JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.
`Have you eaten yet?' That's a traditional Chinese greeting. It's also the title of a new exhibit at New York's Museum of Chinese in the Americas that traces the Chinese-American experience through the unlikely medium of Chinese restaurant menus. NPR's Jacki Lyden went through the exhibit with curator Cynthia Lee, and she starts our tour by reading from a menu in the 1940s.
JACKI LYDEN reporting:
(Reading) `Ideal cooking. Popular prices. Any criticism will be considered as constructive and will be greatly appreciated by the management.'
Things have changed a lot.
Ms. CYNTHIA LEE (Curator, Museum of Chinese in the Americas): Well, I think that that's what really struck me. I realized that for many of the menus, there were commentaries by the restauranteurs basically expressing that they would be happy to be sort of cultural brokers, understanding that their clientele most likely knew nothing about Chinese food or Chinese food customs.
LYDEN: What is this? This is Led Looster; `Lots of Foo Yung.' What's this?
Ms. LEE: That is something that we excerpted from the menu of Led Looster Lestaurant. And, quite frankly, when I first saw this menu, I didn't know what it was talking about. And then after a couple of moments, I realized it was a play on the stereotype that Chinese people can't speak English properly, that their R's and their L's are mixed up. So actually, it's really Red Rooster restaurant. And, therefore, by playing to that, it's kind of telling people this is authentically Chinese.
LYDEN: The Red Rooster's menu tries for a comical tone, but the racism experienced by Chinese immigrants was real. Thousands of Chinese worked to build America's railroads. Later, afraid they would steal good American jobs, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For 60 years, until World War II, Chinese workers couldn't bring their families to the United States. Miscegenation laws often meant they couldn't marry. Thus, the Chinese restaurants became emporium, dining hall and social support network for what Cynthia Lee calls `the Chinese bachelor society.'
Ms. LEE: These establishments really sort of catered to the bachelors, but at the same time, because there were so few Chinese, actually, they were also catering to tourists.
LYDEN: It really was a tourist experience. World War II brought a fad for Chinese nightclubs. The brightly colored menus with a China doll or a castaway looked almost like programs for a Chinese opera; red, yellow, blue and green. But the entertainment was not quite as sublime, perhaps.
Ms. LEE: During that nightclub era, a lot of the mainstream nightclubs also served Chinese food even if they weren't a Chinese-themed club. And a lot of the Chinese restaurants in the area also had floor shows and entertainment. Part of it is that Chinese food at that time was really considered an affordable exotic cuisine.
LYDEN: Well--and they're certainly, I'm afraid, predicated on some of the racism of the day. This one, `Tom Wall presents his Slant-Eyed Scandal(ph).'
Ms. LEE: Right.
LYDEN: That would never, ever fly today. What's this here?
Ms. LEE: This grouping actually showcases some of the souvenir photo albums that you could have received at the restaurants. And that really just shows you how much of a touristic experience going to a Chinese restaurant was in those day. And a lot of times, people would go to the restaurant, get their photo taken, write a nice little inscription, give it to their girl before they go out to the front.
LYDEN: And here's a photograph. (Reading) `Nancy, just one more date. Irish and I have made it. Best of luck to the best little morale-builder in Frisco. Love, BK.' And it just shows a bunch of young people. Some of the men are in military uniform--some of the women, too--and it looks like they might be shipping out.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
LYDEN: And after we finished our feast of the menus, dessert.
Tell us about the history of the fortune cookie. I have to say that I was kind of taken aback. I thought it was an essential antique part of authentic Chinese cooking.
Ms. LEE: Well, cookies aren't really big in Chinese cuisine or Chinese desserts. There are competing stories, but basically the two stories both say that the cookie originated in California.
LYDEN: Did you ever see a Chinese fortune cookie in China?
Ms. LEE: No.
LYDEN: No. It would be like seeing--having a pineapple pizza in Florence.
Ms. LEE: It's very American, yes.
LYDEN: I'm sure.
Ms. LEE: It's an American invention, for sure.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: All those menus made us hungry for the real thing. Cynthia Lee led us through the streets of Chinatown, which are full of papered dragons and jade plant shops, Chinese cobblers and people chattering in Chinese. You could almost be in Hong Kong.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
LYDEN: We ended up at Joe's Shanghai on Pell Street, where Cynthia Lee introduced us to one of the best things you can find on a Chinese menu, soup dumplings. The soup is inside the dough.
You're going to eat this dumpling with those chopsticks, aren't you?
Ms. LEE: Well, what I'm going to do is I'm going to place this dumpling, using my chopsticks, into my soup spoon.
LYDEN: I'm going to try to do just what you're doing.
Ms. LEE: And then you very carefully take your first bite of the dumpling. And it's in your soup spoon so it can catch all of the soup that's going to come pouring out.
LYDEN: Mmm. This is delicious.
Ms. LEE: Nobody worries about any slurping noises that happens at the table.
LYDEN: We have to have slurping noises.
The only thing we worried about was what to order next from hundreds of items. So we settled on another round of...
(Soundbite of slurping noise)
LYDEN: ...soup dumplings. Jacki Lyden, NPR News.
LUDDEN: To see art from the exhibit and to a montage of chow mein commercials from an earlier age, go to our Web site, npr.org.