Fuleen Restaurant, on Division Street in Manhattan Chinatown, is one of the better Chinese seafood restaurants in New York City, and one of the more enduring restaurants in the Little Fuzhou section of Chinatown east of Bowery. When I first went there a dozen years ago I didn't pay any attention to the name, since Chinese restaurants often have odd names, particularly when not catering to non-Chinese diners. Then about 10 years later I ran into Fuleen Palace in Howard Beach in Queens which serves Americanized Chinese food, and I started to wonder--did this restaurant have a common owner with the one in Manhattan Chinatown? However that theory went down the drain when I started seeing similar variations, such as Chen Fulin Kwok in Brooklyn Chinatown and Fully Bakery in Elmhurst. At that point the question of what Fuleen or its variations stood for started to drive me crazy on two different accounts.
Besides these Fuleen restaurants, an internet search then pulled up many, many other
"Fuleen" Restaurants as well
as its phonetic equivalent, "Fulin". There's actually a chain of Chinese restaurants with that name in Tennessee and Alabama. And there are other variations, such as FuLoon, Fullin, and who knows what else. The first strange thing is that the word Fuleen only seems to be associated with
Chinese restaurants in the eastern United States. Mention Fuleen to anybody on the West Coast and you get blank stares. The second factor is the dozens of Fuleen, Fulin, etc. restaurants all seem to have opened quite recently, certainly just in this century.
The fact that all of the Fuleen restaurants are located in the eastern United States does provide a major clue to the origin. As I wrote in my Menuism article on Monday night wedding banquets in Manhattan Chinatown, there is a network of Chinese restaurant owners and workers tethered to the Fujianese community in the eastern part of Manhattan Chinatown. Quite possibly, the name Fuleen and its deriviations is an indication of ownership by Chinese originally from Fujian Province in China, who passed through Manhattan Chinatown and rode the bus network from there to places all over the eastern half of the United States. Since the Fujianese did not make their presence felt in the United States until the 1990s, that would explain the lack of pre-existing use of the Fuleen name. This was a good theory, but was this really the answer?
In search of a solution I asked for thoughts from the participants of the Chowhound message boards.
It turns out that the Chinese name for Fuleen Restaurant 富臨 has no English equivalent, but is a term that connotes wealth and joy. There is nothing particularly Fujianese about the use of the term, but for whatever reason it now appears to have been adopted by Fujianese restaurant owners, much like previously generations of Chinese restaurant owners gave names like Golden Palace or Silver & Gold Amazing to their eateries. While there is no smoking gun confirming this conclusion, given that Fuleen doesn't have a specific technical meaning, it's consistent with the current domination of Fujianese restauranteurs in the east, south and midwest. And at this point there's really no other explanation.