As American As Chop Suey (Part 2)

Back to Part One.

The second half of my talk from last Friday dealt with Chinese-American involvement the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893.  I became interested in the Fair after volunteering on an excavation in Jackson Park behind the Museum of Science and Industry in 2008, which was the location of the state buildings.  Aside from what’s under the surface, parts of the Fair’s landscape are still visible around the neighborhood.  One major aspect is the Midway Plaisance, also called 59th and 60th Streets.  As a student at the University of Chicago, located along the Midway, I walked up and down and crossed those streets thousands of times before I understood what they meant.

Map of the 1893 World’s Fair by Rand McNally. Image courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. Click for larger.

The Fair was composed of two major sections, the White City (eastern portion) and the Midway (western offshoot).  The White City showcased mainly technological achievements of all the states and guest delegations from nations around the world.  The Midway’s primary function was entertainment and was, in fact, conceived as a human zoo.  Newspapers and publishing houses released guides with titles such as “Race Types of the World’s Fair, Sketched from Life” (Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1893), so that fairgoers could plan ahead of time which exhibits they wanted to see.  There was quite a bit of tension between the Midway managers, who wanted to domesticate the exotic for “safe” consumption by white Americans, and the entrepreneurial efforts of participants who did not agree with the racial hierarchy imposed upon them.

The Qing government of China protested frankly racist and sexist immigration laws by refusing to send an official delegation to the Fair.  However, a group of affluent Chinese-American businessmen believed this was the wrong choice.  Wong Ki, Hong Sling, and Dr. Chan Gee Woo formed the Wah Mee (Chinese-American) Exposition Company and procured a spot on the Midway to build their exhibit.

Outside the Chinese Village. Note the American flag on the left tower.  Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum Research Center.

The Chinese Village contained a theater, café, replica temple, and gift shop.  The Wah Mee Co. chose to display an American flag on one tower of the front entrance.  While they were proud of their Chinese heritage, the men of the Wah Mee Co. wanted to present a different, but equal way of being American.  They wanted the Chinese-American community to be seen as good citizens to combat racism against them, and the Fair was a perfect venue to reach a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Many fairgoers were moving toward a “cosmopolitan” diet increasingly favored in the middle and working classes.  Cosmopolitanism was generally taken to be a kind of worldliness or positive thinking about ethnic differences in the late 19th century.  What it actually involved, however, was a new way of negotiating whiteness in which a wider knowledge of world cultures reinforced white superiority.  Culinary adventuring, or the eating of so-called “foreign” foods, was popular within cosmopolitan fairgoers.  As experienced businessmen, the Wah Mee Co. members were aware of this phenomenon and were able to manipulate perceptions of visitors by carefully crafting the menu for the café.

The Chinese Café served very few dishes that were recognizably Chinese.  White American diners were still wary of foreign food, despite the inexpensive price tag that allowed whole families to dine out without breaking the bank.  Chinese food was widely believed to be indigestible by whites in the decades preceding the Fair.  The Chinese Café therefore had a menu that was “foreign” enough to be tantalizing to cosmopolitan tastes, but American enough to be safe and familiar, thus attracting visitors in the hopes that they would be educated about Chinese culture.  Essentially, the purpose of the Chinese Café was to engage with fairgoers on their own terms.

The impact of the World’s Fair on Chicago’s Chinese community was great, drawing between 1,000 and 5,000 new residents.  The popularity of Chinese cuisine also skyrocketed, though the new restaurants served an Americanized version.  Restaurants ranged from cheap chop suey houses to fine dining establishments.

Illustration of King Joy Lo restaurant from The Chicago Tribune (December 22, 1906). Click for larger.

Chicago’s Chinese-American heritage is rich and varied.  My research has tried to show but a small piece.  In the future, I would like to continue by further study on the Clark Street enclave and the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition, in which Chinese-Americans also participated.  Through these topics, I would hope to piece together how Chinese-American identity might be associated with modernity and how can it be seen in the archaeological record.

Selected sources for further reading:

Fogelson, Raymond D. 1991. “The Red Man in the White City” in Columbian Consequences, vol. 3, David Hurst Thomas, ed. Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington, D.C., pp. 73-90.

Graff, Rebecca S. 2011. “Being Toured While Digging Tourism: Excavating the Familiar at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition” in International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 15:222-235.

Hoganson, Kristin L. 2007. “Entertaining Difference: Popular Geography in Various Guises” in Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920.  University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, pp. 105-151.

Ooi, Yuki. 2009. “’China’ on Display at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: Faces of Modernization in the Contact Zone” in From early Tang Court Debates to China’s Peaceful Rise, Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam, The Netherlands, pp. 53-66.


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