Chinese Restaurants in America

In his 1925 account of Chinese restaurants in America, G.H. Danton introduces the reader to the cuisine, clientele and commercial considerations of the industry which had ‘supplanted the Chinese laundryman in typifying for America where China is’.

by G.H. Danton (Tsing Hua College)

The few remarks which follow may serve to explain, to those who are not familiar with the curious phenomenon of the Chinese restaurant in America, some of the characteristics of this institution. A few facts about their management and the conditions of labour in them may also be of sociological interest.[1]

The rapid increase in the number of Chinese restaurants, or ‘chop suey’ parlours, is a rather striking fact in the life of America. Fifteen years or so ago, there were just a few of these eating houses, confined to the China-towns of the large cities. About ten years back, their number began to increase, until now they may be found everywhere, even in small places, and they have supplanted the Chinese laundryman in typifying for America where China is. It is probable that they have augmented the vogue for Chinese handicrafts, which is so large a factor in current American taste.

A poster for the Port Arthur restaurant in New York, circa 1920s.

A poster for the Port Arthur restaurant in New York, circa 1920s. Source:

The reasons for their popularity are simple: they are clean, cheap, they offer a combination of the exotic and artistic, and they are honestly and efficiently managed. During a recent kitchen inspection, carried out by the New York city police, the Chinese restaurants were given first rank, and the dining rooms are invariably spotless. As the tables are always bare, there is no soiled linen, and the debris of previous diners is conspicuously lacking, thus giving these restaurants an air far superior to the cheap dining places in occidental style. Besides this, many of the restaurants were artistically decorated with Chinese lanterns and scrolls, and the more pretentious have inlaid tables and chairs. This pleasing and exotic picture, together with the unfamiliar in the items on the bill of fare, form a stimulus to appetite and an aid to digestion which have a very definit result in trade.

Just before and during the war, when prices in America began to catapult, the vogue of the Chinese restaurants increased, because prices in them did not rise to such heights as elsewhere. The first cause of the comparatively moderate prices was that the Chinese bought from their fellow-countrymen, who were content with a smaller margin of profit, and among whom large jobbing and supply houses were organized, just to take care of this new trade. A second and very significant factor is that these restaurants are invariably on the second floor. The avoiding of the high prices of ground floor locations was a very clever business coup; some of the most successful of the Chinese houses are exactly above foreign restaurants, some above the branches of a big chain, others above high priced cafés in favoured locations. To be sure, even there, the rents were vey high, and, in order to offset high overhead, the service had to be cheap and the food attractive to bring in a mass trade. It is a distinct tribute to the quality the Chinese restaurants, that the restaurateurs were able to meet competition as they did.

Perhaps the most interesting fact in the low cost in these restaurants is the actual cuisine. At a time when food was high, the Chinese gave a big meal for the price. An examination of the food contents of these meals, that is, of the big sellers like ‘chicken chop suey’ or ‘chow mien’, shows that though the words beef and egg and chicken appeared on the menu, the contents of the dishes were largely vegetable: celery, onions, and some more distinctive Chinese greens, grown on the truck farms of Long Island by Chinese gardeners, made up the New York menus. The meat, in true Chinese fashion, was largely condimental in amount and value. An extra bowl of rice could be got for very little, sometimes free, and there was unlimited tea. The clerk and shop girl trade was quickly attracted to these places for their noon-day meal, and the vogue spred rapidly. The fact is, that this food met and satisfied certain requirements much better than the average éclair, coffee, and ‘sinker’ type of lunch. Bulk and easy digestibility were their own peristaltic recommendation, and so the food itself unconsciously created its own vogue.

The menu for the Port Arthur restaurant in New York, circa 1920s.

The menu for the Port Arthur restaurant in New York, circa 1920s. Source:

The Chinese restaurant opens for business at 11 a.m. and closes at 2 a.m., or even later. There is a heavy noon trade, a somewhat lighter supper business, and then a very heavy after-theatre trade, especially in the more pretentious resorts. The noon trade is in the cheaper plats du jour, the supper trade about the same, the evening and night trade in the more expensive dishes. Many of the restaurants do not serve the cheaper dishes after the noon trade is over, or after they have accommodated the cheap supper trade. The manners in all these restaurants have from the first been free: smoking by women was permitted early, there was a pleasant informality about the places which made a strong appeal, and in all there were opportunities ‘pour manger des ecrivisses en cabinet particulier’, as the chanson puts it. This does not imply that the Chinese restaurants are immoral, or even tough; here and there, there may be a house of assignation among them and the Chinese hotelier, in New York certainly, looks with a lenient eye upon the moral vagaries of his patrons. With the dancing craze, orchestras were introduced, floor space cleared, and a type of cabaret was developed. The trade which arose round this form of entertainment was typical of the night life of the big city: it ate the more recherché dishes, spent freely and had no interest in the restaurant as an eating house. It probably always paid well because the Volstead Act had no influence on the character of the Chinese restaurants; these rarely had licences and so were not affected by the advent of prohibition, which impelled most eating house to raise their prices to offset the loss of the liquor trade. This is rather an important point. In many restaurants of the ordinary type, the advent of prohibition caused a complete change of customers, and many were compelled to rebuild their whole trade. The Chinese restaurants were faced with no such problem. It is true, however, that, with changed social conditions during the war, many of the Chinese places became more or less foreignized. It was almost impossible, for instance, to get chopsticks to eat with, bread was served with the Chinese food, and in many other points, a rapprochement of type could be observed: the gradual Americanizing of something Chinese and the acceptance by the mass of Americans of this new form of entertainment as something obvious, usual. With this there came the complete commercializing of the restaurants and their loss of charm for those acquainted with the actual Orient.

If looked at from the inside, the following points may be noted in regard to these places: all employees are hired from a few big companies in the large cities where there is a surplus of Chinese labour, as, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston for the East, Chicago, for the Middle West, and San Fransisco for the Coast. The rates of wages are practically uniform, owing to the easy mobility of Chinese labour, as well as the easy mobility of Chinese capital in the States. This tends to keep prices very uniform in all the restaurants and has led people to suppose that they are all run by one or two large monopolistic concerns. But I have been told on good authority that this is not true. Wage scales run about as follows. The figures are naturally in U.S. gold dollars. The first column represents New York, the second, Pittsburg.

Restaurant manager   ..      ..$170    180 per mensem

Cashiers      ..      ..       ..       .. 120     130

Head waiter        ..       ..       .. 130     150

Asst. head waiter         ..      .. 100     110

Ordinary waiters          ..      ..  40       50

Coat-room girl    ..       ..       ..   2         2 per diem

Cooks          ..       ..       ..       .. 150   170 per mensem

Checkers      ..      ..       ..       .. 130   160

Bus boys     ..       ..       ..       ..  50      60

Dish-washers     ..       ..       ..  50      60

Extra waiters are paid $3 to $5 a day; the American or other occidental musicians $40 a week. The number of waiters runs from one to 20, of cooks from 6 to 10 per restaurant. There are 3 to 4 bus boys, 4 to 6 dish-washers, 4 to 6 musicians. The overhead is thus very heavy, especially as all these people get their meals free, except, save the mark! for ice cream and cake. The men may live in the place, in so far as there is room. A restaurant running with this force has about 100 tables and a capital of about $100,000 U.S. Such a place must take in a minimum of $500 daily. In San Francisco, the wage scale is somewhat lower.

Restaurant employees move rather freely from restaurant to restaurant and from state to state, not only to get better wages, but also for the sake of seeing the country. Very few (according to my information) stay more than six months at a place, and I myself have several times met the same man in different cities.

Within the restaurant there are two groups: one is off from 2 to 5 p.m., the other from 8 to 10 p.m. they have alternate Sundays free. ‘Nearly all the Chinese restaurants throughout the United States are operated by separate shareholders who may have shares in several companies. Although they adopt the same name, such as, New China, the Oriental, etc., in different cities, they have neither financial nor any other connection. Very few of them have branches in the same city. Therefore the competition is most keen, and the price level is very little above the cost. Recently, they have lost money on account of the business depression and the cut-throat competition.’[2]

As the Chinese restaurant has become a permanent part of the social structure of city life in the United States, the foregoing remarks may serve to clarify some details about them for those to whom such information is valuable.

Source: The China Journal of Science & Arts, vol. III May, 1925 No.5, pp. 286-289.

[1] For the facts in regard to the living and labour conditions in these places, I am indebted to Mr. Lu Ming, of Hongkong, a former student of mine, who collected the data for me.

[2] Mr. Lu’s memorandum.

See also the China Rhyming website: The Port Arthur Restaurant, Mott Street, New York City and London’s Chinese Restaurant Scene in the 1930s