As our prior articles have noted, the first century plus of Chinese food in America consisted solely of Cantonese-style food, particularly the version brought to the United States by immigrants from seven rural districts in Toishan, outside of Canton. And even when the United States (and Canada) lifted their immigration restrictions on Chinese migrants in the 1960s, permitting a new wave of Chinese immigration into the United States, the migration was initially spearheaded by Hong Kong Chinese. These arrivals from Hong Kong enlivened the existing Cantonese food landscape by bringing us new and exciting types of Cantonese dishes. This led to a series of new Cantonese restaurant genres opening up in the United States and Canada, starting with Cantonese delis in the 1970s, Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants in the 1980s, and Hong Kong-style cafés in the 1990s.
Now this article is not suggesting that there’s any kind of death knell for Cantonese food forthcoming. There are sufficient numbers of Cantonese restaurants such that you still have your choice of crowded dim sum palaces to eat at on Sunday morning. Likewise, whether or not you’re Cantonese, a Chinese wedding banquet or even a milestone birthday banquet requires a Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant with live seafood in the tanks, and so these are not an endangered species. And when you visit historic core center city Chinatowns like those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto, you still would be hard pressed to find a non-Cantonese Chinese restaurant.
But when you examine the larger landscape, it is clear that the one-time dominance of Cantonese food in the United States has receded. I was first struck by this fact when my wife started to complain about the short rotation of Chinese restaurants we dined at, as she pointed out that the man who has eaten at 6,000 Chinese restaurants should be able to direct his own family to a wider variety of Chinese eateries. The problem is that, like most Cantonese families, our members are highly partial to Cantonese food and highly suspicious of other regional Chinese cuisines. But with perhaps 600 Chinese restaurants to choose from in the San Gabriel Valley, the center of Chinese food in the United States, shouldn’t there be more than a dozen that were to our liking, even allowing that some of the Cantonese restaurants aren’t very good?
Nobody knows exactly how many Chinese restaurants there really are in the San Gabriel Valley, so a breakdown of Chinese restaurants in the area by regional style isn’t feasible. But you can look at the Chinese restaurants that have opened up in the San Gabriel Valley in the past year as one indication. A survey of these openings shows the stunning result that only 10 percent of the recent Chinese restaurant openings in the San Gabriel Valley were Cantonese. This doesn’t mean that Cantonese restaurants are only 10 percent of the total. Most new restaurant openings are successors to other Chinese restaurants, and the large Cantonese restaurants don’t turn over as much. However, this is stark evidence that Cantonese restaurants comprise a fairly small portion of all Chinese restaurants in today’s centers of authentic Chinese food.
Now once the trend has been identified, it’s really no mystery why Cantonese food is being supplanted in Chinese American communities. Though the initial post-immigration reform migration of the late 1960s continued the Cantonese tradition with the arrival of tens of thousands of Hong Kongers, subsequent waves of migration have been dominated by the Taiwanese, and in the past 20 years, “mainland” immigrants. (Yes, Cantonese may be from the Chinese mainland too, but the term mainlanders is often used to describe non-Cantonese immigrants from China.) Consequently, the number of regional Chinese cuisines represented in San Gabriel Valley restaurants has exploded. Not just the well known Taiwanese, Shanghai, Hunan, and Sichuan varieties, but also food from Beijing, Changsha, Lizhou, Wuhan, Yunnan, Tianjin, Dalian, Shaanxi, Guilin, Shandong, Shenyang, and Xinjiang, not to mention Dongbei, Uighur, Tai Kadai, and Chiu Chow-style food. Adding to the effect is the reverse flow of some Hong Kong natives relocating back to Hong Kong, including some of the local chefs, though this seems to have a greater impact in Chinese Canadian communities.
Adding to the diminished influence of Cantonese restaurants is a blurring of the lines demarcating various Chinese regional cuisines. In Asia itself, major food centers like Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing have seen a broadening of the local Chinese food base, as nonnative regional food gains acceptance alongside the historical local cuisine. Meanwhile, here in the United States, such a blurring is occurring for an additional reason. As mentioned in our prior article on the shortage of great Chinese restaurants in New York, an interesting phenomenon has occurred in the San Gabriel Valley with the rise of the “626 Generation.” The 626 Generation has created a unique food-centric, geographically concentrated subculture of large numbers of well-heeled young Chinese Americans, the sons and daughters of post-immigration reform migrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Asian points of origin. The 626 Generation is not quite as tethered to the Chinese regional cuisines that their parents brought with them, and its members are better suited to accepting a blend of Chinese cuisines. The result of the confluence of these two events is that there has been the introduction of authentic Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley that are not specific to a particular regional cuisine. In a way, this adds to the decline in the numbers of Cantonese restaurants, yet on the other hand it also serves to preserve an element of Cantonese dining since the menus at these restaurants often include some Cantonese dishes.
While this article has largely focused on the San Gabriel Valley, similar trends are visible in other Chinese communities in the United States and Canada. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the largest Cantonese bastion of all Chinese American communities, the change in the mix of restaurants is particularly notable in places like the Silicon Valley. Nevertheless, non-Cantonese Chinese restaurants are even starting to appear in San Francisco Chinatown itself. In Flushing Chinatown, which never had that great of a Cantonese influence to begin with, Cantonese restaurants are probably no more than 10 percent of the total of Chinese restaurants, though by square footage the percentage is much larger. In Chicago Chinatown, the Tony Restaurant Group has singlehandedly replaced seven Cantonese restaurant locations in Chinatown with Sichuan, Yunnan, and other non-Cantonese-style eateries. Manhattan Chinatown was the first historic core Chinatown to shift away from the pure Cantonese model when the Fujianese started arriving in the early 1990s. It has numerous Fujianese and Shanghai-style restaurants. And things are getting testy in the Chinese-dominant city of Richmond, British Columbia, outside of Vancouver, where longtime residents from Hong Kong react negatively to Mainlanders arriving in their midst sporting Chinese-only signage on their businesses.
Cantonese food is not going away in America, as it is the one regional cuisine appreciated by Chinese of all origins. But don’t be surprised if one day your favorite Hong Kong-style eating spot turns into a Taiwanese restaurant or a place that serves beef rolls and fish dumplings.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.