Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fujianese American Food Diaspora

All my life I've heard the comment that "all Chinese look alike." Indeed, there is some truth in this statement in the same way that all Caucasians look alike if you don't know any of them personally. A lesser known corollary of the original statement is that historically Americans have been unaware of the regional origins of Chinese in America. Their assumption has been that the Chinese in America migrated from all parts of China. But in fact, until the post-World War II era, over 90 percent of Chinese migrants to the United States came from a small number of rural districts outside of Canton known as Toishan. It was as if all the Americans living in some foreign country had originated, say, in Pasadena, Texas (a suburb of Houston). So while the anti-Chinese political movement that swept across 19th America railed against the massive hordes of Chinese who could potentially immigrate to America, in fact they seriously overestimated the potential degree of migration. Indeed, many Toishanese villages ended up sending most of their adult males to America as it was, pretty much exhausting the supply of potential immigrants.

Of course after World War II things changed, particularly after the revision of immigration laws in the mid-1960s, such that Chinese from a wider range of geographical locations are found throughout the United States. But amidst this background, we once again see a stealth migration of a localized Chinese group, which has interesting consequences to food lovers. This is the immigration from Fujian to New York City, and the attendant food diaspora throughout the East Coast, South and Midwest. Essentially, as described by Jennifer 8 Lee in a number of New York Times articles, there is an underground railroad of illegal immigration from Fujian Province to New York City, and then to and from New York City. Arriving in Manhattan Chinatown the immigrant will seek his fortune in the Chinese food industry, somewhere east of the Mississippi River, and quite often outside of New York City. The Fujianese section of Manhattan Chinatown (that part east of Bowery) is home to dozens of employment agencies and bus lines, whose purpose is to serve Fujianese operated Chinese restaurants throughout the eastern United States. The worker will check out job opportunities, listed by area code, pay a small fee for a placement, then hop one of many buses bound for destinations all over the eastern half of the country. Tired of working in Charleston, SC? Take the bus to Manhattan Chinatown, get a new job in Akron, Ohio, and arrive there scarcely 24 hours after you left South Carolina. Stroll through Little Fuzhou any evening and you will see these workers in transit walking the streets, pulling their luggage behind them. An interesting sidelight is that these workers will often to return to Manhattan on their days off. This explains how the Fujianese part of Chinatown can support such a vast network of bus lines to all over the Eastern U.S., as it's not just people changing jobs that are looking for their ride. And not surprisingly these itinerant Fujianese also return to Manhattan for their wedding, with a portfolio of bridal pictures shot in Central Park de rigeur to show the folks back home what it's like in the USA.

The original network of Chinese restaurants in towns throughout America was set up by the Cantonese. However in most cases the second generation of Cantonese had no interest in maintaining the family business, and indeed quite often had no desire to stay where their parents had settled. Consequently, the Fujianese have provided the new blood for operating Chinese restaurants in locales without a significant Chinese population. And with the dream of every Fujianese restaurant worker being to eventually own his or her own restaurant, there is no shortage of Fujianese willing to set up shop in Bowling Green, KY, Bessemer, AL, Davenport, IA, or wherever.

Note that the Fujianese have been very adaptable in setting up their operations. Most Fujianese operated restaurants serve Americanized Chinese food in cities that have little if any Chinese local Chinese residents. On the other hand, they also open up dim sum and Hong Kong style seafood restaurants in locales that have non-Cantonese Chinese communities. Chinese from all regions like Cantonese style food, so in places like Atlanta and St. Louis, which number few Cantonese in the local Chinese community, the biggest and best authentic Chinese restaurants serve Cantonese food.

Interestingly while Fujianese dominate the Chinese restaurant business in the eastern half of the U.S., and Manhattan Chinatown is full of Fujianese restaurants, Fujianese are nearly non-existent in the western part of the U.S. The reason is simple--a high percentage of Fujianese are undocumented, so their main mode of transit is by bus in and out of Manhattan Chinatown, since they don't have the required ID to fly. And there are no buses from Manhattan Chinatown to California.

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