- Reviewed by
With From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express, Haiming Liu of the Ethnic and Women's Studies Department of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, has given us an informative and useful social history of Chinese restaurants and their cuisine in the United States (but [End Page 356] not of Chinese food generally, as the subtitle suggests). He also provides capsule social histories of the ways in which food and food service stood for matters of ethnic identity among Chinese immigrants and communities in the United States and for relations between those immigrant communities and the surrounding US society. In these processes, elements of several Chinese regional cuisines have been adapted or creatively re-imagined to suit American tastes, but those tastes have also been widened through exposure over a number of years to an increasing variety of foods and foodstuffs from Chinese regional cuisines.
Chapters 1–4 describe a history of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Chinese restaurants in the United States and the foods they served, starting with the initial large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States at the time of the California Gold Rush. The Canton Restaurant of the book's title was a significant San Francisco Chinese eating establishment of the time, important to Americans for its good food and to the local Chinese community as a social and economic center. The first chapter presents compelling evidence that many of the initial Chinese immigrants to the Bay Area and Northern California (a very large percentage of whom were Cantonese, that is, from Guangdong Province in southeastern China and its capital city Guangzhou [Canton]) were merchants, not laborers as is usually assumed, who founded restaurants and many other businesses to supply the rapidly growing Bay Area and Northern California populations. The number and popularity of Chinese restaurants declined at the end of the nineteenth century, in part because of prejudice against Chinese immigration, but revived at the beginning of the twentieth century with the national popularity of chop suey (chao za sui in Mandarin, a dish quite unlike Americanized chop suey), a dish often and incorrectly portrayed in the US media of the time as the "national dish of China."
Chapter 5 provides a sidebar to this primarily chronological book by detailing the cultural and culinary connections of US Chinese restaurants and American Jewish communities, not just on Christmas Day but throughout the year. Chapter 6 describes the ascendance of Hunan cuisine, and of General Tso's Chicken in particular, in later twentieth-century Chinese restaurant menus. Interestingly, this cuisine came to the United States not from Mainland China directly, but via Taiwan, where many Nationalists from Hunan Province settled after the 1949 Revolution.
Chapter 7 relates the restaurant side of the rapid development of the burgeoning and fascinating Chinese American suburban communities in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles—collectively, the largest Chinese immigrant community in the United States and the focus of sociological studies, such as Wei Li's Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (University of Hawaii Press, 2011), in its own right. Chapter 8 provides a detailed business and culinary history of the chain restaurant operations P. F. Chang's and Panda Express, each a unique combination of Chinese, Taiwanese, and American business partners, culinary influences, target audiences, and property locations, which in sum make it clear that no one nationality "owns" Chinese cuisine. This chapter concludes with a general discussion of Chinese restaurant business practices. The final chapter examines the dumpling restaurant chain, Din Tai Fung, which began in Taiwan, "immigrated" to the United States, but more recently "returned" to Taiwan.
At its best (and this is true through most of the volume), From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express delivers a compelling and multifaceted series of explorations about the ways in which Chinese restaurants shaped and were shaped by social, cultural, and economic interactions between immigrants and the larger society into which they had arrived. However...