New Orleans’ Chinatown

New Orleans’ own Chinatown was home to several restaurants like Sang Kee’s at 1117 Tulane, but most would’ve headed to the French Quarter or Storyville to enjoy a cheap meal. While many of these addresses are long gone, you can still stand in front of the Creole cottage at 912 Toulouse and imagine the aromas that would’ve emanated from Long Chee’s “chop suey joint,” or do the same at 1237 Decatur, where Jim Lee operated his place right across from the bustling French Market. At five to 10 cents a meal, Chinese food was within reach of every citizen, and scholars writing about the topic point out the role of its affordability in popularizing the concept of “eating out” for every class. Shops tended to be open at all hours and on holidays, the genesis of the Jewish tradition of eating chop suey and lo mein at Christmas. Catering to the laboring classes in a segregated city, many Chinese restaurateurs operated separate dining rooms at addresses next door to each other, both served by the same kitchen. Ironically, Chinese patrons ate in the white dining room, despite being the only ethnicity to be specifically barred from immigrating to America by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In century-old, true-crime newspaper columns, the typical Chinese chop-suey joint was portrayed as a darkly lit noir fantasy, a smoky room lined with shadowy figures and thick with the smell of garlic, soy, whiskey and tobacco, playing cards smeared with 50-cent doses of opium fanned across a backroom gambling table. Suggesting more than a whiff of danger, and emphasizing a lack of cleanliness, such descriptions hindered the ascent of Chinese food to middle-class respectability and reflected the sort of discrimination the Chinese people faced in America. At Yee Wah Sen’s joint on South Basin Street, for instance, one observer judged that “the mob that congregates here can show more different types of humanity than you are likely to see anywhere else in the city,” a range that included “the toughest specimens of the underworld” alongside the “aristocrat” and respectable middle- class types. As far removed as we’ve become from a once-alive waterfront buzzing with foreign tongues, it’s hard for us to imagine the situation of the 24 Chinese crewmen aboard the Cartago , a United Fruit steamer, when it docked following a run from Havana in 1915. Because of the Exclusion Act, all Chinese sailors had to be physically described so they might be found and thrown out if they overstayed their welcome. Did Ching Loo, with his “scar above the right eyelid,” join his shipmate Chong Chee, with the “basket of flowers tattoo on his right arm,” for a taste of home in Hop Sing’s place at 1110 Canal Street, just happy to have once again avoided being torpedoed by a German U-boat? One of the earliest attempts to transcend the back-alley reputation of the chop suey house came in 1921, when a group of businessmen from the Fou Loy shrimp business entered negotiations to rent the old Fabacher’s Rathskeller on St. Charles Avenue. Here, they hoped to build “the first elaborate Chinese restaurant New Orleans has ever had.” They eventually opened The Oriental in 1922 at 414 St. Charles Avenue, where they served standard New Orleans fare like shrimp Creole and prime rib alongside Chinese à la carte dishes. This first foray into mainstream New Orleans dining lasted barely a year, but in time others would realize this dream. Chinese-owned companies like Fou Loy Tai & Co. of New Orleans soon emerged and packed the dried shrimp — first, to sell to the markets in California, and then on to China itself, becoming, arguably, Louisiana’s first global food export.

by Justin Nystrom

Recent years have brought renewed interest in elevated Chinese cuisine, one that transcends the familiar sack of white takeaway boxes normally reserved for rainy movie nights at home and that feature flavors wrought by the hands of a professionally trained chef. But Chinese food, whether fancy or everyday, is hardly new in Louisiana. Indeed, it’s been around a lot longer than you might think. We can trace the story of the Chinese in Louisiana all the way back to right after the Civil War, when sugar planters recruited laborers from China to work in the cane fields. These immigrants quickly found deliverance from such arduous toil in the waters of the Gulf, where they began producing dried shrimp, a prized ingredient in Chinese cooking, for their countrymen. By the 1870s you could see huge platforms over the water in Barataria Bay built of cypress planks, some as large as a city block, where workers boiled shrimp in huge copper kettles and fanned them across the platform to dry in the sun. Chinese-owned companies like Fou Loy Tai & Co. of New Orleans soon emerged and packed the dried shrimp — first, to sell to the markets in California, and then on to China itself, becoming, arguably, Louisiana’s first global food export. Anchored by the dried shrimp business, New Orleans’ Chinese population grew steadily in the 1880s and ’90s, drawing newcomers from both California and China to working-class neighborhoods like the French Quarter or the area called “Back o’ Town,” where many started businesses. In 1875 the city directory listed only two Chinese laundries, but two decades later there were over a hundred sprinkled across every neighborhood in the city. By 1890, New Orleans even boasted a small Chinatown around the intersection of South Rampart Street and Tulane Avenue. It’s tough to say when the first Chinese restaurant opened in New Orleans because, as is often the case for poor and marginalized people, historians commonly only find evidence of their existence when something remarkable happens — usually something remark- ably bad. One of the earliest mentions in the Daily Picayune occurred when one Chinese employee murdered another in the kitchen of a restaurant “on the American and Chinese plan” at the corner of Royal and Dumaine streets on the 4th of July, 1887. Or in 1890 at a Chinese restaurant in the 900 block of Toulouse, where readers learned that three Chinese men got into a fight with “two well-known female hoodlums.” When a Chinese restaurateur was murdered in 1895, the paper described his establishment as a “cook shop…can hardly be classified as a restaurant — in one of the low hovels on Franklin Street,” a part of the famed Storyville red-light district. While we may never know which one opened first, the number of Chinese restaurants increased so dramatically during the 1890s that, by the turn of the century, they earned a special subheading in the city directory. This phenomenon happened in cities across the nation, where Americans of all nationalities went to their local Chinatown to enjoy the standard Cantonese-style items found on any Chinese takeout menu today — dishes like egg foo yung, lo mein and the ubiquitous chop suey. It wasn’t the elevated art of fine Chinese cuisine, a gastronomy that critics place on a par with or even above French for its variety and excellence, but the workingman’s fare that became synonymous with Chinese food in 20th-century America.



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