- From Chow Chop Suey to Dishes in Cans: How Pennsylvania Chinese American Restaurateurs Lost to Racism, Ruffians, Reformers, and Economic Decline
- The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
- University of Pennsylvania Press
- Volume 142, Number 3, October 2018
- pp. 295-337
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Sophisticated mid-twentieth-century food critics—those who ate where Chinese Americans ate and ordered the dishes Chinese Americans ordered—wrote disparagingly of the chop suey that middle America adored. In the half century that followed, the story goes, white American taste slowly caught up with the critics. This paper changes the familiar story arc by beginning in the early twentieth century, an era of virulent anti-Chinese prejudice, when white Americans first took note of Chinese dishes and looked beyond their image as reviled immigrant food. Laundrymen exchanged their ironing boards for woks and opened Chinese American restaurants in cities and towns across the commonwealth, serving real Chinese food adapted to white American tastes. Pennsylvanians loved the food, but they were reluctant to patronize establishments they perceived to be dens of vice. Chinese Americans launched a systematic, coordinated effort to overcome the racist stereotypes. Despite their best efforts, few restaurateurs were successful. Chop suey eventually took its place on Pennsylvania tables, but it did so in the form of a deracialized concoction sold in the canned food aisle of grocery stores.