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Farewell My Chop Suey

A brief social history

By Hansen Shi, Contributing Writer

The wave of gentrification that has swept Harvard Square over the past year has been nothing short of remarkable. Since last spring we have seen at least four versions of arguably the same restaurant—Tatte, Flour, Sweetgreen, and Clover—crop up in the busiest parts of the Square. One newcomer that you might have missed is called Tom’s Bao Bao—a Chinese bao shop located next to Shake Shack that opened quietly over the summer.

At first, Tom’s Bao Bao looks like just another one of the new wave of Made-for-Instagram eating establishments that have taken over the Square, complete with a cool SquareSpace website and stratospheric markups. Until you think back to all of the Chinese restaurants you’ve encountered in your life and realize that you’ve never, ever seen anything like it before—upmarket and trendy, after all, are not words typically associated with places serving Chinese food. Tom’s Bao Bao is as far as it gets from trapezoidal take-out boxes and lunch specials. So how did we get here? When I look out into Harvard Square, I see three Chinese restaurants that, together, tell the story of Chinese immigration into America in three parts.

Our story begins at the Kong. Hong Kong Restaurant & Lounge is the oldest Chinese establishment in the Square and, with its glowing lucky red-and-yellow sign set in oriental-looking English letters, represents what probably springs to mind when most people imagine a Chinese restaurant. Walk inside and your initial impression is confirmed. A lucky golden cat made of plastic waves his paw at you from the reception counter. An antique store dragon spreads its body across one of the dining room walls. The waiters wear their black-and-white outfits and professional curtness like costumes from an 80's movie, and the whole interior is drowned in an orange, corn syrup light. At night, drunken revelers, sometimes dressed in formal wear, crowd the tables in groups of ten and order prodigally off of the menu: General Gao’s Chicken, crab rangoons, chop suey, and scallion pancakes. American food disguised as Chinese food—just add soy sauce. Yet the most ingenious item on the menu must be the scorpion bowl: a stone-colored soup bowl filled with a “secret” mix of bottom-shelf liquor, sold for $20, that serves to encourage the drunken ordering of even more food. As a profit-generating enterprise, it is tough not to admire the Kong.

The reason why this recipe—and I’m not just talking about the food here, but the whole shtick, lights, decorations, everything—is so effective is because it’s been tested and iterated on throughout history. Restaurants like the Kong have been around for nearly 200 years; the first ever recorded, which we might consider to be the Kong’s historical doppelganger, was called Canton Restaurant, and opened its doors in 1849 to the overworked and meat-starved gold miners of San Francisco. The Kong’s predecessor was also a place of revelry, with enough seating for 300 miners and English speaking bartenders to pour them their favorite poison. Like everyone who set out west, the first wave of Chinese immigrants into America sought gold—but not in the mountains. They were too smart for that, realizing that competing directly would only antagonize the white men who felt that the buried gold was their birthright. Rather, the enterprising immigrants recognized the massive opportunity in providing essential services to these miners, such as laundry and, more importantly, food. There was only one problem—how to get these white men to actually eat the strange offerings of their cuisine? Cue the process of culinary trial and error, adapting Chinese recipes to American tastes. We have the ingenuity of these early entrepreneurs to thank for the familiar fare at the Kong today.

The second part of our story takes place in Cilantro Chinese Cuisine, the small basement mom-and-pop restaurant downstairs from Boston Burger Company on Mass Ave. If you’ve ever wandered inside here you’ll remember the subdued lighting and quiet, respectful atmosphere—more akin to someone’s living room than the Kong. The second thing you notice is the difference in clientele—the diners are almost all Chinese, likely students at the College or one of the grad schools who come here when they miss home. A glance at the menu reveals why. After a page of “standard hits” including Kung Pau Chicken and crab rangoons you rapidly venture into unfamiliar territory: sautéed frog legs in chili sauce, crispy pork intestines, Shanghai pork trotters. Restaurants like Cilantro represent the second wave of Chinese immigration that took place nearly a century after the first, which was the diaspora of political exiles after the Chinese civil war in 1949. Millions of people whose political affiliations did not align with the Communist Party were forced out of the country. Most of them settled in Taiwan, but a sizable portion found their way to America as well. Wherever they went, they brought their food, and memories of home, with them. In fact, the diaspora of 1949 spurred on a Chinese culinary Renaissance of sorts. In this case the driving force was sentiment, not profit—exiles sought to reproduce the dishes they grew up with, from a land now far away. Which is why restaurants like Cilantro emphasize their local origins. It’s not just Chinese food—it’s Sichuan food.

A watershed moment in American Chinese culinary history took place in 1972, when President Richard Nixon attended a formal banquet held in his honor by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. From the comfort of their homes millions of Americans watched their president eat such exotic foods as Peking Duck, shark’s fin soup, pickled fish, and bamboo shoots. The next day, phone lines at Chinese restaurants all over the country exploded. The people wanted to know what their president ate, and they wanted it on their own plates. Nixon’s Chinese banquet created a seismic shift in the Chinese food industry in America. Suddenly people became less interested in crab rangoons and more interested in “authentic” Chinese food. Chinese became disassociated from cheap. Fast forward a decade or two—over China’s economic rise, the influx of a new generation of wealthy immigrants and expats—and suddenly we see the rise of a new, upmarket and culturally ambiguous Chinese food, which gets us, finally, to Tom’s Bao Bao. The new Chinese restaurateurs aren’t cash-strapped immigrants trying to turn a profit or sorrowful exiles yearning to recreate a lost home. Sometimes they’re a generation or two removed from their roots, part of a new creative generation empowered to forge a new Chinese American culinary identity. They include people like Amelie Kang, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who started her restaurant called MáLà Project in New York's East Village; Eric Sze, owner of The Tang; Yiming Wang and Xian Zhang, the owners of China Blue, a café that takes its elegant look from 1930s Shanghai. Their rapid rise to the top makes me smile; it signifies, above all else, a newfound cultural confidence, creative agency, and commitment to authenticity.

Hansen Shi ’18 is an English concentrator living in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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