Growing up in the 1940s in Macon, GA, where we were the only Chinese family in town, I never knew Chinese restaurants existed.
The absence of Chinese restaurants at that time was not unusual for the Deep South. Until beyond the middle of the last century, the primary occupation for Chinese in the South was owning laundries; running a restaurant required more capital, cooking skills and the difficult task of attracting non-Chinese to an unfamiliar cuisine.
The few pioneering Southern Chinese American restaurateurs adapted dishes to local tastes rather than served authentic dishes because there were few, if any, Chinese patrons.
At the Canton Restaurant in Savannah, GA, P.C. Wu described his version of mo kwat gai, a prime example of American food that was served under an exotic Chinese name: “It was simply slices of fried chicken breast served on a bed of lettuce and covered with brown gravy.”
These restaurants were also sites of cultural exchange between Asian restaurateurs and their diners.
“You learned to be outgoing and to be comfortable dealing with many people,” Wu said. “One shocking discovery was finding that some people thought nothing of eating and then leaving without paying the bill. Another appalling fact was that some people would talk with a mocking imitation Chinese accent in our presence as if we were not standing there or if we were deaf.”
There were problems with access to ingredients, challenging for any small business, but with unexpected twists for Southern Chinese American restaurateurs. Raymond Wong of How Joy Restaurant in Greenville, SC,* said: “When we opened the restaurant, and for at least the first decade, Chinese ingredients and vegetables like bok choy were not widely available. We had to order bok choy from San Francisco and have it delivered by air....We also ordered bean sprouts and Chinese spices from California and Chicago.”
Finding reliable kitchen help was also challenging. Wong said that his restaurant initially had only Chinese cooks, who lived in the back of the restaurant. But they were difficult to keep in Greenville; there was not much for them to do when they were not working. Frustrated with often having to find Chinese cooks to replace the old ones, Wong’s parents decided to train several black women to cook the food.
Wu’s parents resorted to inviting their Chinese cook to join them on vacations, in order to keep him from getting recruited by another restaurant. Such getaways were rare for most owners of Chinese restaurants, which were open six or even seven days a week. But even the occasional road trip for Wu’s family didn’t offer much in the way of change of scenery.
“On our vacations, we usually visited our cousin Ava in Miami,” Wu said. “Her family owned — you guessed it, a Chinese restaurant. Our vacations essentially involved leaving one restaurant, driving around 500 or so miles to sit in another Chinese restaurant and then driving back to our restaurant. When we returned, people would ask what we saw, and the answer would be ‘very little.’”
*Correction: How Joy Restaurant was located in Greenville, Mississippi, not Greenville, SC.
John Jung has published four books on the history of Chinese American family-owned businesses. His book on Chinese American restaurants in the South, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants, was published in 2011.