One Monday a few winters ago I was in New York for a meeting. After the day’s events, I headed down to Manhattan Chinatown for dinner. Walking into a Chinese restaurant on East Broadway, I was surprised to see that much of the restaurant had been taken up by a wedding banquet. “How odd,” I said to myself. “A Monday night Chinese wedding banquet.” Beyond that, however, I didn’t give it much thought.
A year later I was back in Manhattan on a Monday, and once again at the end of the day I headed to Chinatown for dinner, this time on Division St. And once again I found myself in the middle of a Chinese wedding banquet. Later I walked by another restaurant on the same block, and there was a wedding banquet there, too. Now this couldn’t be a coincidence. But what would explain these Monday night banquets? I have attended dozens of Chinese wedding banquets over the years, and they were always on weekends. Straining for an explanation, I concluded that there must be a shortage of wedding banquet venues in New York City, such that there wasn’t enough room for everybody to have their wedding banquet on a weekend, and Monday must be the overflow day. At that point, I patted myself on the back for being so clever.
As I eventually discovered, I was completely wrong. These Monday night banquets were just the tip of an iceberg that encompasses most of the Chinese restaurant industry in the eastern half of the United States. As mentioned in my previous articles on the lack of truly great Chinese restaurants in New York City, and on finding authentic Chinese food in the Big Apple, New York’s Chinese population is dominated by immigrants from Fujian province in southeastern China. Moreover, Manhattan Chinatown is the center of Fujianese activity for the entire United States. And for Fujianese Americans from all over, Monday night is the time slot of choice to have your wedding banquet.
Obviously quite a few blanks need to be filled in before all the pieces fall together. The true explanation of the Monday night Chinese wedding banquets was revealed to me in a New York Times piece from a few years previous. As that and subsequent articles have described, Manhattan Chinatown is the mothership for Fujianese immigrants throughout the country — virtually the sole port of entry for Fujianese coming to the United States. Arriving in New York, the new immigrant will typically seek his fortune in the Chinese restaurant industry. Little Fuzhou, the portion of Chinatown east of Bowery, is home to dozens of employment agencies whose purpose is to serve Fujianese-operated Chinese restaurants throughout the eastern United States. The worker will check out job opportunities, listed by area code, pay a small fee for a placement, then hop one of many buses bound for destinations up and down the east coast. Indeed, there are major networks of buses that regularly transport Fujianese workers between Manhattan Chinatown and points north, south and west. Walk throughout Little Fuzhou and you will see signage not only offering regularly scheduled bus transportation to such major centers as Boston, Philadelphia or Washington D.C., but also to Richmond, VA, Youngstown, OH, Atlanta, GA, Miami, FL, Greensboro, NC, and dozens of other cities.
But bus traffic is not one-way. There is also a large flow of Fujianese workers coming back to Manhattan. For one, there are workers looking for a change of scenery and a new job. Tired of working in Charleston, SC? Take the bus to Manhattan Chinatown, get a new job in Akron, Ohio, and arrive there scarcely 24 hours after you left South Carolina. But the major flow results from the fact that the affinity of Fujianese workers to the Manhattan mothership is so great that Fujianese throughout the eastern United States regularly come to Manhattan Chinatown on their days off.
And this is where we come to Mondays. If a Chinese restaurant in, say, Memphis, closes one day a week, that day is typically Monday. So every Monday, Fujianese restaurant workers from all over the eastern U.S. descend on Manhattan Chinatown. Stroll through Little Fuzhou on any Monday and you will see these workers walking the streets, often pulling their luggage behind them. And while these workers may have come to Manhattan for mundane purposes such as shopping for Chinese provisions, to get their hair cut, or to hang out with their compatriots, sometimes they come for special occasions. Most every Fujianese American worker is familiar with New York. So what better place than Manhattan to get married, have your bridal pictures taken in Central Park, and, yes, have your wedding banquet? And what better night than on Monday?
With the constant flow of Fujianese restaurant workers in and out of Manhattan Chinatown, the Fujianese are major players in the Chinese restaurant industry. The original network of Chinese restaurants in towns throughout America was set up by the Cantonese, mostly from rural Toishan county. However, in most cases the second generation of Cantonese had no interest in maintaining the family business, and indeed quite often had no desire to stay in the locale where their parents had settled. Consequently, the Fujianese provided the new blood for operating Chinese restaurants in cities and towns not having a significant Chinese population. And with the dream of running one’s own restaurant, there is no shortage of Fujianese willing to set up shop in Bowling Green, KY, Bessemer, AL, Davenport, IA, Howard Beach, NY or wherever. Indeed, it has been noted that many of these smaller town Fujianese restaurants bear a cookie cutter-like similarity which could well indicate the establishment of a common Fujianese restaurant support system.
Over the past several decades, the Fujianese have been very adaptable in establishing their restaurant operations. Most Fujianese-operated restaurants serve Americanized Chinese food in cities that have few local Chinese residents. On the other hand, in Chinese communities lacking a local Cantonese population, Fujianese also open up dim sum and authentic Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants. Chinese from all regions of China like Cantonese-style food, so in places like Dallas, Atlanta and St. Louis, which number few Cantonese in the local Chinese community, the biggest and best authentic Chinese restaurants nevertheless serve Cantonese cuisine. Even in New York’s Chinatowns, many of the Cantonese restaurants are now operated by Fujianese.
Interestingly while Fujianese dominate the Chinese restaurant business in the eastern half of the U.S., Fujianese are largely non-existent in the western part of the U.S. The reason is simple: a high percentage of Fujianese are undocumented, so their main mode of transit is by bus, as they don’t have the required ID to fly. And, at least as of now, there are no Chinatown buses to California.
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.