until the very late 1880s that contemporary newspapers began to mention Chinese restaurants occasionally.  All were in Chinatown on Clark Street and had a mainly Chinese clientele.  The first to be noticed by the (white) compilers of Chicago's Annual Directories was a restaurant named Hung Far Lo, which opened its doors on Clark Street in 1893.  Hung Far Lo may well have had some European-American customers.  However, no fad was visible yet.  Yearly issues of the Directory continued to list only one or two Chinese restaurants in Chicago down through the end of the century.  There was still only one in 1900.  But in 1901 there were seven and in 1905, thirty-nine.  As shown elsewhere in this website, a boom in Midwestern Chinese restaurants had begun.   Within a decade, one could find somewhat Americanized Chinese food in just about every medium-sized city in the region.

So we think that before 1890 in most parts of the U.S., the existence of Chinese restaurants is partly a myth.  We even have our suspicions about the claimed antiquity of Chinese restaurants in San Francisco and New York.  A few must have existed, aimed more or less exclusively at Chinese diners, as early as the 1850s or 1860s.  However, as shown by the Board of Supervisors' map, such restaurants were not common before the last decade of the 19th century, and cannot have been a particularly important feature of Chinese-American life before then. 

See Google entries for "Macao and Woosung" and "Norman Asing"

Also, Willard B. Farwell, The Chinese at Home and Abroad, San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft Co., 1885, page 118

Research & writing by Ben Bronson and Chuimei Ho; copyright 2004-2006 by the Chinatown Museum Foundation.