(work in progress)
Chinese food is as American as apple pie.
The neon signs of Chinese takeouts are a ubiquitous part of our country’s visual landscape. Yet we rarely think about the individuals who spend their lives, day in and day out, delivering those iconic takeout boxes seamlessly to our doors.
In the U.S., there are nearly 41,000 Chinese restaurants and takeout joints. To give you a sense of scale, Starbucks has 7,000 locations and McDonalds has 16,000 across the whole country. According to New York City's Department of Health, there are 2,482 Chinese restaurants in the five boroughs of New York City alone. In my neighborhood of Crown Heights/Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, there are 29 restaurants within walking distance of where I live. They have names that are various combinations of each other, like King’s Wok, True Taste, and No. 1 Chinese Restaurant.
"When it comes to Chinese food I have always operated under the policy that the less known about the preparation the better. A wise diner who is invited to visit the kitchen replies by saying, as politely as possible, that he has a pressing engagement elsewhere." -Calvin Trillin
Two customers sit in Happy Wok Chinese Restaurant on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The takeouts in this neighborhood cater to local tastes. Many Crown Heights residents are from the Caribbean, so popular dishes include fried chicken wings and yellow fried rice. Similarly, chop suey, which means “miscellaneous leftovers,” was a popular dish adapted for American palates in the early 1900s and helped popularize Chinese food in the U.S.
Jessica and her husband run J's Wong, a popular Chinese takeout on Franklin and Park Place. Their teenage sons can often be seen manning the counter when they're off from school. Like most Chinese immigrants running takeout restaurants, they are from Fujian, a province in southeast China just across the water from Taiwan.
The Sing Tao Employment Agency on Eldridge Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown is a job center for Chinese restaurant workers. They match workers with restaurants where help is wanted. This is how the Chinatown bus system originally developed—to transport restaurant workers across the country.
According to The New Yorker, the agency hands job-seekers a slip of paper with the salary being offered along with “the boss's name and phone number, and the right bus to take. The restaurant's address, in keeping with the usual practice, [is] left out.”
I met this man waiting at the employment center. He’s out of work and looking for a new restaurant job. He came to the U.S. in 2001 after 9/11. He paid $7,500 to get here, taking a circuitous route from the mainland to Hong Kong to Holland to Barcelona and eventually New York. He now has a green card; his son was born in America and is a 17-year-old high school student.
A cyclist passes King's Wok on Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights.