Migrants continued to arrive in their thousands; and, when the Gold Rush began to wind down, a growing number found work on the railways. This was a booming industry after the Civil War – and Chinese labourers were to play a particularly important role in the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Working once again in gangs, they cooked their own food – and often ended up assuming responsibility for running the chuck wagons of whole sectors. Naturally, they catered predominantly to Western tastes, preparing Chinese classics only on request. But this nevertheless served to spread Chinese cuisine throughout the country. Along the tracks, Chinese-owned restaurants sprang up; and as Erica J. Peters has recently shown, many even attempted to combat ‘anti-Chinese smears’ with elaborate publicity campaigns.
Yet, the more Chinese immigrants put down roots, the greater the hostility became. Workers formed ‘anti-coolie’ leagues; the Irish demagogue Denis Kearney inflamed crowds with violent, anti-Chinese payday loans online Brundwick rhetoric; and, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning all further Chinese immigration. This was just the beginning. Three years later, unemployed white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming attacked the Chinese population, stabbing some in the street and burning others to death in their homes. Horrified, many Chinese left America for good. Others, however, moved east – to New York. And it was there that chop suey at last appeared.
Enter chop suey
As in California, many new arrivals found work as sailors, stewards, dockhands and labourers; but a sizeable minority took to selling food. There was, of course, the usual hostility. In 1883, a Chinese grocer was accused of cooking dogs and cats; and derogatory songs about Chinese cooking were sung on every street corner. But a dramatic shift had already taken place. Not only had white New Yorkers begun to frequent Chinese eateries more frequently – they had also started to eat Chinese food. Why this happened is a mystery. Most likely, it was due to diversity and poverty. More so even than California, New York was a melting pot of different nationalities – most of which lived in extreme poverty. Lacking basic cooking facilities, they frequented the cheapest restaurants they could find. More often than not, that meant Chinese.
Chop suey was an early favourite. It was first mentioned by a prominent Chinese-American journalist named Wong Chin Foo in a list of common dishes he thought might appeal to Western tastes. As he explained, ‘chop soly’ could often be quite varied:
Each cook has his own recipe. The main features of it are pork, bacon, chicken, mushroom, bamboo shoots, onion, and pepper … accidental ingredients are duck, beef, perfumed turnip, salted black beans, sliced yam, peas and string beans.
This was, perhaps, an exaggeration; but chop suey was indeed of Chinese origin. Where exactly its roots lay has been debated; but it was probably first cooked in Taishan, in Guangdong, where most early immigrants had grown up. More properly written tsa sui (Mandarin) or tsap seui (Cantonese), its name means something akin to ‘odds and ends’.
Generally known to New Yorkers as ‘chow-chop-sui’, it soon attracted the curiosity of those further up the social scale. Though comparatively few were tempted to try it, those who did were intrigued. In 1886, the journalist Allan Forman noted that, despite its ‘mysterious nature’, it was a ‘toothsome stew’; and nine years later, the first recipe appeared in Good Housekeeping, albeit with some rather un-Chinese ingredients thrown in.
It was not long after this that the myth-making began. When, in 1896, the Chinese viceroy of Zhili, Li Hongzhang, visited New York, newspapers inaccurately reported that, while he had rejected Western dishes at a banquet given in his honour, he had enthusiastically tucked into a plate of chop suey. This caused a sensation. Wealthy young socialites and members of the aspirant middle classes flocked to try chop suey for themselves; recipes were published in newspapers – often with the most ridiculous ingredients. Speculation about its origins ran rife. Having never heard of it before – much less tasted it – many simply assumed that it was introduced to the US by Li Hongzhang.