As I have detailed in past articles, there have been two distinct eras of Chinese food in the United States. The first era covered the period from the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, to the enactment of immigration reform by the United States in the late 1960s. During this period, the only significant immigration from China to the United States were rural immigrants from the area outside of the city formerly known as Canton, now known as Guangzhou. Most of these immigrants came from an area known as Toisan, or nearby adjacent districts. As such, the Chinese population in the United States during this time period was largely homogenous and not representative of the whole of China. Likewise, Chinese food in the United States strictly reflected the nearly homogenous Toisanese population, rather than truly depicting Chinese food.
The second era began with the effective repeal of the Chinese Exclusion laws and continues to the present. In the first decade of the 1970s, the new migrants came to America from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as the United States and Mainland China had not resumed diplomatic relations. Immigrants from Hong Kong modernized the old Cantonese cuisine, while Taiwanese immigrants introduced new non-Cantonese regional cuisines to the United States. However these versions of Szechuan- and Hunan-style food were highly Americanized and authentic versions would still be a couple of decades in the coming, coincident with immigrants arriving from Mainland China after the normalization of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations.
Despite a clear analytical demarcation between the eras, in which non-Cantonese food didn’t show up at all in the United States until the 1970s and truly authentic versions of non-Cantonese food not until years later, these eras are not completely neat and clean. First of all, traces of non-Cantonese food can be found in America as early as the 1940s. The 1945 classic Chinese cookbook, How To Cook And Eat In Chinese, makes reference to three Shanghai-style restaurants in the United States, two in New York and one in Washington, D.C. However, their names and circumstances appear to be lost to history.
One reason for the existence of non-Cantonese food prior to the full effective repeal of Chinese exclusion is that even though Chinese immigration to the United States was saddled with the puny 105 annual quota into the late 1960s, the end of World War II saw the first numbers of non-Cantonese, non-quota immigrants, such as students, scientists, and refugees. Even during the Chinese Exclusion period, exemptions were made, such as for Chinese diplomats with their families and entourages. During World War II, a stream of students and trainees arrived in the United States in connection with the war effort. The first documented appearance of non-Cantonese food at a U.S. Chinese restaurant was The Peking in Washington D.C., founded in 1947 by a gentleman who came to the United States in 1941 to be a butler at the Chinese Embassy. Subsequently, alumni from The Peking went on to start their own non-Cantonese restaurants in Washington and New York.
Meanwhile, in the mid-1950s, Cantonese restaurant owners like San Francisco’s Johnny Kan pushed Chinese cuisine in the United States forward by offering a more upscale version of Chinese food to the American public. Kan’s Szechuan Chicken may well have been the first appearance of a Szechuan-style dish to appear on a menu in the United States. Interestingly, superstar entertainer Danny Kaye became a kitchen protege of Kan, and Szechuan Chicken became one of Kaye’s specialties.
Moving into the late 1950s and early 1960s, pioneering Shanghai-style restaurants popped up at Shun Lee in New York, The Mandarin in San Francisco, and Twin Dragon in Los Angeles. There was no great number of Shanghai natives in the United States at the time, so these and a few other Shanghai-style restaurants in Manhattan and elsewhere were serving primarily native New Yorkers and Californians, though the New York restaurants were patronized by Chinese diplomats from the nearby United Nations, too.
As noted above, the first wave of post-1960s immigrant chefs from Taiwan sparked a wave of “faux” Szechuan and Hunan cuisine, rather than authentic versions, first in Manhattan, and then spreading across the United States. This was “faux” cuisine for two reasons. First of all, it was faux because like the early Shanghai-style food, there were few “native” diners living in the United States, so the food was adapted to the tastes of non-Chinese diners. Additionally, this Szechuan and Hunan cuisine was not brought directly from the Chinese mainland. Rather, it came from chefs who had fled the Mainland in the late 1940s, parked on Taiwan for a generation, then moved on to the United States in the 1970s. Essentially, they brought over their own version of Szechuan and Hunan cuisine, based on the memory of what was served in those locales two decades previously, and subsequently evolved. It wasn’t until another generation later when natives of those Mainland regions began to immigrate directly to the United States that truly authentic Szechuan and Hunan cuisine was widely available here.
But once again, while authentic Szechuan and Hunan cuisine in America are considered to be late 20th century developments, there were small exceptions to the general rule. For a brief period of time in the 1970s, a few restaurants in Manhattan Chinatown served authentic Szechuan-style food, or more correctly, authentic Szechuan-style Chinese food as remembered by pioneering chefs from Taiwan, serving their fellow migrants. Best known was Hwa Yuan operated by the legendary Taiwanese chef Shorty Tang, remembered to this day for introducing sesame noodles to Manhattan and attracting a high-profile clientele to his restaurant in the East Broadway neighborhood that later became Little Fuzhou. So revered was Tang that when 40 years after his death, Shorty Tang’s family reopened Hwa Yuan at its original location, it was not only the leading news item in Manhattan’s food community, it was also covered by the New York Times. Strangely, these 1970s Szechuan restaurants in Manhattan Chinatown were gone a decade later, and with the flowing sands of time, nearly forgotten.
Today’s Chinese American communities now feature the full range of authentic Chinese regional cuisines. But reaching that point took a long road of limited choices that took many decades to blossom.