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Bookish Thoughts

Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

By July 13, 20112 Comments

Two of my favorite things in the world are eating and reading, so I love it when the two come together well. Lately, I’ve been very interested in the phenomenon of ethnic restaurants. Why, for example, is it Chinese food that’s ubiquitous all across the United States, rather than Japanese food or Indian food? How do the people who run Chinese restaurants end up in small towns like Madison and what’s it like living there, sometimes being probably the only Asian face for miles around? How did almost all the Chinese restaurants in the Midwest end up with exactly the same menu?

Jennifer 8 Lee, like me, is obsessed with Chinese food. Specifically, she’s obsessed with the fortune cookie. Part of this book is about the mysterious origins of the fortune cookie. But other parts of this book answer some of my own pressing questions. One of the reasons why Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous is that anti-Chinese discrimination closed most other job opportunities off to Chinese in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in stages between 1882 and 1902, essentially shut down Chinese immigration and prevented the many Chinese who were already here from becoming naturalized citizens. It was the end result of economic competition in the West between Chinese immigrants and whites. In the 1870s, what is now the state of Idaho was one-third Chinese. As is the case in much of the racial history of the United States, whites reacted to economic competition with Chinese immigrants with violence against the immigrant group. The state of Washington set a deadline by which all Chinese were to be out of the territory. Wyoming followed suit, and in both cases, many Chinese were killed along the way, either at the hands of whites or in the course of their flight. In the Snake River Massacre of 1887, more than thirty Chinese gold miners were killed and mutilated by a group of white men who wanted to steal their gold and force the Chinese out.

Many of the Chinese immigrants had been drawn to the West by the Gold Rush (a pull, in sociological terms), and mostly they were immigrants from Guangdong Province. Guangdong Province in a sixty year period had experienced seven typhoons, four earthquakes, two severe droughts, four epidemics and five serious famines. Sociologists call those push factors when explaining immigration (as in, that much death and destruction would push anyone the hell out of dodge). After the Chinese Exclusion Act, all these Chinese immigrants were left with not a lot of options economically. And so, they did the jobs no one else wanted to do: they cooked and they cleaned, so they started restaurants and laundries. Why did no one else want those jobs? They were seen as women’s work. Don’t you love it when gender and race come together like that?

In addition, in the 1930s, a chop suey craze swept America. No one’s sure of the exact origins of chop suey. It’s not a dish native to China, but a dish invented by some enterprising Chinese person in America to cater to American tastes. The rise of chop suey helped bring about the rise of the Chinese restaurant.

Jennifer 8 Lee’s book is chocked full of fascinating tidbits like this. It turns out the fortune cookie is also not Chinese, but probably Japanese in origin. Lee describes in great detail the differences between American Chinese food and actual Chinese food, and how the version of Chinese food we Americans mostly eat in Chinese restaurants reflects our own food culture (for example, Americans don’t like to eat any animals that clearly remind them they were once alive–no whole body fish, or chicken feet for us, which are staples of Chinese cuisine). Lee also describes how Chinese food has adapted to other cultures…Chinese in India, Chinese in England, etc., etc.

Jennifer 8 Lee

I’ve been collecting quite a few books about Chinese food in the United States and Chinese restaurants, and Lee’s is by far the most interesting and readable I’ve come across. I also like that she talks about the more contemporary wave of Chinese restaurant-related immigration, coming out of Fujian Province. Most of the people working in Chinese restaurants today are from Fujian Province, part of a second wave of Chinese immigration, and she describes in great detail the fate of one particular family who buy a Chinese restaurant in small town Georgia. Here, Chinese food allows Lee to tell a fascinating story about human smuggling and the emerging transnational family. Transnational families span countries and continents…a mother working in the United States while her children are raised by grandparents in South America. Fuzhounese families often send their children back to China to be raised by their grandparents because their parents are too busy working in restaurants to care for them. In fact, one reporter in an article I read on describes riding a plane to Fujian peopled by small children, all being sent back to China by their parents. The villages and cities of Fujian province are filled with palatial houses build with money sent back by immigrants in the U.S., but the houses are empty save for those too old to immigrate and the children who have been sent back. It’s a revealing window into 21st century globalization and immigration.

Obviously, this was a good and fascinating read. Lee uses Chinese food to start a journey that takes her some very interesting places, both geographically and intellectually. I was least interested in her chapter on the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world, but even hearing about all the places where Chinese food is part of national cuisine was interesting. If you’re interested in food, race, ethnicity, immigration, history, etc., this is a good book for you.


  • Aisle B says:

    I really loved your review and I am definitely adding this one to my reading list.

    I thought it was going to be a frivilous read but after your post I was amazed by the research behind this book. Thanks for the heads up and going to look for it now.

  • Robyn says:

    Aisle B, no, not frivolous at all. I confess I thought that at first, too. Perhaps it was the image on the cover. But it's very well-researched, and mostly through firsthand interviews and traveling to the places she writes about.

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