As American As Chop Suey: Understanding Chinese-American identity through food, 1870-1920 (Part 1)

On Friday I gave a brown bag talk for my department about my research on Chinese-American identity in Chicago.  I’ve been working on this topic on and off for about six years, mostly in collaboration with the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago.  The first part of my talk dealt with the results and interpretations of the Chinatown excavation from 2004 and 2005.  Participants in the dig included archaeologists from The Field Museum of Natural History and DePaul University, as well as local elementary school children.  I started at the Anthropology Department of The Field Museum in 2006 and took over the faunal analysis for the project.

Chinese immigrants, mostly from the Guangdong province, began arriving in Chicago at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.  They settled in an enclave along Clark Street between Van Buren and Harrison, opening restaurants, laundries, and groceries.  While Chicago was generally a gentler environment for Chinese immigrants than cities of the east and west coasts, it was not without racist views.  By the turn of the twentieth century, anti-Chinese sentiments and rising rents caused Chicago’s Chinese residents to move to northern Armour Square on the South Side.  In 1912, this neighborhood was officially designated the new Chinatown.  New Chinatown has expanded considerably over the years into a vibrant neighborhood, and continues to grow.

Map of Chinatown since 1912. Blue area represents 1912 boundaries and the red area represents current area. A (green) is the location of the 2004 & 2005 excavations. Image copyright Google Maps, 2013. Modifications by me.  Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, the majority of the site was disturbed by construction, so the levels of occupation were difficult to see.  The top three levels were determined to have some Chinese influence, which was confirmed by historical documents, such as the census counts.  Much of the assemblage was kitchen refuse, with other domestic items mixed in, indicating that the site was a place for residents to get rid of trash.  The faunal remains were primarily pig, along with cow and chicken.  Pork was a popular ingredient in Chinese dishes, as was chicken, so Chinatown’s residents were able to recreate some familiar flavors in their American homes.  Some may have also enjoyed American or European cuisine.  Immigrants from urban areas of China around the turn of the twentieth century would likely have been exposed to western cuisines before going abroad.  Analysis of the faunal remains was inconclusive in regards to specific dishes prepared.

Percentages of different meats found at Chinatown site. These numbers represent faunal remains from the Chinese occupation only (1900-present). Other = unidentifiable elements, fish, and non-food animals.

Chicago’s Chinatown was a very masculine community.  The Page Act of 1875 prevented any women the U.S. government considered likely to engage in prostitution from entering the country.  Essentially, this meant all single women.  Increasingly exclusionary immigration laws made it difficult enough for male workers to come to American, let alone their wives.  This resulted in a gender ratio among Chinese-Americans that was approximately one woman to every seventeen men.  Men learned to perform what were considered in the nineteenth century to be traditionally feminine tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, which the interesting result of creating a greater sense of gender equality in Chinese-American households.  Men did not usually know how to cook before arriving in America, but they were able to learn on the job or from housemates.  Several men would often share a house in Chinatown to save money on rent and to help each other with chores after long days at work.  Chinatown also had plenty of restaurants to support residents with hot meals and a common space to socialize.

Many Chinese immigrants were “sojourners,” or people that migrate to work with the intention to return to their homeland after finding sufficient success abroad.  Split households were often the result of sojourning, with the man going abroad and leaving his wife or female relatives to run family affairs in China.  Increasingly exclusionary laws also created a large subset of sojourners called “paper sons,” illegal immigrants that purchased falsified slots on a contact’s family tree in order to gain entrance into the U.S.

The project as it stands has only raised more questions about the genesis of Chinese-American identity.  The second half of my talk dealt with Chinese-Americans at the World’s Fair in 1893, which I will be writing up soon.

On to Part Two.

Selected sources for further reading:

Ho, Chuimei and Soo Long Moy, eds. 2005. Images of America: Chinese in Chicago, 1870-1945.  Arcadia: Chicago, IL.

Kiang, H. 1992. Chicago’s Chinatown. The Institute of China Studies, Lincolnwood.

Tong, B. 2003. The Chinese Americans: Revised Edition. University Press of Colorado: Boulder, CO.

Tow, J.S. 1923. The Real Chinese in America. The Academy Press: New York, NY.

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