I have documented the continuous change in Chinese food in America, particularly since the 1960s when changes to American immigration laws triggered the diversification of Chinese food in America, a trend that is accelerating now. As such, a corresponding evolution in American Chinese restaurant names reflects the changing times. A restaurant named Golden Dragon or China Inn would have been the norm decades ago, but less generic names like Sea Harbour or Sichuan Impression are better suited for today’s restaurant scene.
I have noticed a thoroughly puzzling proliferation of one restaurant name: Fuleen. To add to the mystery, all of the Fuleen restaurants that have sprung up are located east of the Mississippi River. What forces could possibly be at work here?
My first Fuleen encounter was almost 15 years ago, at Fuleen Restaurant on Division Street in Manhattan Chinatown. This restaurant was and continues to be one of the better Chinese seafood restaurants in New York City, and one of the enduring restaurants in Little Fuzhou, the section of Manhattan Chinatown east of Bowery. On my initial visit, I didn’t pay any attention to the name, since Chinese restaurants often have odd names, particularly restaurants that cater primarily to Chinese diners. When I subsequently saw Fuleen Palace, an Americanized Chinese food restaurant in the Howard Beach part of Queens, I assumed it was probably owned by the same person as Manhattan’s Fuleen, despite the radical difference in food offerings.
My theory went down the drain when I started seeing more variations of Fuleen, such as Chen Fulin Kwok in Brooklyn Chinatown, FuLoon Restaurant in suburban Boston, and Fully Bakery in Elmhurst, NY. My suspicions raised, I did an internet search, which to my shock pulled up many other “Fuleen” restaurants and phonetic equivalents including “Fulin” and “Fu Lin.” There’s even a chain of Fulin Chinese restaurants in Tennessee and Alabama. Other variations, such as Fullin, Foolin, Fu Leen, and who knows what else have proliferated as well.
The question of what Fuleen and its variations mean began to drive me crazy, particularly since these restaurants were only in the eastern United States. And why did this name seemingly come out of nowhere?
That all the Fuleen restaurants are located in the east provided the ultimate clue to its origin. As I wrote in my article on Monday night wedding banquets, there is a network of Chinese restaurant owners and workers tethered to the Fujianese community in Manhattan Chinatown. These Fujianese Americans have fanned out throughout the eastern U.S. via a network of Chinese bus lines. However, the Fujianese have only traveled as far as these bus lines go, since many Fujianese are undocumented and thereby unable to travel by airplane or train to more westerly destinations. By spreading throughout the eastern half of the country, the Fujianese have come to control a large portion of the Chinese restaurants in the area. The name Fuleen and its derivations coincide both in time and geography with this control.
But what of the name itself? Fuleen has no English equivalent, but it is a term that connotes wealth and joy. Propitious naming has always been a hallmark of Chinese businesses, so Fuleen would be an apt restaurant name. Past generations of Chinese American restaurants were commonly given propitious English names such as Golden Palace, Lucky Dragon, or Eight Happiness, but Fuleen and its variations seem to be the propitious name of choice among today’s Fujianese American restaurant owners. There is nothing particularly Fujianese about the use of Fuleen in the Chinese language. When I checked for pre-Fujianese era Chinese restaurants where I have eaten, I did uncover the occasional Fu Ling and Fu Lin (which are slightly different Romanized pronunciations of this Chinese term). I had assumed that these were just Chinese words used to give the restaurant an air of exoticness, but in hindsight, they were part of the naming convention of the day.
Editor’s Note: Have you eaten at a Fuleen or one of its derivations? Where was it?
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.