As Chinatown Changes, the Neighborhood's Chinese Restaurants Move Away from Cantonese Food
A Chinatown restaurant in 1948
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
From the 19th century to the late 1960s, Chinese food in America in general and in Los Angeles' Chinatown in particular was exclusively Cantonese in origin. Not only was it Cantonese, but specifically a rural version brought to America by immigrants largely from the Toishanese countryside, nearly 100 miles from the city formerly known as Canton. Consequently, what was known to most 20th-century Americans as Chinese food was hardly representative of what people ate in China, rather reflecting one narrow branch of the Chinese food spectrum, both geographically and temporally. It would be as if all American food in China was rooted in the culture of 19th-century immigrants from Kern County.
The culprit in what some observers have described as a giant culinary joke on the American public was the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by the United States in 1882. For more than 60 years, these laws made it illegal for almost every resident of China to immigrate to the United States. As a result, during this entire time period the bulk of Chinese in America were of Toishanese origin, as this was the group that had dominated pre-exclusion immigration from China to the United States. While there was a trickle of immigration from China during the exclusion period, it largely consisted of friends and relatives of existing Chinese American residents, many of whom entered the United States illegally.
No wonder, then, that Chinese food in Los Angeles' Chinatown was homogeneously Cantonese well into the 1960s. Chinese exclusion ended symbolically in 1943 when Chinese immigration to America was legalized, but it did not end practically, since China was given an annual immigration quota of only 105 people. While actual immigration exceeded 105 per year due to various exemptions, it took the repeal of the quota system in 1965 to reopen the door to Chinese immigration that had been shut for more than eight decades.
With new groups of Chinese people immigrating to the United States beginning in the late 1960s, the Chinese food scene in Los Angeles was greatly affected. Because the United States and Mainland China were rattling sabers at each other, the bulk of the new immigration was initially from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The newcomers from Hong Kong felt right at home in Los Angeles’ Cantonese-speaking Chinatown, and brought a modern and urban update on Cantonese cuisine to Chinatown.
The Taiwanese newcomers didn’t bother with Chinatown, since they spoke Mandarin, not Cantonese, and essentially headed straight into the budding Chinese community in Monterey Park. The only real effect that the Taiwanese immigrants had on Los Angeles' Chinatown dining was their creation of new types of Americanized Chinese food. Led primarily by their brethren who had settled in New York, Taiwanese chefs introduced America to Sichuan- and Hunan-style Chinese cuisine. Except that this wasn’t real Sichuan and Hunan food, but rather, like Americanized Cantonese food from decades previously, a faux version that appealed to the local host population. New Chinese American favorites appeared, such as hot and sour soup, sizzling rice soup, kung pao chicken, General Tso’s chicken and mushu pork.
To the extent that Los Angeles' Chinatown served in part as a tourist magnet, it did see its first non-Cantonese restaurants in the 1970s with the opening of establishments such as Yang Chow, Plum Tree Inn, Green Jade, Mandarin Shanghai and Hunan Restaurant, which served less-than-authentic versions of Sichuan-, Hunan- and Shanghai-style food. But really the bigger news was the opening of numerous Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown starting in the late 1970s, many of which were opened by Cantonese-speaking ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. Indeed, some of the Chinese locals fretted that Chinatown was turning into more of a Vietnamese commercial community than Chinese, though that trend has now clearly begun to reverse with the recent closure of some of Chinatown’s longest-standing Vietnamese restaurants. Now, of course, L.A.'s Chinatown represents food cultures around Asia and the world, but the majority of restaurants in the neighborhood are Chinese.
As far as authentic Chinese food from other regions of China went, it was nonexistent in Chinatown even after immigration from Mainland China to the United States opened up, as those immigrants too headed straight for the San Gabriel Valley. Indeed, the San Gabriel Valley has now become so weighted toward non-Cantonese regional Chinese cuisines, a trend that started in the late 1990s and accelerated in the past decade, that we have reached the point where only about 10 percent of the new Chinese restaurant openings in that region are of the Cantonese persuasion.
Still, authentic, non-Cantonese Chinese cuisine continued to be nearly nonexistent in Los Angeles Chinatown. Four years ago the only food that fell in that category came from Lollicup, the boba chain that also sells snacks like popcorn chicken, which technically may be classified as Taiwanese food. The real initial fissure in the Cantonese wall of Los Angeles' Chinatown dining came in 2013, when the owners of San Woo BBQ in Far East Plaza (not to be confused with Sam Woo BBQ, the prior occupant of that location), a Cantonese roasted-meat restaurant with a heavily Latino clientele, started selling specialty dishes from Western China, such as liang pi spicy cold noodles, spicy Guilin rice noodle soup, Luzhou spicy and sour soup and Shaanxi burgers. This repeated a pattern that the owners had followed with another operation, Bamboo Express, in the food court of the since-demolished University Village shopping center across the street from USC, where they sold Americanized Chinese food to the USC student body with a special menu of Western Chinese items on the side. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that they rechristened San Woo BBQ as Qin West, finally confident that the name change would not chase away the existing client base.
The next non-Cantonese entrant was House of Bao, which opened on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in the summer of 2015 in a Walmart-adjacent space. Like Qin West, it had its origins by the USC campus, started by the owner of a popular Shaanxi-style food truck that haunted the campus. House of Bao offered an array of dumplings, fried buns, pig ears, duck necks and other treats, and quickly gained a nice following and a positive Los Angeles Times review. But in less than three months it was out of business, a testament to the perils of selling non-Cantonese Chinese food in Chinatown.
It’s taken another year, but two recent openings in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza seem to signal that the sun may have started to set on the Cantonese food empire in Los Angeles' Chinatown, as it already has in every other Chinatown in the United States. This past fall, the burgeoning Far East Plaza welcomed Chinatown’s first new Chinese restaurant in four years with the opening of Lao Tao. Specializing in Taiwanese street food, Lao Tao isn’t your typical Taiwanese restaurant peddling stinky tofu, pig ears, fried pork chops and pig's blood. Instead of these dishes, it serves a delicious variety of Taiwanese comfort foods such as double-cooked popcorn chicken, minced pork rice, beef shank noodles, chicken neck roll and century egg and tofu salad. And just weeks ago, the Fresh Off the Boat man himself, Eddie Huang, opened his West Coast branch of Baohaus, serving some of the Taiwanese items that made the Manhattan location famous. Right now the short menu includes pork belly bao, fried chicken bao, fried fish bao, tofu bao and taro fries.
What lies ahead for 2017? Well, Los Angeles' Chinatown is the only Chinese community in the country that does not have an authentic Sichuan-style restaurant in its midst. You can get authentic Sichuan food in dozens of college towns across America, even Lawrence, Kansas, but not in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Hopefully 2017 may be the year where our Chinatown gets a taste of Sichuan and other types of authentic Chinese regional food.
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