Book Review

Coe, Andrew. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. NY; Oxford University Press, 2009

Andrew Coe looks at the relationship between Americans in the early years of the nation and Chinese through food in Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Coe’s themes of transnationalism, nationalism, and globalization are shown through the historical records of Chinese and American interactions from the late 1780s to modern United States in and out of Chinatown. The rise in popularity of Chinese American food in the United States is a collection of economic and social factors. Americans were first introduced to Chinese food in the late 18th century when China opened a limited-access trading post for the Western nations. The first interaction between Americans and Chinese food was not a positive experience for either parties. The relationship of food and society is shown through how the people involved treat the food they are eating. Food is one of the easiest ways to connect with people but for Americans it only helped it confirming and adding to the prejudice they had about the Chinese.

Transnationalism is the cultural, economic, and political fields that expand outside of the nation-state. Coe examines this in the ways in which Chinese food is perceived by those who eat it. The American reaction to cuisine in China and then later to Chinese American food, brought by Chinese migrants, stayed much the same. The cultural effects of taste and preferences between the Chinese and Americans were one the many gaps between them. Americans in China only ate Chinese cuisine when they were invited to banquets, even then they would bring food and table setting for themselves. When the food arrived in America it was much the same for many years. Coe’s writing presents the economic and political expansion together early on in the Chinese market and later through the policies and laws placed against the Chinese migrants. Before, the Americans wanted the Chinese market to better their own fortune and place them as a global power. Later, when the work was done and the migrants were no longer needed, they were barred from entering the United States. The cultural expansion was effected by the economic and political expansion. The cultural expansion was the movement of Chinese migrants to the United States and what they brought with them. The effect is seen later also in Coe’s work in the non-Chinese customers to the Chinese owned restaurants.

Americans went to China in search of a global market was a form of economic globalization. Through reaching out and placing themselves in the new market, the Americans were positioning themselves on the same level as the European powers. In Coe’s work globalization is seen also in the food the Europeans and Americans were eating. While in the ports, the food they ate was European inspired; however, it was cooked by Chinese servants. This is significant for two reasons, the first being that European food was preferred and known to the servants so they could prepare it for the men. The second reason is the Europeans and Americans only sometimes tried the Chinese cuisine when in the presences of other Chinese citizens and would later write about their experiences. It is the personal accounts and journals by these men and missionaries that Coe uses to better understand the global opinion that formed on the Chinese which is taken by the readers of these works who did not travel to China themselves. The early captains and representatives to China who kept personal accounts on what they saw there usually said the same things. By writing and publishing these accounts, they were influencing the perceived appearances of China to those who did not travel themselves.

Another act of globalization that Coe brings up in his book is the shipping of Chinese food to America. He shows this through the restaurants owned by Chinese Americans and what the small migrant population eats. Since the migrant population was lower, which was mostly caused by political policies, those who were able to arrive had to cook for themselves and others. In doing so, they were able to bring the much discussed and disliked Chinese cuisine to skeptical America and Americans. This global cuisine was shown best in the amount and popularity of restaurants. Early on Americans did not like the taste or smell of Chinese American cuisine. They were able to appreciate some parts of it, especially what was special about it years later. In one instance both sides were shown. During a local festival hosted by Chinese Americans in San Francisco in 1865. Some of the elite white guest were impressed with the food, while two in particular left early to “get something to eat,-a good square meal” (p. 106). Later in New York, the Bohemians would try to embrace the differences and lead a charge across taste boundaries, even though they still held onto their own prejudice about the food (p. 157). While this sentiment lasted the late 1900s, the rise and expansion of Chinese food in America showed a form of globalization where the western nation is being impacted not the eastern one.

Participation in globalization was nationalist motivated as shown in Coe’s early chapters on the motivation of American and European merchants. While the early Americans would recount what they saw and experienced in China, the later merchants were not concerned with the happenings of China. Coe talked about how the Europeans would purposely separate themselves from the Chinese subjects. Specifically for Americans, their interest for global markets in China was an early form of manifest destiny and a sphere of influence. The man selected for this charge, Caleb Cushing said, “I go to China… in behalf of Civilization and that … the doors of three hundred million Asiatic laborers may be opened to America,” (p.41) so the motivation to take advantage of the Chinese market was not hidden. Nationalism for the Americans in Coe’s work extended to the food they and did not choose to eat inside and outside China. Even when the Americans would eat Chinese cuisine they would go back to their homes to eat European food. Race relations in Coe’s work is not deeply discusses outside of the historical context but the underlying issues and xenophobia is shown through the actions of the travelers. Nationalism and its connection to race are shown beyond food. Chinese Americans and migrants would work in multiple fields and plant gardens would hear from the white labors who did not want completion or the ‘foreign’ food they grew (p. 120).

Coe’s book on the history of Chinese cuisine in the United States reads as a history book, informing the reader on the beginnings and details of the relationship between the two. The historical facts are broken down sparingly with expanded information on the topic and some explanation as the reasoning for them. The use and mention of personal accounts and journals of those who traveled to China in the early interactions Chinese and American people helps to ground and support the historical facts Coe has written about. The other disciplinary sources Coe uses helps to legitimize the work and pull in more examples and angles to the story for better understanding of what happened. The setup of the book in which each chapter is almost a new timeline point for Chinese American cuisines arrival to America helps to build up to its arrival and the way in which it interacts with the American public. Chop Suey best shows the connections between food and people through their history together.