Home Research Research: before 1900 1881: Mythical American Chinese Restaurants, Part 2

1881: Mythical American Chinese Restaurants, Part 2

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The preceding article suggested that Chinese restaurants for non-Chinese were not early, at least in the U.S.  More evidence comes from George F. Seward's pioneering book (1) on Chinese immigration, published in 1881.  In an attempt to show that Chinese were not taking jobs away from European-Americans, Seward made an exhaustive study of Chinese employment in California.  He found that the main occupations of Californian Chinese immigrants were railroad building, reclaiming swamp lands, mining, farming, and fruit culture.  Each of those employed several thousand Chinese.  As many as 3000 Chinese worked in laundries, about half in white-owned establishments and the rest in places they owned themselves.  Perhaps 5000 worked as domestic servants, quite often as cooks in wealthy households.  3000 worked as cigar-makers, and almost a thousand in garment making,  Several hundred worked in each of various kinds of manufacturing -- boots and shoes, coarse woolen cloth, jute bags, candles, and brooms.  Other industries employed between 10 and 100 Chinese -- canneries for fruits and pickles and factories for hats and caps, lace and embroidery, glass, glue, leather, and gunpowder. 

But Seward said nothing about Chinese restaurants, even though he was listing all businesses where Chinese competed with whites.  This seems to show that Chinese restaurants in California in 1881 served mainly Chinese customers.  And, as the  Board of Supervisors' map (see above) shows, even Chinese restaurants aimed only at Chinese customers were not common in those days.  There were not many in San Francisco.  We know of no evidence that there were more elsewhere in California.  The Chinese-American restaurant boom on the West Coast may not have begun more than a few years before 1901, the year it began in Chicago.

Other countries were much earlier.  By 1890 Peru had many Chinese-owned restaurants that were patronized mostly by non-Chinese (2).  In Australia such restaurants appeared forty years before that.  The above picture, of John Alloo's Chinese Restaurant in the gold-mining district of Ballarat, dates to 1853.  It is the earliest picture we know of that depicts a restaurant operated by Chinese for non-Chinese customers.

It is not clear, incidentally, that any overseas Chinese restaurant regularly served Chinese food to non-Chinese before the 1890s.   In Peru and Australia, Chinese restaurateurs served only European-style food.  And even in Singapore, with its older and much larger Chinese immigrant community, Chinese restaurants "were not in abundance ... a Chinese, Li Chung Chu, wrote in 1887 of the very few Cantonese and European restaurants.  Feasting in wealthy Chinese homes was done in the gardens of private homes with Chinese food and European food." (3)

(1) George F Seward, Chinese Immigration in its Social and Economical Aspects.  New York: Scribner's.  1881
(2) Theodore Child, Impressions of Peru, Harpers New Monthly Magazine, vol 82, no. 488, p 262.  1891.
(3)  Wise, Michael. Travellers’ Tales of Old Singapore.  Singapore : Times Book International, 1996, p 134