Date of Award

Summer 2019

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Lauren Sklaroff


The central aim of this project is to describe and explicate the process by which the status of Chinese restaurants in the United States underwent a dramatic and complete reversal in American consumer culture between the 1890s and the 1930s. In pursuit of this aim, this research demonstrates the connection that historically existed between restaurants, race, immigration, and foreign affairs during the Chinese Exclusion era. The movement of Chinese American restaurants and cuisine from the fringes to the center of white consumer culture was not a process dictated exclusively by the tastes of non-Chinese Americans or by the ability of Chinese immigrants to craft new cuisines to cater to a Western palate. Rather, these sites of cultural exchange and contest between immigrants and the native society were also spaces in which forces from deep within the historical American psyche and from far beyond the country’s borders came to bear upon the consumption patterns of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chicagoans.

Instead of attributing principal causal significance for the sudden popularity of Chinese American cuisine in the 1890s and beyond to the celebrity status of a particular Chinese minister, the palatability of chop suey, or the culture of empire ascendant in this period, I argue that the American desire to consume Chinese restaurant fare emanated from a larger, deeper, and resurgent enthusiasm for China and Chinese cultural products more broadly. I term this enthusiasm, grounded in the particular image that Americans held of China as an economic and political entity, Sinophilia. “Sinophilia” here does not refer simply to a superficial affection for China as part of a larger exotic “Orient,” but instead describes a long-standing aspect of American culture, which attached a unique emotional significance to China, reflecting a belief in a special relationship between the United States and the Middle Kingdom. Assigning historical significance to this facet of American consumer culture shifts the analytical focus in the literature on Chinese restaurant history away from the contents of restaurant menus and towards the broader, more unique position that restaurants as sites of cultural consumption held in the American psyche.


© 2019, Samuel C. King