The Sour Side of Chinese Restaurants

John Jung Over the past century, Chinese restaurants became one of the most popular cuisines all across the United States and Canada, as well as in many other countries. The primary business of Chinese immigrants in North America in the late 19th century was the hand laundry but more Chinese began to open Chinatown cafes by the end of the 19th century. Whereas laundries relied primarily on non-Chinese customers, cafes served Chinese laborers, mostly bachelors, with dishes familiar to their village roots. Gradually, these eateries gained acceptance and patronage by non-Chinese customers although the menu offerings had to accommodate non-Chinese tastes. They increased rapidly in number, spreading to regions with few Chinese. By the early 1920s, restaurants overtook hand laundries as the most prevalent form of self-employment for Chinese because as one observer wrote, “Nowadays the entire public is eating Chinese dishes and thinks nothing of it.” Chinese restaurants range from small family-run restaurants, generally located in or near residential neighborhoods, to larger ones in Chinatowns with hired employees. Whereas the small restaurant often operated with the help of family members, and

perhaps a few employees, the larger ones that served banquets typically required investments from many partners and hired managers, cooks, waiters, and other staff to handle actual operations. For example, one restaurateur in the early 1900s started with $5,000 and four partners. He expanded to three restaurants by 1924 with the investment of $100,000 from 40 partners, some in China who had never been to the United States.


Despite their popularity, Chinese restaurateurs faced many daunting problems that have not been apparent to the dining public. Financial success was by no means a certainty and many failed. Some problems were largely beyond their control such as public ignorance, fears, and distrust of an unfamiliar cuisine. These attitudes blocked acceptance of Chinese restaurants for decades. In addition, Chinese restaurants often faced government regulations and health issues related to business operations. In contrast, problems such as poor management, inexperience dealing with nonChinese patrons, and personnel problems were often due to inept business skills and decision-making. Taken as a whole, these problems added a decidedly sour taste to the operation of Chinese restaurants. External Barriers Societal Prejudices Against Chinese In the earliest days of Chinese restaurants, whites were generally disdainful toward Chinese food, which was foreign to them and often contained unfamiliar ingredients. This situation should not be surprising because the earliest Chinese restaurants were frequented almost entirely by Chinese. The bill of fare featured dishes that appealed to the Chinese such as salted fish, webbed duck feet, pig stomach, intestines, and fish heads. Before the late 19th century, a handful of adventuresome whites did explore and come to appreciate Chinese food, but their efforts to persuade other whites to venture into Chinese restaurants were generally unsuccessful. Further discouraging the acceptance of Chinese restaurants among non-Chinese were commonly held views that Chinese ate dogs, which was true in parts of China. Chinese restaurants did not initially attract “foreign” customers for other reasons


such as they are “not located on the ground floor, like solid American restaurants, but set up two or three flights of stairs, and there were no menus, and the smells seemed awful, but it was all this that made them exciting for the young of the “gay nineties.”1 A typical negative viewpoint expressed in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1890 described the atmosphere of a Chinese restaurant with its offensive smells and „queer viands‟ as follows: …the visitor ascends a narrow, uncarpeted stairway to the second floor. He is not half way up before his nose tells him that he is in peculiar quarters. It is impossible to describe the smell of a Chinese restaurant. It is something like a mixture of burnt wool, strong tobacco and black tea. It is almost always offensive at the first, but the visitor soon becomes accustomed to it. The writer continued in a condescending tone: This is a sauce, which you are supposed to pour into your soup. What its ingredients are is a mystery not given to Occidentals to know.” In describing a dish that contains pieces of tender meat, he asserted, “This meat is alleged to be beef or veal. What it really is there is no need to inquire, as it is toothsome.” There were some things on the bill of fare that the reporter passed on, although his attentive host assured him that they were “puty good.2 Chop Suey Turned The Tide An unexpected popularity of chop suey among white patrons at the end of the 19th century was a major factor in the acceptance of Chinese restaurants.3 One explanation for this interest originated in the gold mining regions of the west. In this version, some drunken, hungry white miners descended upon a Chinese restaurant late one evening

A. Bonner. Alas! What Brought Thee Hither?: The Chinese in New York, 18001950. (Madison, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996). Grace Mayer. “Once upon a city: New York from 1890 to 1910.” Once A Week (1958): 417-418. Renqiu Yu, “Chop Suey: From Chinese Food to Chinese American Food,” Chinese America: History and Perspectives (1987): 87–100.
3 2



demanding food.

The cook had run out of food at the end of the day, but being

resourceful, he gathered all the cuttings from vegetables and meat left over and quickly stir-fried them to create “chop suey” which the miners enjoyed and continued to order in the future. A different view on the east coast was that an unlikely event in 1896 proved to be a turning point in the acceptance of Chinese food by mainstream society. This story centered on the 1896 visit to the U. S. of a prominent Chinese diplomat, Li Huang Chuang. One evening, tired of American banquet meals, he expressed a desire for Chinese food. Unfortunately, the local Chinese restaurant had run out of food at the end of the day. However, the cook quickly improvised by tossing together a stir-fried concoction of odds and ends left over from the preparation of earlier dishes. The diplomat enjoyed the dish, and when asked for its name, was told, “chop suey,” (which can be translated as “odds and ends”). Newspaper accounts across the country about this dish kindled curiosity among whites. Chop suey, a dish previously unknown to whites, became an overnight sensation that led many young white businessmen and professionals to venture into the unsavory and dangerous Chinatowns in many cities for a first-hand taste. Newspapers referred to these excursions of groups of young whites into the dark and mysterious Chinatown as “slumming.” 4 By 1901, “chop suey joints,” as these restaurants were called, became popular especially with “bohemians” as one New York Tribune reporter lamented: The cooks are invariably true Celestials… the food is prepared, therefore, according to the most approved methods of the Middle Kingdom, with the result that in cheapness and savoriness (if you like it) it can easily outclass similar places run by

“Chinatown „Slumming‟ Parties Are Now the Fad.” Washington Times, 1903.


American cooks. Moreover despite appearances, the food is prepared in an extremely cleanly manner…There is also a free and easy atmosphere…which attracts many would-be” Bohemians as well as a goodly share of a class below the lowest grades of the city‟s many graced?5 He suggested Chinese restaurants appealed mainly to certain classes and that its popularity was not a mere fad for several reasons. The cooks are invariably true Celestials…. the food is prepared, therefore, according to the most approved methods of the Middle Kingdom, with the result that in cheapness and savoriness (if you like it) it can easily outclass similar places run by American cooks. Moreover despite appearances, the food is prepared in an extremely cleanly manner…There is also a free and easy atmosphere…which attracts many would-be” Bohemians as well as a goodly share of a class below the lowest grades of the city‟s many graced?6

Phooey on Chop Suey Although newspaper accounts acknowledged the increasing popularity of chop suey, they invariably also found something to criticize. In 1912, a writer complained: It is true that the average Chinese cook becomes as inscrutable as the Sphinx when asked by a "foreign devil" for a recipe, and even when, under exceptional circumstances, he is induced to part with one, he generally leaves out a vital ingredient, so that the American seldom really obtains the true Chinese dish.7 Price Fixing By Chinese Criticism of Chinese restaurants reflected the pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment and suspicion. The Federated Trades and Labor Union boycotted Chinese restaurants, charging that Chinese restaurateurs in Chicago conspired to keep their food prices high by

5 6 7

Ibid. Ibid.

“Growing Popularity of Chop Suey,” ProQuest Historical Newspapers The San Francisco Chronicle (1865-1922), 1912: 6.


creating a “chop suey trust, so that “You pay or you don't eat.” 8 Similar views were expressed across the country. 9 10 11 Chop Suey And Sin Fears of interracial sexual encounters arose from the growing popularity of Chinese restaurants, which increased the mingling of Chinese and whites.12 Chop suey houses were portrayed as hangouts for riff-raft. They served whiskey and beer to soldiers and sailors and permitted the presence of girls as young as 16 years of age. A crackdown on immoral behavior in New York City led to a series of raids on chop suey joints. In one instance police questioned over 1,000 patrons about why they were at objectionable restaurants late at night and detained 119 men and 68 women. In 1915, one Chinese was charged with luring two young girls to his chop suey joint and assaulting one after giving them whiskey. 13 In 1921, two Chinese were arrested

“Now for A Chop Suey Union. Federation of Labor Will Try to Organize the Chinese Restaurant Workers.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1903). The “Yellow Peril” hits Prescott hard. Chinese restaurant keepers in northern city.” (1906, December 27). Tucson Daily Citizen. Tucson, AZ.
10 11 12 9


“Investigates high cost of chop suey,” Boston Daily Globe, Nov. 18 1920, 17.

"Union to Boycott Chinese Chop Suey." Duluth News-Tribune, 1905, 11.

“Chinese Mix Sin with Chop Suey. Investigators Find Laws of Morality and Health Ignored in Many Places. WHITE GIRLS EMPLOYES. And Boys Escorting Mere Children Are Patrons in Oriental Restaurants.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963) Proquest Historical Newspapers: March 27,1910, 3. Yee Hee, a Chinese Held. Police Believe They Have Oriental Who Lured Girls. Kansas City Star, April 8, 1915, 3.


for allegedly enslaving two white girls in Chinese dens in New York.14 In the same year, investigators raided a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia where they arrested a Chinese and his white wife who were found with opium valued at $1000.15 Widely publicized incidents such as these cast suspicion on all Chinese restaurateurs. Health Issues Related to Chop Suey In 1899, Board of Health Inspectors seized and destroyed 2,000 pounds of Chinese vegetables from stores because: “…they, not being epicures and their olfactory organs not having been trained to a nice appreciation of what constitutes a delicate, savory odor to the Celestial sense of small, laid sacrilegious hands upon the ingredients of which chop suey is composed… these and other vegetables are imported in a green state, and are kept until they are rotten ripe, when they are ready for the chef to make up into the aforementioned chop suey and other fearful and wonderful dishes that to the Chinese are delectable…”16 Regulations Affecting Chinese Restaurants Discriminatory laws against Chinese hampered the operation of Chinese restaurants for decades. For example, restaurateurs complained in 1988 that Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) restrictions made it difficult to hire enough cooks, waiters, and other workers. Chinese restaurants in Washington, D. C. reported difficulty in finding employees because of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act against hiring of illegal immigrants and stricter rules on bringing in temporary workers. The INS

Philadelphia Girls Held as White Slaves in Chinese Dens. Young Women Lured to New York Cause Two Arrests Here. Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1921, 1, 5.

“Drugs Jail Chinese and White Woman. Waiters Battle Agents, Who Locate $1000 in Opium in Celestial's Restaurant.” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 23, 1921, 3.
15 16

“Made a Raid in Chinatown.” New York Tribune, Mar 10, 1899.


fined some owners for failing to fill out employment forms accurately.



complained that INS raids at their restaurants harassed legal as well as illegal workers, an inconvenience which hurt their businesses. 18 Health Fears Related to Chinese Food Monosodium glutamate (MSG), used by cooks in Japan for centuries was widely used in Chinese restaurants as a flavor enhancer until the 1960s when concerns about its health risks arose.19 A reader's letter in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 about symptoms of numbness at the back of the neck, weakness and palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants was dubbed the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”20 However, Chinese food includes numerous components that can cause sensations and symptoms like those attributed to MSG such as food dyes, preservatives, histamines in fermented sauces, salt, cooking wine, and the allergenic proteins in crustaceans, fish, peanuts and fish. Glutamate is an amino acid present in many foods including mushrooms, tomatoes, and cheese, ingredients that exist in many other cuisines. Yet few complaints of hot flushes have been reported after eating spaghetti, for example, which also contains glutamate. Karlyn Barker “Chinese Restaurant Owners Complain To INS About Worker Restrictions.” Washington Post, 1988: D3

Frank Ching, “Drive Seeks End to Chinese Restaurant Raids,” New York Times (1923-Current File) ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008) March 12, 1971, 39. Accessed April 1, 2013.


Lyons, Richard D. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome‟ Puzzles Doctors.” New York Times (1923-Current File); May 19, 1968; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008), May 19, 1968, 68.



Controlled studies conducted over more than 40 years have failed to find a consistent relationship between the consumption of MSG and the symptoms that comprise the syndrome. 21

In one controlled study, 23 participants were told that the

study was an evaluation of a new soft drink. The instructions did not include the term, “MSG,” or words like "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" or "adverse effects." Participants received capsules, which did or did not contain MSG at dose levels found in meals, followed by a breakfast of muesli bars and flavored milk for three days. For another two days, they were given a soft drink, which did or did not contain MSG, followed by the same breakfast. Although 15 per cent of those receiving MSG reported some of the usual range of symptoms, the placebo condition elicited a comparable response of 14 per cent. The majority of participants reported no negative reactions to either MSG treatment or to the placebo. However, despite the lack of any definitive study demonstrating ill effects of MSG, the belief is so persistent that many Chinese restaurants no longer use MSG and take efforts to assure customers that it is not used in their food preparation. Chinese Food and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) An outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 in Hong

Matthew Freeman. “Reconsidering the effects of monosodium glutamate: a literature review.” J Am Acad Nurse Practice, 18, 10 (October 2006), 482-486. Alan Saunders. “Chinese restaurant syndrome is a myth.” Sydney Morning Herald (Australia). Spectrum, 1994, 6. Len Tarasoff and Michael F. Kelly. (1993). "Monosodium L-glutamate: a double-blind study and review." Food Chem. Toxicol. 31 (12): 1019–1035.
23 22



Kong was believed to be associated with eating infected poultry, pigs, and wild fowl. 24 This crisis contributed to fears of Chinese restaurant food in other countries. In 2003, email allegations that some Chinese restaurants were associated with SARS harmed patronage in many cities with large Chinese populations including New York City, Toronto, and the San Gabriel Valley in southern California.25 Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) and Chinese Food Health authorities blamed an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Britain on frozen pork smuggled from Hong Kong or southern China where FMD is endemic. Chinese immigrants from those regions own over 90 per cent of the Chinese restaurants and takeaways in Britain. 26 An estimated 1,500 people representing about 160 organizations in London protested to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 2001 as sales in Chinese restaurants and supermarkets dropped by 40 per cent in London and 25 per cent in Scotland. A Chinese complained that: The issue is the disrespect of the Chinese community…You have a cat go missing and it is said it's ended up in a Chinese restaurant, we are supposed to steal the pigeons from Trafalgar Square, take the ducks from the duck pond and the fish from the fishpond.27 Britain's Chinese angrily demanded proof from the Ministry of Agriculture that

ull.story Accessed Feb. 10, 2013. 26 Alfred Lee, “Chinese restaurant the source of FMD in Britain? ” The Straits Times (Singapore) March 28, 2001.
25 27



the disease which had devastated farms around Britain was caused by pigswill containing contaminated meat smuggled from Asia to a Chinese restaurant. 28 The Agriculture

Minister denied such media reports of such findings.29 New outbreaks of FMD in Britain occurred in 2007 as well as in other countries later.30 General Health Concerns About Chinese Restaurant Food Concerns about high fat and high sodium in Chinese food also had adverse impact on Chinese restaurant business.31 A report of The Center for Science in the Public Interest concluded “the typical Chinese restaurant menu is a sea of nutritional no-nos.”32 In the early 1980s, California passed a law that prohibited sales of raw duck left unrefrigerated for a period of more than two hours. Chinese obtained an exemption in 1986 for the Chinese-style of cooking whole roast duck to allow selling it in restaurants even four hours after the duck was cooked, provided the methods used inhibited the

Chris Gray. “Chinese Stirred Into Action By Racist Smears And Slanders.” The Independent (London) April 7, 2001, 3. David Brown and Andrew Sparrow. “We don't blame Chinese, says Brown. The Agriculture Minister has angrily attacked 'racist' reports that restaurants were to blame for the outbreak.” The Daily Telegraph (London) April 09, 2001, 4.
30 29

28 Accessed May

20, 2013. Lena Williams. “Chinese Say Study Hurts Restaurants: Chinese Say Food Study Has Harmful Effect on Restaurants.” New York Times (1923-Current File); Sep 29, 1993; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1988), September 29, 1993. Accessed May 20, 2013.
32 31


growth of microorganisms that can cause food infections.33 In 2011, California passed a bill outlawing the sale of shark fins which high-end Chinese restaurants use for preparing a delicacy, shark fin soup. 34 Five other states have similar bans and New York is considering a similar law.35 Dangers for Chinese Restaurants Restaurant Robberies and Assaults Incidents of robberies, assaults, and even homicides, far too numerous to cite, have occurred in Chinese restaurants in the past with no end in sight. A few examples serve to illustrate these dangers. In 1907, an Omaha restaurant keeper was robbed of $100 and brutally killed with a meat cleaver.36 Another Chinese restaurant owner was robbed, murdered, and cremated when his building was set on fire in Domingo, New Mexico.37 In 1980, a restaurant owner in Queens, New York, tried to prevent a holdup by two men by pulling his gun from behind the counter around midnight, but the robbers shot and


Peking Duck Law Cooks California Rule’s Goose. Toledo Blade, July 7, 1982,


Accessed May 22, 2013.


p Accessed May 20, 2013.


Thieves Beat Chinese. Restaurant Keeper in Omaha Robbed of $100 Idaho Statesman (Boise, ID, July 12, 1907), 6. Jim Sing Victim of Assassin Says Klock. Chinese Restaurant Keeper at Domingo Murdered, Probably Robbed of Considerable Money and Body Cremated. Albuquerque Journal, May 27, 1910, 8.


killed him.38

Incidents similar to these cases have occurred all over the country for

decades and continue to be a risk for Chinese restaurateurs. Violence in Chinese restaurants is not always directed toward the restaurant owner or staff. Gun battles have occurred between rival gangs inside restaurants. A horrific incident in San Francisco in 1977 involved a late night ambush against a rival gang in the Golden Dragon restaurant by a gang of Chinese youth retaliating for a previous attack. This action killed 5 innocent bystanders, including two tourists, and wounded 11, which sharply reduced restaurant patronage in Chinatown for many weeks.39 Attacks on Take-out Delivery Men Many Chinese restaurants provide home food delivery, but it is a service that is very taxing on deliverymen who must rush, usually on bicycles, to impatient customers before the food gets cold. Not only do they receive low pay and often poor tips for the long work hours in dangerous traffic and often bad weather. They are easy targets for robbery, and in some instances, violence and even death.40 An illustrative incident in North Andover, MA in 2009 involved the robbery and killing of a Chinese delivering a food order late at night to an isolated address. That “Queens Restaurant Owner Slain As He Thwarts Holdup by 2 Men.” New York Times (1923-Current File); Apr 13, 1980; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008), 37, n.d. acre. Accessed Feb. 4, 2013.
39 38


story-behind-bulletproof-glass-and-out-bike-chineserestaura?page=all&utm_source=LF+Newsletters&utm_campaign=faae9e7398 Accessed Jan. 22, 2013.


location proved to be unoccupied and this fake order was traced to a throwaway cell phone.41 Conflicts also exist between restaurants owners and deliverymen regarding working conditions and wages. Deliverymen charge they are given demanding schedules and fined if they are late in their deliveries. When demand is high such as when the weather is very cold, they must work even if it is their day off or risk being fired. One owner charged that deliverymen lie to extort money from him since his business is heavily dependent on home delivery.42 Extortion from Chinese Youth Gangs In addition to the dangers of robbery, restaurant owners also faced the threat of extortion by Chinese youth gangs. Unable to compete with better educated American Born Children (ABC) youth, the new or Fresh Off the Boat (FOB) youth arriving in the late 1960s found it difficult as they lacked English language proficiency and the skills and training for many jobs so some turned to gangs that exploited Chinatown businesses. In the early 1970s youth gangs formed that were predatory, threatening unpleasant consequences for restaurant owners unless they paid protection money. They demanded food and money from Chinatown businesses and robbed illegal gambling establishments.43 44

reinstated-in-killing-of-deliveryman/print Accessed March 1, 2013.
42 43

41 Accessed Feb. 15, 2013.


Around holidays, especially Chinese New Year, the gangs expected “lucky money” from merchants. Some demanded that merchants buy goods from them at outrageously inflated prices. Some stole goods or ate in restaurants and left without paying. The refusal of some victims to report the crimes for fear of reprisals impeded investigations. For example, Suffolk County police on Long Island, New York at least two unreported robberies at Chinese restaurants in 1986.45 Other Harmful Actions Although less serious than robberies and violence, Chinese restaurant operators face other insulting and demeaning actions from customers such as leaving without payment, not leaving tips, and making racial epithets. One Chinese described some of the racial abuse that some customers directed at them. Most were racial slurs, terms like "Chinamen," "chinee," and"chink" directed at us. On the whole most customers were OK; however, it was during the time of the Sonoma County Fair which ran for about a week then, when we would get the fair crowd who were most abusive. The worst incident was one when one of the customers threatened one of my sisters physically. They had order multiple dishes, and tried to hide a few of the emptied dishes after eating, and argued about the bill. My sister saw the hidden dishes and pointed them out and that is when one of the party got up and threatened her. I asked my sister to come in, the customer followed, so I turned up the fire on the oil wok and had my sister get behind me. I told the fellow if he came into the area, I'd toss hot oil on him; he backed down, paid the bill in full, and left.46 Accessed May 1, 2013.

Gang Is Preying On Chinese Restaurants On L.I. New York Times, Jan. 5, 1986. Section 1, 26.


e-mail to John Jung from Ralph Young, Sept. 29, 2009.


Telephone prank take-out orders present an annoying and time-wasting nuisance that plague Chinese restaurateurs. Some pranksters record and upload their fake takeout orders on YouTube speaking in mock Chinese or placing orders using fake Chinese food names.47 Ecological Concerns The increase in takeout orders since the 1960s led to wide use of disposable wood chopsticks. Concerns, however, about the ecological impact of the destruction of trees to make chopsticks led China in 2008 to ban their use, a move that also raised questions about their use in the United States.48 Real and Imagined Negative Aspects of Chinese Restaurants Chinese restaurants have earned recognition for serving delicious food at low prices. However, they also have a long-standing dubious reputation for having

questionable sanitary premises and practices although this situation is by no means limited to Chinese restaurants. In 1912, the Health Department in New Orleans closed several Chinese restaurants for unsanitary conditions that presented a health nuisance.49 Chinese restaurants are often criticized for rude, inattentive, or slow „service,‟ overlooking the fact that some restaurant staff are recent immigrants and have poor command of English or knowledge of Western restaurant practices. Working long hours

A web search did not find a single criticism of this phenomenon, but numerous links to videos of such pranks. They are accepted as “entertainment.”
47 Accessed May 20, 2013.

Dr. Dowling Closes Restaurants As Menace To Public Health. One Chinaman Defies Authority and Goes To Jail—State Board Intends to Protect Public at All Hazards. Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA) Feb 28, 1912, 7.


and doing many tasks, many wait staff do not have the time or energy to placate or indulge the demands of patrons. Racial Segregation Chinese restaurants, often located in poorer parts of town, serve working class customers from many ethnic and racial backgrounds. Blacks were not excluded initially but as Chinese restaurants increased their white patronage, they felt pressure to refuse service to blacks especially in areas where Jim Crow laws prevailed. 50 In 1904, for

example, one Chinese restaurant in Chicago was accused, but not fined, of denying service to some black patrons.51 One Chinese who grew up in a family restaurant in San Antonio when segregation was widespread recalled: I don't remember why we didn't serve the blacks. Nobody ever explained to us why we didn't serve them. Only that we were told that we would not and when we told them they didn't seem to be upset about it. They just left. 52 Internal Barriers Family Restaurants The success of small Chinese family restaurants owed much to the lower operating costs of family labor, low rent locations, little or no advertising, and minimal capital improvements than to training in modern management techniques such as planning, forecasting, and cost control. For example, they just offer the same items that Shirley Yee. Dependency and Opportunity: Socioeconomic relations between Chinese and non-Chinese in New York City, 1870-1943.” Journal of Urban History 2007, 33, 254-276. Chinese Bar Negroes. Wouldn't Serve Blacks in Cafe in Chicago. Jury Acquits Them. Sun (Baltimore, MD) April 14, 1904, 9.
51 52 50

e mail to John Jung from Robert Louie, 2009.


other restaurants have on their menus. This approach makes sense, as most customers do not venture into ordering unfamiliar items especially since the menu lacks adequate descriptions of the ingredients and preparation methods for each menu item. Moreover, wait staff do not have the time or in some cases, adequate English skills, to explain menu items in detail to customers. Moreover, if there are too many menu items, it may lead to low inventory turnover, with resulting losses from spoilage. Children were not paid for working but expected to contribute their labor in return for their room and board. While many children might often prefer not to work, most realized that their participation was essential for the family business to survive. Children had little recourse but to obey parental orders. However, some of the work was dangerous for children, some who suffered injuries, especially in the kitchen. Family-operated restaurants were not immune from problems such as disputes over operations and finances. For example, brothers Ken and Henry Ng operated the successful Hu Shang Restaurant in Portland, Maine in the 1980s. Like many Chinese restaurants during that era, they accepted only cash, a method that made it easy to underreport income allowing the older brother to skim over close to 2 million dollars between 1979 and 1985 without his younger brother‟s knowledge, but he later went to jail for income tax evasion.53 Partnership Restaurants Early Chinese had difficulty getting loans from American banks and had to rely on capital pools from partners to open larger restaurants with banquet facilities and dance Accessed Feb. 17, 2013.


floors.54 In 1921, for example, a syndicate of American-born Chinese raised $300,000 to open a restaurant in Cleveland with a seating capacity of 425 and a 1000 square foot dance floor. These large restaurants had different sources for employees: Chinese immigrants or contract chefs with little or no education and almost no knowledge of English, foreignborn Chinese students, American-born Chinese, and if necessary, non-Chinese as cashiers, wait staff, busboys, and dishwashers. Most Chinese restaurants did not provide much in the way of job training on their duties or with customer relations. The staff was left to learn on their own, for the most part, so it is not surprising that a frequent complaint about Chinese restaurants has always been poor customer service. In some instances, if the opportunity arises, partners may decide to go their separate ways. In 1913 the two partners for Cleveland‟s Emperor Restaurant were members of rival Hip Sing and On Leong tongs. Partner conflicts arose when one

partner accused the other of never presenting accounting records, causing the judge to place the restaurant in receivership of white attorneys, a less than satisfactory solution for the disputants or the attorneys. 55 Even if a restaurant is profitable, conflicts among partners are inevitable about business operations and personal conflicts may also arise.56 Perhaps the biggest challenge for any restaurateur was how to find and retain good

Chinese Put Up Large Restaurant Syndicate Headed by American Born Orientals Backs New Building. Plain Dealer, (Cleveland, OH), April 3, 1921, 79.

Direct Oriental Cooking Lawyers. Made Receivers of Emperor Restaurant Under Protest of Chinese. Bar Members Seek Amiable Adjustment of Tong Tangle, Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), July 8, 1913, 13. Restaurant Partners Conduct Own War in Court, Dallas Morning News, May 11, 1938 Section II, 12.



cooks. Chinese restaurants usually recruited cooks through employment agencies in Chinatowns or through referrals from friends, relatives, or current employees. Chefs were notorious for working for a short while and then leaving at the slightest unhappiness or conflict at work. Rival restaurants would „steal‟ good chefs. Hiring Chinese waiters and cooks in areas located far from Chinese communities was difficult because there is little for them to do when they are not working. For example, to find Chinese restaurant workers to work in remote areas like Vermont and New Hampshire, Chinese were recruited from New York City. Their cultural isolation created mental health problems for workers, so work schedules had to be created that allowed them to return to New York City Chinatown by bus every few days.57 Chinese restaurant owners often exploited employees who had to work long hours with few or brief breaks. In 1915 a Chinese restaurant owner in Duluth was fined for requiring two white women employees to work 70 hours a week.58 Employees of Chinese restaurants generally receive no overtime pay or health benefits. They typically receive only one day off each week. They are often expected to share tips and in some cases, their tips are treated as part of their salary. With the influx of more Chinese immigrants since 1965, the supply of workers far exceeded the number of jobs so that owners paid lower wages. In some cases, employers have been found to owe back wages to workers.

Clara Veniard. “Rural Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Chinese Restaurants in Rural New Hampshire and Vermont.” Undergraduate Honors, Department of Geography, Dartmouth College, 2001. Says Girls Work 70 Hours a Week. Chinese Restaurant Proprietor is Fined $10 and Costs. Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, MN) Dec.16, 1915, 9.



Restaurant employees have few means of seeking redress. They lacked English skills and had no funds to hire attorneys. Complaints increased the risk that owners might fire them or report them to immigration authorities. Traditionally Chinese did not form or join labor unions, but in 1978 at one New York City high-end Chinese restaurant, Uncle Tai, about half of its employees protested working conditions by creating a union with the help of Local 69 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Association. However, the white union leaders proved to be largely ineffective in helping the Chinese restaurant workers, prompting them to form the Chinese Staff and Workers Association to advocate for them. In 1980 workers successfully fought a large restaurant, the Silver Palace, over their policy of forcing waiters to share a larger portion of their tips with other staff. Management retaliated by hiring new waiters to replace some of the dissidents, but picketing forced the restaurant to rehire them. 59 In 2007, waiters and other workers filed a lawsuit accusing a Chinese restaurant chain in New York, Ollies, of paying below the minimum wage. Some workers reported that management retaliated by cutting their work hours.60 Four former workers filed complaints in 2010 over wage abuse at the Grand Buffet Restaurant, maintaining that it owed each of them tens of thousands of dollars for regular and overtime wages. They charged the restaurant with violations of child labor laws,

which require work permits and restrict hours for youth under 18. Workers also reported

Peter Kwong, The New Chinatown. Revised Edition New York: Hill and Wang, 1996. P. 141-147.

Steven Greenhouse, “„Ollie‟s Restaurant Workers Sue, Complaining of Underpayment‟,” New York Times, n.d.


that they were exposed to hot oil, poor air circulation, toxic cleaning products and wet, slippery floors.61 A 2010 report based on peer interviews of 433 workers augmented by independent observations in 106 San Francisco Chinatown restaurants found instances of wage theft, sub-minimum wages, and lack of overtime pay. Working conditions were often hazardous, with workers suffering burns, cuts, and falls on hot slippery floors. Lack of adequate safety precautions and safety training was common. Almost half of the workers reported their supervisors, coworkers, or customers yelled at them. About half of the workers had to pay out-of-pocket for their medical care. Only 3 percent of workers received health care. Although San Francisco required mandatory paid sick leave, the survey found that 42 percent of workers had pay deducted if they took time off sick. Most workers did not receive paid vacation time.62 In 2012, the California Labor Commission fined San Francisco‟s Tsing Tao Restaurants $339,716 over unpaid minimum wages and overtime pay as well as failure to provide itemized payroll statements for 28 workers at two locations.63 The Washington State Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor investigated two restaurants, Super China Buffet and Great Dragon, in 2013. Around 30 of Accessed Feb. 27, 2013. CHECK, PLEASE! Health and working conditions in San Francisco Chinatown restaurants. Chinese Association Progressive. 2010. slapped-with-300k.html?ana=e_du_pub&s=article_du&ed=2012-12-06 Accessed Dec. 10, 2012.



the restaurant employees were paid in cash off the record, and no time and pay records were kept or they were inaccurate, incomplete or falsified. Some waiters were paid as little as $10 a day and worked more than 40 hours a week. Kitchen staff received a straight monthly salary with no overtime for work over 40 hours per week. The Department sued the companies for minimum wage, overtime, and record-keeping violations for unspecified back wages for employees and an agreement for future compliance with the law.64

Conclusions Despite their popularity, operating Chinese restaurants has proved to be a difficult way to make a living. Chinese restaurants, like other restaurants, face many challenges Problems include long work hours over many

beyond the task of serving good food.

days each week, uncertain customer patronage, often stiff competition, stringent health and sanitation regulations, unreliable help, and often demanding customers that left a sour taste to restaurant operation. Chinese restaurateurs are hemmed in by rising costs of supplies, rents, and labor on one hand and the pressure to offer low prices to meet customer expectation and match prices of competing restaurants. It is a testament to their industriousness, commitment, and hard labor that those Chinese restaurateurs who managed to succeed overcame these formidable obstacles. Accessed April 1, 2013.


The restaurant has served as a means of economic survival for generations of Chinese, but it is not surprising that most Chinese restaurateurs hoped they could help their children obtain educational levels that would enable them to escape the arduous life of the kitchen and enter white collar and professional work.


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