Sweet and Sour: The Story of Chinese-American Food

As one of nearly 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., Yu’s New Beijing in Glen Ellyn, IL is pleased to share with you some history on how Chinese-American food mainstreamed throughout the country to become an affordable, pleasing staple of the fast food industry.

Chinese Fast Food2 To put it into perspective, currently the fast food chain McDonald’s has about 35,000 outlets worldwide, with about 15,000 in the U.S. What that means, is that there are more than 3 times the number of Chinese restaurants than the number of McDonald’s outlets. Luckily, although there is definitely a common menu thread, most of Chinese restaurants are privately owned and operated, and not a part of a conglomerate, allowing for a little variance in taste and flavor.

In 2011, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened an exhibit called “Sweet & Sour,” outlining the beginnings and the subsequent journey of Chinese-American food. On display were old menus, drawings, photos and implements, as well as a timeline.

The history of Chinese immigration dates back to the mid-1800s when Chinese workers arrived in the United States to work as miners, railroad builders, farmers, and laborers. The first Chinese restaurants were not opened by professionally trained chefs, but by immigrants who were denied work elsewhere or simply wished to feed their own communities. The Chinese restaurant business continued to expand throughout the early 1900s as Americans became intrigued with new exotic flavors at an inexpensive price. Chinese restaurant-owners found ways to combine their traditional recipes with Western flavors in order to attract more American customers. Chop suey, which means “little pieces,” quickly became a culinary trend. A combination of familiar ingredients such as meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, and sauce invited Americans to experience a new culture.

As a new crop of Chinese immigrants landed on the United States in the mid-1960s, new regional flavors, such as Szechuan and Hunan, were infused into the traditional Cantonese-inspired menus.

Throughout the years, however, the model has remained steady: a family-owned and operated business, where everyone in the family plays a role in the operation.

One such story is that of Cedric Yeh’s, the Smithsonian’s Chairman of Asian and Pacific American Initiatives, who practically “grew up” in his family’s Chinese restaurant. Gathering the stories in order to present a perspective from the typical Chinese restaurant family was one of his lifelong dreams, which eventually led to the exhibit that concluded in February of 2013.

Sweet and Sour by John YungConcurrently, Professor John Jung, a second generation Chinese psychologist who retired from California State University, Long Beach, was fascinated by the Chinese-American restaurant history. After retiring, he delved into researching and studying the historical and sociological aspect of Chinese Americans, resulting in several book publications: Southern Fried Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South, Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain, and Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers. In 2010, he published Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants, exploring the history while attempting to understand the conditions that made their success possible.

Join us today at Yu’s New Beijing to enjoy Chinese-American dishes that are surely to satisfy you. We are open 7 days a week. You can dine in, pick up your take-out, or have your delicious food delivered. 630.469.1535.

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