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  • Mixed with All the Hokum and Bally Hooey:'Chinese Food' and America
  • Shiamin Kwa (bio)
Haiming Liu. From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015. xi, 240 pp. Paper $27.95, isbn 978-0-8135-7474-5.

I did not learn that I ate "Chinese food" until I was fourteen years old. By this time, I had lived in Kuala Lumpur, London, Brookline (Massachusetts), Newark (Delaware), and, finally, Tampa. I ate food at home, food in cafeterias, food in other people's homes, and food at stalls and restaurants all over the world. But until I went to my friend Chris's house, and his father said "So, Chris tells me that your house smells like Chinese food," I never thought that while my friends ate "food," I ate "Chinese food." Or, for that matter, that Chinese food clung to me and to my house. To me, this assertion seemed distinctly more complicated than already complicated questions I encountered constantly, like what was meant by the more typical and nearly incapacitating: "Where are you from?"

Did my house smell? And if it did, did it smell of food? And what did it mean that it smelled of Chinese food? I knew that I ate food, and food of all sorts. There were distinctions between kinds of foods, but those distinctions were on the level of nomenclature: pork chop, chicken rice, Sizzler, pizza, Campbell's soup, pho. It was all food. We ate it all. We individually liked some dishes better than others, understanding that as a question of personal taste. But now, in this new light, food was something that defined me and, it was clear, defined me as different. It made me, in all senses and valences of the word, smell.

To be sure, the smell of Chinese food was not explicitly expressed by my friend's father as a negative quality; it did not have to be. As it turns out, this Chinese smell assaulting the American nose has been recorded since American noses started encountering the Chinese on their shores and lanes in the nineteenth century. The newsman, Samuel Bowles, recorded in detail the lush banquet he attended in the company of a mixed group of white Americans, prominent Chinese merchants, and managers of the "Six Companies," the umbrella group of overseas Chinese men who oversaw and eased the transit of [End Page 1] immigrants from different regions of China to the west. Bowles, while harboring sometimes generous sentiments towards the Chinese, reserved none of them for describing their food. Treated to a costly and extravagant multi-course banquet that lasted for five hours and spared no expense in its presentation and choice of exotic ingredients, Bowles opines:

The dinner was unquestionably a most magnificent one after the Chinese standard; the dishes were many of them rare and expensive; and everything was served in elegance and taste . . . But as to any real gastronomic satisfaction to be derived from it, I certainly 'did not see it' . . . I went to the table weak and hungry; but I found the one universal odor and flavor soon destroyed all appetite.1

This attitude towards the "one universal odor and flavor" of Chinese food, capable of inducing anorectic response in the previously ravenous, is borne out in the itemization of many similarly phrased statements by other chroniclers of the time. Yong Chen notes that the problem associated with olfactory cues signal broader cultural projections, citing as an example the missionary Otis Gibson's 1877 title The Chinese in America:

The Chinese smell is a mixture and a puzzle, a marvel and a wonder, a mystery and a disgust; but nevertheless, you shall find it a palpable fact. The smell of opium raw and cooked, and in the process of cooking, mixed with the smell of cigars, and tobacco leaves wet and dry, dried fish and dried vegetables, and a thousand other indescribable ingredients; all these toned to a certain degree by what may be called a shippy smell, produce a sensation upon the olfactory nerves of the average American, which once experienced will not soon be forgotten.2...