Tag Archives: Chinatown restaurants

Dining with Chiang Yee in Boston

Chiang Yee was a travel writer, born in China but a resident of London since 1933. In 1953 he came to the U. S. to research his book The Silent Traveller in Boston (1959). In 1955 he immigrated to the U.S. and taught at Columbia University for 16 years.

While in London he had published 21 books, many of them which he illustrated with paintings and drawings. Some were about travel but all of them interpreted aspects of Chinese culture for non-Chinese readers, reflecting upon similarities and differences with Western culture. In the travel books, for which he adopted the persona of Silent Traveller, he avoided political criticism and controversy while presenting himself as a serene, meditative man who walked slowly, looked closely, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.

Of course his visit to Boston involved quite a few restaurants, including a number of well-known places. He made influential friends — intellectuals and cultural elites — who took him to clubs and fine restaurants such as the Parker House, Locke-Ober, and the hidden-away 9 Knox Street, then run by two men in their antique-filled home at that address.

He went to popular spots such as Durgin-Park, Purcell’s, Jimmy’s Harborside, and Union Oyster House where he made a drawing of himself with a lobster and bib [shown above]. He was eager to sample local dishes such as cod, baked beans, and clam chowder. He never criticized the restaurants he patronized, though he admitted he was not fond of raw seafood.

A darker and far less serene Chiang Yee was revealed in 2010 with the publication of Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East – A Cultural Biography. Its author, Da Zheng, examined Chiang’s correspondence and interviewed friends and family, painting a complex portrait of his subject. In the Foreword, Arthur Danto reminded readers that “the Silent Traveller itself is a mask he wore that enabled him to survive under skies very different from those under which he was born.” Danto related that after visiting China in 1975, Chiang proclaimed to a group of friends, “Nobody knows who I am!! Nobody! I am a REVOLUTIONARY!!!!.”

Chiang had left his wife and four children behind when he went to London at age 30, confessing to his closest associates that his marriage was unhappy. Born into a wealthy family, he was trained in the classical arts as well as science which he studied in college. He had been a magistrate in China but in the West he built his career around Chinese art and high culture.

According to Da Zheng, when one of his sons immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, Chiang advised him to expect hardships and to be forbearing. His son observed that his father’s New York apartment was filled with signs saying “Forbearance,” suggesting that his father had much need of his own advice.

Chiang Yee told his son to stay away from Chinatown or he might end up running a restaurant there, advice he had earlier given his older son in London. Given the prejudice against Chinese in the U.S. and England – of which he was strongly critical — Chiang told them it was wise to cultivate relationships with non-Chinese.

In the light of revelations in his biography of Chiang’s strong feelings about politics, society, and the vicissitudes of his own life, I interpreted some of his words in a different light than on my first reading of The Silent Traveller in Boston. It is interesting how suggestive his stories of restaurants are in particular.

Although he admired Chinatown residents’ determination and drive, he did not share their language or cultural background. He showed some irritation that his non-Chinese friends and acquaintances in Boston expected him to be an expert on American Chinese restaurants. He wrote that a Frenchman would not “be asked to suggest which French restaurant in Boston is the best as I was asked to do in the case of Chinese restaurants almost as soon as I had arrived in the city.”

He also told of experiencing his first clam chowder in San Francisco but being greeted with silence when he told his Boston friends about this. At first he did not realize why, but later, when they asked if he thought food in Chinatown restaurants was genuine, he reminded them of their reaction to his story of eating Boston clam chowder in San Francisco. I now see this as a kind of mild dig at them, a subtle reminder that the food of American Chinatowns was as foreign to him as it was to them.

I also find it interesting that he tells of a dinner with the family of Harvard professor Yang Lien-sheng at the Old Wright Tavern. He was pleased that the waitress complimented the good behavior of the Yangs’ 5-year old son, but also wrote, “Neither the manageress nor the waitress bothered to tell us the history of the inn . . . Perhaps the people of the Wright Tavern had no time to spare from catering. Or they took for granted our knowledge of Concord history.” I suspect that he felt they had been slighted.

He must have experienced numerous “microaggressions.” Surely experiences such as the one he related about Durgin Park accounted for at least some of his Forbearance signs. Given a huge plate of food that he could not finish, a waitress addressing him as “young man” (he was 53), loudly commented, “Can’t you finish your plateful? If you can’t you should not have come here to waste your money; if you don’t like the food, we want to know why. We don’t like people who don’t like our food.” He said that when she laughed he realized she was joking, but admitted to feeling embarrassed. I’m certain that he knew that the “joke” contained a jibe about his being a foreigner.

It is a shame he had to travel silently and could not be as frank about his estimations of American culture as the Soviet authors of Little Golden America.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Slumming

The word slumming had several meanings when it came into use in the 1880s. Basically it meant visiting the slums. But the purpose for elite and middle-class white Americans might vary, from charity to data collection, curiosity, a sexual escapade, or general entertainment.

Apart from ministers, reformers, and city officials, those who went on slumming tours (with guides) in the late nineteenth century usually were motivated by curiosity or a wish for entertainment.

In 1884, the New York Times ran a story about British actress Lillie Langtry and her party visiting the city’s slums, noting, “So far the mania here has assumed the single form of sight-seeing – the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.”

Following the vogue begun in London, slumming became a mark of worldly sophistication among some Americans in the late 19th century.

Although most newspaper accounts of slumming focused on New York’s Bowery and Tenderloin or San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, there were in fact areas of interest to slumming parties in many parts of the U.S. For example, a group of conventioneers from Omaha visiting Dakota Territory in 1889 took an excursion to Deadwood’s Chinese settlement. They were disappointed it was so tame.

Tours often involved stopping at a restaurant or café, particularly if a group was visiting a Chinese area, as was often the case especially as Chinese populations increased in the Eastern U.S. beginning in the later 1880s. Many of the first white, middle-class customers of Chinese restaurants were “slummers.” Such excursions increased around the turn of the century. A 1900 account described how Chinese restaurant keepers had learned that it paid to accommodate slumming parties who “would spend more money in their places in an hour than their regular customers would spend all day.”

But Chinese restaurants weren’t the only ones “discovered” by slummers. King’s Handbook of New York listed slumming restaurants under the category of “Novelty in Restaurants” in 1892. In addition to Chinese (“dirty, foul-smelling and cheaply furnished”), the handbook mentioned Hebrew restaurants of the East Side, a Japanese restaurant, Russian restaurants, Polish restaurants, a place with Spanish cooking, and “Italian restaurants of a low order” on Mulberry Street. Of a higher order, according to King’s, were Austrian, Swiss, Hungarian, and German eating places.

In addition to Chinese, Italian and Hungarian restaurants were top choices of slummers. Coppa’s, particularly before San Francisco’s great fire of 1906, drew many who were curious about “bohemian” lifestyles.

Postcards from New York’s Little Hungary around 1906-1908 illustrate customers’ thrilled reactions. Anna & Will mailed their card to Arlington NJ, while Marge, who apparently left out a word, sent hers to a woman in Syracuse.

A common interpretation of the appeal of immigrant restaurants was the aridity of mainstream American culture, with its emphasis on the strict rules of proper behavior. Italian and Hungarian restaurants, by contrast, were enjoyed as places where patrons might sing along with the band or talk to their neighbors without being introduced. James Harvey wrote in his 1905 book In Bohemia, “By the time you get to the roast, it is eight o’clock and the evening is in its prime. Everybody seems to love everybody else, thanks to the heavy Hungarian wines.”

In some cases nostalgia played a role. According to a 1997 article by Beth S. Wenger subtitled “The Invention of the Lower East Side,” that part of New York became a destination for Jews who had moved uptown. She quoted a 1926 Jewish Daily Forward story that said “the crowds come nightly to Delancy and Rivington Streets to drink selzer, eat Roumanian Broils and listen to sentimental ballads.” Wenger saw visits to the East Side as symbolizing “the uneasy social adjustment of second-generation Jewish Americans” who were not satisfied with “the ‘strained and sterile’ dining spots in their new neighborhoods.”

Though it was regarded as daring to venture into immigrant restaurants in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, it became less so as the restaurants responded by exaggerating their “foreignness” to attract suburbanites and tourists. In 1905, according to Town & Country, “to eat spaghetti in the backyard is a pet fad,” especially for wealthy conservatives in search of “thrills at the strangeness of it all.” The proprietor played up to them by dressing as a ferocious bandit, “his head bound up in a gay bandanna with large rings in his ears.”

In a 1914 Sinclair Lewis novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, the protagonist takes a woman to a restaurant run by “Papa Gouroff” who wears a fez in hopes that “the place would degenerate into a Bohemian restaurant where liberal clergymen would think they were slumming . . .”

Menus, too, were tailored to the tastebuds of outsiders, producing dishes such as chop suey and chili con carne.

Slumming really hit the mainstream before and after World War I, probably due to a number of movies and novels whose plots included exciting scenes of people on tours. In the 1913 “New York’s Society Life and Underworld,” a group is set to visit the Port Arthur restaurant in Chinatown [pictured] just as they hear a woman’s scream. Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford both starred in 1918 films with slumming scenes; Pickford’s included slumming in San Francisco’s red light district, the Barbary Coast.

At this time just about anyone might venture into the slums, whether a group of clayworkers visiting New Orleans in 1914, or soldiers from Seattle on leave in New York. One soldier admitted, “I was never so disappointed in my life as I was in the Bowery. I expected to see several murders and gun fights but all I could see was foreign merchants with hair all over their faces.” Their big thrill, as it turned out, was going to the Automat.

In fact the Bowery wasn’t what it used to be, having been sanitized in the war period. According to the book Slumming (Chad Heap, Univ. Chicago Press, 2008), counterculture tea rooms in places such as NY’s Greenwich Village and Towertown in Chicago became the bohemian “thrillage” sites of the 1920s. [verse from The Quill, 1919]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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