Where Did the All-Too-Familiar Chinese Zodiac Placemat Come From?
The placements likely served as an easy-to-parse bridge for people familiar with Chinese-American cuisine, who could be made interested in learning more. “They were designed to share a bit of Chinese culture to the restaurant patrons,” he says. Catherine Piccoli, a curator at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City agrees. “For some Chinese-American restaurateurs in the mid-20th century, I think there definitely is a move towards education,” she says. But its omnipresence in Chinese American restaurants tells the story of the changing role those restaurants played in American lives, and how their proprietors used Orientalism to drive acceptance of their culture.
Chinese restaurants in the U.S. date back to the first wave of immigration from China, predominantly from Guangdong (then known as Canton), in the mid-1800s. It was spurred by the Gold Rush, and then work on railroads, farms, and in laundries. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act as white Americans increasingly blamed Chinese immigrants for low wages and a lack of jobs. “Out of sheer necessity, Chinese had to find or develop forms of self-employment because most forms of work were denied to them,” writes John Jung, a professor emeritus in psychology and a historian of Chinese-American history, in Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants. Restaurants popped up both as places for the predominantly male Chinese population to cook their own cuisine for each other, and as a business opportunity — especially since Chinese immigrants were often unwelcome or segregated from other communities.
Continue Reading: Where Did the All-Too-Familiar Chinese Zodiac Placemat Come From?