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By the time Chinese food started emerging in Lebanon County in the early 20th century, it had been around in the United States for over 50 years.
Today, it is one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in the United States, but its long history is inextricable from the racism, xenophobia, and systematic discrimination Chinese immigrants have faced in this country throughout the last two centuries.
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Roots of Chinese cuisine in America
Some of the first Chinese restaurants in the United States appeared as a result of the California Gold Rush. At the same time American forty-niners were flocking to San Francisco from the East Coast, so too were Chinese immigrants venturing to California from the city of Canton (or Guangzhou), which had been a prosperous center of trade and commerce long before America was even discovered.
In contrast to American forty-niners, Chinese immigrants were strategic and established a strong network that enabled the rapid expansion of the Chinese community in San Francisco. Few of them worked as laborers. Instead, they found a niche in business and trade, supporting the many hopeful Americans in search of gold. They provided much-needed services such as boarding houses, grocery stores, and, of course, restaurants.
By the 1870s, the Chinese community had put down strong roots in San Francisco. There was a Chinese-language newspaper in print at this time, and exotic foods like bamboo shoots, shark fins, and sea cucumbers were being shipped to merchants in California directly from China.
However, despite the initial social and economic success of these Chinese immigrants, mounting anti-Chinese racism at the end of the 19th century saw some of the most violent acts committed against an immigrant community in the United States.
In 1871, a mob hunted down Chinese immigrants in the streets of Los Angeles, which resulted in the hanging of 18 men and boys. Several years later, the Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming saw as many as 28 Chinese miners killed after a mob descended upon Chinatown and destroyed their homes. At the end of the 19th century, the United States government took legislative action. Against the Chinese.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese workers from entering the country, and during the beginning of the 20th century, the number of Chinese Americans dwindled as ties with their homeland were irrevocably severed. Strange though it may seem, scholars have credited this act as contributing significantly to the expansion of Chinese cuisine in the United States.
Heather Lee, assistant professor of history at New York University Shanghai, has done extensive research on the movement of people between Asia and North America during the 19th and 20th centuries, with specific attention to immigrant restaurants in the United States. In her forthcoming book, Acquired Tastes, Lee describes how Chinese Americans opened restaurants in order to bypass discriminatory immigration policies. Starting in 1915, they were granted merchants’ status as restaurant owners; this enabled them to bring employees from China to work for them in the United States.
Arriving in central Pennsylvania
At first, most Chinese restaurants were confined to larger cities and metropolitan areas, but after several decades, they slowly made their way from New York and New Jersey into Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and then toward Central Pennsylvania.
Chinese food would have made its way to restaurants in Lebanon County by as early as 1935. Around this time, several prominent eating establishments like the Hollywood Cafe and Crystal Restaurant were serving Chinese American cuisine in addition to their standard menus. Both made sure to stress in their advertisements that the chefs preparing their Chinese food were genuinely Chinese.
Throughout the next several decades, the food remained popular in the area. An article published in the Lebanon Daily News in 1946, for instance, highlighted a popular Chinese restaurant in New York and listed recipes for several Chinese dishes, Wonton Soup and Cantonese Lobster among them. Similar articles around this time attest to a general infatuation with Chinese cuisine.
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In addition, Chinese food would have been available at food distributors in Lebanon County. Zweier’s Market was carrying Chinese food as early as 1932, and by 1940, Food Fair had started selling it as well. But despite its popularity, it would be several decades before the first traditional Chinese restaurant opened in the area.
This happened in Hershey in 1974. It was called the Shanghai Restaurant, and it became an instant success. This was due, in large part, to the dedication of the owner, Joseph Chao.
Chao had grown up in China, and according to an article from the Lebanon Daily News, moved to Taiwan in 1949 before making his way to the United States. He graduated from the University of Texas, and before moving to Hershey, he worked as an electronics engineer in Maryland. To prepare for the opening of the Shanghai, Chao spent three years in Hong Kong and Taiwan learning how to cook and manage a successful restaurant.
When the Shanghai first opened, the food came as a surprise to many living in the area.
Consisting of 73 different items, it contained almost exclusively traditional Chinese dishes, among them Peking Duck and sizzling rice soup, and for dessert, lychee nuts and kumquats. Chao also served Americanized Chinese food, like chow mien, chop suey, and fortune cookies, although the bulk of the menu was exciting and unfamiliar to many in Central Pennsylvania.
Other members of Chao’s family played a crucial role in the restaurant’s success. His nephew, Francis Tien, worked for him as a waiter since the restaurant first opened. And his wife remained every bit as dedicated as her husband even though she was miles away.
Mrs. Chao was a Chinese language professor and spent most of her time in Washington and Virginia working with American diplomats and the US State Department. She visited her husband on weekends, and before the restaurant opened, she took a personal interest in designing the interior, creating an exotic, welcoming space with authentic Chinese art and decorations.
During the 1970s, the Chaos took a profound interest in the local community. Mrs. Chao was particularly interested in sharing Chinese culture with the area, and in 1974, she was making plans to provide the local school system with learning materials on Chinese customs and languages. In 1978, Chao gave a presentation at the Lebanon YMCA on Chinese food and cooking.
As the restaurant was the first to bring genuine Chinese food to the area, it contributed considerably to the spread of Chinese cuisine in Lebanon County. In the decades that followed the opening of Shanghai Restaurant, more Chinese establishments began making their way into the city of Lebanon and the surrounding area.
One of the most notable of these was the Peking Duck, which was well-known for its handmade noodles. Head Chef Tom Chen had over 30 years of experience, 15 of which were spent practicing the art of noodle-making. He frequently displayed his skills for the patrons of the Peking Duck, and by 1986, the chefs were offering cooking classes to those in Lebanon County.
In 1989, the Peking Duck became the Shanghai Chinese Restaurant, taking the name of the first Chinese restaurant in the area. Manager Kenny Vu noted the potential on Lebanon’s East Side and said in an interview with Lebanon Daily News that they wanted to have “the nicest Chinese restaurant in Lebanon.”
In the same year, brothers Justin and Kuan Fang Cheng opened their second Chinese restaurant in Pennsylvania on Route 72 in Lebanon. It was called the China Inn, and the brothers served traditional Chinese cuisine alongside steak and seafood.
What had once begun in San Francisco, California, in 1849 had finally made its way into Lebanon. Ever since the inception of Joseph Chao’s Shanghai Restaurant in Hershey, Chinese cuisine has expanded considerably throughout Central Pennsylvania, and indeed, throughout the entire country. Today, there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, roughly three times the number of McDonald’s.
Simply put, Chinese food is now a part of American culture. However, it bears to keep in mind the xenophobia and discrimination that led to the creation of these large restaurant networks, especially in the context of the recent attacks against members of the Asian American community.
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