Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the United States, the image of Chinese takeout pervades in American culture. So how is it, that such a different culture from across the world has found its cuisine all across the American continent, while others have been here longer but remain clustered in certain regions. A long, winding history brought Chinese restaurants to their popular standing in the United States, one that stretches back to the Gold Rush.
The first Chinese immigrants came to the United States during the Gold Rush. China was facing economic decline, having lost its economic upperhand to the strategies of Western trading companies, and its rural population was looking for new opportunities. Many made the perilous boat journey to San Francisco from the southern region of Guangzhou. This is a narrative of opportunity that we can find all across American immigrant stories, of rural poor searching for new opportunities. The first started popping up in California in a natural progression during and after Gold Rush; the first, Canton Restaurant, opened in San Francisco in 1849. Chinese men worked in an equilibrium of sorts alongside white men, although Chinese men did experience countless and diverse forms of racial discrimination, including and up to personal violence.
This discrimination would be codified soon after. The United States experienced an economic downturn in the 1870s, and existing hostilities toward Chinese immigrants evolved to become something else. White laborers felt threatened by Chinese immigrants who would work for less pay, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was born. It was the first major piece of legislation in American history to exclude immigrants based on nationality, and it allows the United States to effectively suspend Chinese immigration.
This changed somewhat in 1915, when new legislation allowed categories of professionals to enter the United States, and this list happened to include high-end restaurateurs. Families would pay large amounts of money for a white “sponsor” to co-sign for their restaurant, so that they could all come. It was the best arrangement available, because an extended family could easily manage a small restaurant. Most of the subsequent restaurants served Cantonese cuisine, reflecting the ambitions of poorer, rural populations in the South of China. Within a few decades, the United States witnessed booms of Chinese restaurants and growing Chinatowns in major cities all over the United States.
Northern Chinese tastes did not enter into this equation for many decades, until President Nixon visited Beijing in 1972. It was the first time an American president had visited China since the Communist Revolution, and it impacted the way Americans viewed Chinese cuisine. They became interested in and demanded more diverse representations of Chinese food, including the peking duck, multicourse feasts, and soup noodle dishes more popular in the North.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was formally repealed in 1943, but it had played a significant role in how Americans viewed Chinese culture and cuisine for decades. It makes sense that those most willing that find loopholes and uproot their families were those most poor, and after many years, Americans have become very familiar with their cooking.