The hyphen always seems to demand negotiation.Fred Wah
“OKAY, so what should I do?” I ask. I’m staring at my mom’s kitchen counter, which has been overtaken by ingredients: onions, celery, carrots, bean sprouts, cremini mushrooms, chicken breasts, green onions, and a brimming bowl of su choy.
“Start with the mushrooms,” Mom says. “I would cut them into thin slices and then in half…” She watches me begin to cut a fat mushroom into half-centimeter thick slices. “You want to use a sharper knife?” she asks. I’m not cutting them thin enough. To make chop suey right, every element must be finely slivered. For a while we work in silence, piling up the cut vegetables into small mountains.
“Really, the dish to me is not that appealing, it’s just shredded vegetables,” she says. We’re both getting fatigued from the chopping.
“So, are you at all excited about this… or not?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s very nostalgic. … It reminds me of Dad’s restaurants.”
Together we are trying to recreate chop suey, a dish I’ve never tasted, but one that my late grandfather prepared thousands of times in his restaurants in Canada. I thought that making this dish would somehow enable me to feel, taste, and smell a piece of this distant past, and come closer to drawing a portrait of my fading family history. We’ve consulted family members and plumbed Mom’s memories to cobble together what we think is an accurate recipe. But I’m learning that chop suey does not conform to finite instructions.
Today, chop suey is nebulous in meaning. Unless you are over the age of fifty, you probably have never heard of it. Or your closest reference might be from musical artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to the Ramones to System of a Down, who have all included “Chop Suey” in their song titles, none with any clear connection to the dish. (System of a Down’s bassist admitted that the band wanted to call their song “Suicide,” but to avoid controversy used chop suey because “it was suicide cut in half.”) History’s long game of telephone has altered, erased, and appropriated chop suey, to reach the ultimate sign of age—obscurity. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was a staple at North American Chinese restaurants, including my late grandfather’s. Tracing the dish’s history offers an outline to understand early Chinese immigration and the path my family took to create a new home.
After finishing chopping the vegetables, we slice chicken breasts and marinate the wisps of meat in sugar, soy sauce, chicken bouillon, oil, salt, white pepper, and cornstarch. We heat a large pan with oil and when it starts to bubble around the edges, add the chicken. After blanching the vegetables, we mix them together with aromatics and the meat with liberal swigs of soy sauce. Mom gets a little overzealous with the spices and drops in more bouillon, pepper, and various powders from our cabinet. A sprinkle of bean sprouts is added at the last minute.
We carry our bowls of rice laden with generous scoops of chop suey to the kitchen table. Hunched over my bowl, letting the steam touch my face, I take a bite. The dry rice has been soaked in thick salty gravy, the chicken is tender and sweet, and the vegetables satisfyingly crunch. It goes down easy—I keep taking piping hot gulps of this mild, yet comforting mixture. It is not especially remarkable, but it does taste good.
I ask Mom if eating the dish is conjuring any feelings for her. I don’t know what I’m expecting, maybe some kind of revelation or a forgotten memory of her father finally come to the surface. She tilts her head and pouts her lips, a look that I’ve come to know as her feeling-sorry-for-me face. “It’s just chop suey. Sorry, Mormei.”
My grandfather, Ken Gain Sui Louie (whom I called gung gung), had a particular way of carrying himself—posture straight, hands clasped behind his back, and step buoyant. His shock of white hair was neatly combed to the side. He nearly always wore a button-up shirt. When he died, I saved one from the donation pile—beige linen with tortoiseshell buttons. When we went to Chinese restaurants, he would always comment on the establishment’s customer service and food quality. He couldn’t help but closely observe the world he had occupied for over 30 years. Did they bring iced water right away? Were the vegetables fresh? Was there chicken in the sweet and sour balls, or was it all fried batter? Were the dishes steaming or did they arrive lukewarm? Were the portions generous? Did you get complimentary rice?
I struggle to imagine what life was like for gung gung beyond generalities. I never had the chance to eat at any of his restaurants. Growing up, he was always the hero in our family story; the relative I was told to show utmost respect to because he was the reason I was here. For many years, I couldn’t see him as anything but a static figure—an old man with decades of history I couldn’t comprehend. But whenever my family talks about his restaurants and the food he made, his history crystallizes—I can see the gleaming Formica countertop and the dozens of pies in their display case; I can hear the order-ups and the chime of the service bell; and I can smell the steaming plates of chop suey, egg fooyong, chow mein, breaded shrimp, and sweet and sour pork spareribs—flying out of the kitchen and under the forks of lucky customers.
These days chop suey and the restaurants that serve it are disappearing. It saddens me. I am sentimental for this era because it contains all the stories I have about my grandfather. But while these fond historical renderings are comforting, when I open myself to the full picture of the past, I must reconcile the reality in which these restaurants were born. Not for a love of food or a passion for cooking—but for survival.
Gung gung immigrated from Guangdong, a coastal province in Southern China, in 1950 to the Canadian prairies. The story goes, the day he got off the train in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, after a one-month journey from China, he wandered into his uncle’s café on Main Street during the lunchtime rush. No time to spare, his uncle gave him a hasty welcome, handed him an apron, and asked him to start clearing dishes. This was the beginning, at age 22, of his career as a restaurateur.
Back in Toison, Guangdong, gung gung spent long days tending to his family’s rice paddy, and never learned how to cook. In Canada, everything he knew about cooking he absorbed by watching. “He was smart and alert enough that he would keep his eyes and ears open, and he would just pick it up and then he would go try it himself and learn from his mistakes,” my Uncle Lloyd tells me, recounting an explanation his father gave him years ago.
This account seems inconceivable to me, a fable in a storybook. But this kind of immigration story was common at the time. “There’s really not that much choice,” Mom explains. “It depended on where his relatives were and who was willing to sponsor him. He had to buy papers to come in those days, the relative had to say that [he was] their son.”
The story of my grandfather’s life in Canada was not unusual. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants, mostly young men, made the journey to North America. In 1852, the population of Chinese immigrants in the United States was approximately 25,000. By 1890, this number had grown to over 100,000. The men at this time were mainly from the Guangdong region and came to the United States or Canada, which in their eyes represented “Gold Mountain”—a place of abundance, prosperity, and a chance for a better life. This is a simplified version of Chinese immigration history, a sunny account of the immigrant’s plight, which becomes more abstract in each retelling passed down to each new generation.
There is a more complicated narrative of this history: a series of events, circumstances, and misfortunes that help explain the inception of Chinese American cuisine—and the rise of one particular dish—chop suey. A stir-fry of vegetables, bean sprouts, and meat, all coated in gravy, proliferated across North America. Of all the meals that could have been popularized, why chop suey? Like any artifact, the closer you look, the more details you catch. And it turns out within chop suey’s composition, there lies a story that spans centuries and reveals the intricacies of Chinese American identity.
To understand the origins of chop suey, one must understand the origins of the first Chinese immigrants.
The foundation for chop suey begins before the California Gold Rush, in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region of Guangdong, where the Pearl River meets the South China Sea. (Toison, where my grandfather was from, was one of the poorest counties in this area.)
Beginning in the mid-17th century the PRD was a significant harbor that connected the area to global trade. In defiance of the Ming and Qing dynasties, which prohibited contact with foreign merchants, locals took to smuggling and trading anyway, taking advantage of backwater channels and their distance from Beijing. Though the PRD is not a region rich in agriculture or resources, locals were enterprising and found ways to survive.
But floods and droughts in the mid-19th century changed everything, damaging harvests and prompting famine and vicious turf wars for arable land. On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, Californians were striking gold. Many people from the PRD fled to Hong Kong, which was now under British rule and prospering as a new trading hub. A great exodus of Chinese laborers, often from Toison, then sailed to California. For a time, they were sustained by mining gold and were able to send money back to their families.
“Toison was kind of fortunate because it was unfortunate,” says Anne Mendelson, a culinary historian and the author of the comprehensive book, Chow Chop Suey. “Poverty was a great incentive to look for work opportunities overseas. But these intense clan and family loyalties would bring them back in intervals to their wives and families where they would beget more children, hopefully sons, who would carry on what came to be a tradition.”
After the gold rush, many of these Chinese men remained in North America as transcontinental railroad workers. At first, Chinese were welcomed by Americans. They filled a gap in the labor market, willing to do undesirable and backbreaking work that Americans weren’t. But supplying cheap labor was not enough to buoy goodwill forever. The majority white population began to resent Chinese workers, and hostility and racism grew rampant. What followed were a slew of discriminatory laws that prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating. In 1882, the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and in 1885, Canada followed suit, implementing an exorbitant head tax to discourage immigration.
“These laws were meant to hound them out of the country,” explains Mendelson. “That led [them] to say, I am not a laborer—I run a laundry, I run a restaurant. They could say they were heads of small businesses. That saved a lot of people from being deported.”
Forced out of other professions and into the fringes of society, many Chinese opened restaurants. At the same time, America was becoming more urbanized, paving the way for the restaurant industry. Chinese restaurant owners tapped into this burgeoning American consumerism. “They eventually realized that they could make their food more appealing to Americans, if they performed a little plastic surgery, if they made it sweeter,” says Mendelson. “They fashioned this new cuisine, which gave real pleasure to millions of Americans, and it was a lifeline.”
When anything diffuses into the zeitgeist, there is a collective impulse to attach an origin story, a flattened explanation of history that’s easy to understand. I imagine this is what happened to chop suey. It developed an American mythos: chop suey was conceived in New York to serve a visiting Chinese dignitary; chop suey was invented by Chinese miners in California as a leftover stew; chop suey was the brainchild of one Chinese man in San Francisco… None of these stories have ever been corroborated, but they all added to the chop suey craze of the 20th century.
“I think it’s an English transliteration of the Cantonese pronunciation of tsap seui, which is just basically random stuff stir-fried together,” Michelle T. King, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells me. “The other thing is chop suey as a concept is very large and capacious. So really anything could go in that, right?”
That wasn’t always the case. Chop suey wasn’t entirely fabricated in America. The method (stir-frying) has existed in China for centuries, and the contents of what goes into chop suey were once much different. “I don’t think it’s necessarily just a cooking technique. It’s also a set of ingredients,” says Heather Lee, Assistant Professor of History at NYU Shanghai. “I would see the sort of classic traits of a pre-chop-suey-fad version is that you would have entrails or giblets, and it would be cooked with aromatics pretty quickly. I’ve never of course seen the dish on a menu in a Southern Chinese restaurant. I don’t think that typically would’ve made it out of home cooking.”
Somewhere along the way, tsap seui became chop suey, no longer a basic home meal for Southern Chinese, but the gold star on menus across mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants in North America, with an entirely different appearance. When chop suey took off it was modified for the Western palate: it became sweeter, a thick gravy was added, local ingredients were used, and nothing but soy sauce contributed to the flavor. Can the dish really be called Chinese food if it’s been Americanized?
Those who dismiss chop suey as inauthentic Chinese food have well-founded reasons. Chinese cooking traditions are vast and varied. And yet, the dish became a stand-in for all Chinese cuisine in North America. It is this kind of reduction and ignorance that cultural preservationists fight against. It’s dangerous to believe a singularity to be a symbol of an entirety.
Grace Young, a culinary historian and author of three cookbooks, describes to me the concept of yin-yang harmony in Chinese cooking, a philosophy embodied by the balance of opposites. “Ingredients are divided as yin ingredients [and] yang ingredients,” Young explains. “Cooking techniques are divided by yin and yang; so steaming, boiling, poaching would be yin, and yang would be stir-frying, deep-fat frying, [and] pan frying.
“There’s never a time when you create a meal where all the cooking would be all yang.”
While this only begins to scratch the surface of Chinese cooking techniques, it gives an indication of how immeasurably complicated and nuanced it can be. “Chop suey has nothing to do with traditional cooking, and chop suey has nothing to do with yin and yang. But the main thing is it gave the Chinese a way to survive,” says Young.
I agree with Young that chop suey is far from traditional, but I am also fascinated by the factors that led to its creation in America. Chop suey became—much like the dish itself—a mixture of innovations, histories, and cultures.
“The thing about Chinese restaurants today is people complain about this being authentic or that being inauthentic or whatever,” King tells me. “And it’s like, look, people are just trying to make a living. They sell what sells.”
What is Chinese cooking? The answer to that question is so fragmented now. The word authentic needs five sets of quotation marks around it.Anne Mendelson
In the basement of 17 Mott Street in Manhattan, you’ll find a dining room that can’t be more than 500 square feet. Slim red booths line the walls, with smaller tables crammed in the center. The wait staff weave expertly through the chaos, dressed in matching light blue collared shirts, each one stitched with the words “Wo Hop” over the heart. I can hear familiar kitchen music— the clang of a pot, the hiss of a wok, the clatter of tableware, and the muffled parley between cooks and waiters. Hundreds of one-dollar bills are scotch-taped along every inch of the walls, mementos from customers who’ve been coming to this institution for over eighty years for chop suey fare. Each dollar bill has a handwritten message scrawled in sharpie. We came here after getting engaged… Here’s to many more NYC firsts together…My dad brought me here in the 1970s, now I’m here with my wife…
Ming Huang, the manager of 17 Wo Hop, strides effortlessly between the front register, kitchen, and dining floor, anticipating the needs of the restaurant and its customers. Huang has worked at Wo Hop since 2006, and managing this operation is muscle memory. “I see people, they come happy, and they leave happy. Means our hard work pays off,” he tells me. This tried-and-true aim of keeping the customer happy is essentially Wo Hop’s ethos. It’s what has allowed them to survive since 1938 and maintain devotees from unlikely corners of America.
I place my order: fried pork dumplings, beef chow fun, chicken chow mein, and orange chicken. I notice chop suey is not on the menu. When I ask, I’m told they took it off about fifteen years ago because it wasn’t popular with the newer generation. This omission is telling, given that Wo Hop is one of the last remaining chop suey-style restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown. But an establishment like this can call itself “chop suey-style” even if it doesn’t serve the dish. Chop suey is indicative of a certain era and taste. It is more of a genre than a finite item. It’s these vinyl booths and checkered floors. It’s sweet and sour sauce, egg foo young, and spareribs. It’s deep-fried noodles, oversized egg rolls, and superfluous shrimp. Chop suey-style is the earliest form of Americanized Chinese food. Wo Hop fits the bill for the slice of history I’m looking for. Sitting in this restaurant that has been unchanged for over 80 years, I can almost imagine that it’s gung gung behind the counter shouting orders and quality checking each dish.
All the food arrives at once. The dumplings are deep-fried to a crisp and the filling is a generous heap of salted pork. The beef chow fun and chicken chow mein are faultless, coated with the exact right amount of sauce and meat. But the crowning point of the meal is the orange chicken: one flattened chicken breast; breaded, deep fried, sliced, and served in a gelatinous, orange-flavored sweet and sour sauce.
“The food has not changed that much in terms of the taste and the quality,” says David Leung, the grandson of one of the early shareholders of Wo Hop. “I think that’s pretty important for any kind of restaurant where there’s consistency, [people] can rely on it. It’s kind of like going home again.”
Wo Hop is a living museum, a re-enactment of a bygone time. “There’s no replacing the history that we have,” Leung says. “It’s something that I would be afraid to erase from the lexicon of history in New York City.”
After gung gung’s uncle took him under his wing in 1950, he caught on fast. He spent a few years moving between various small-town cafés in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, picking up work where he could find it. Finally, he settled in Brandon, a larger town west of Winnipeg, where he became a part-owner of his first restaurant in 1952, called Exchange Café. It took him six years to save enough money to bring my mom and grandmother over from China.
Mom and Uncle Lloyd grew up in his restaurants and have vivid memories of his cooking, although he tended to save his finest work for home, particularly on special occasions. “When we had a dinner party, Dad would bring out all the best,” Mom explains. “He would go and buy filet mignon and slice them and make pan-fried filet mignon with broccoli instead of just strips of flank steak, you know? And then he’ll make abalone and mushrooms and he would get all the best ingredients. He roasted duck—”
“Oh, his crab was the best!” Uncle Lloyd interjects.
“And the crab! Oh, crab sautéed with black bean sauce and egg. Oh, so good. Succulent!” Mom recalls.
The food my grandparents cooked at home wasn’t always this extravagant. Normally the dishes they made were traditional and simple— steamed beef, rice, fermented vegetables, congee. They didn’t use as much oil, salt, and sugar as the food gung gung was cooking for his customers.
“When I was a kid though, I always thought that the restaurant food was Chinese food,” says Uncle Lloyd, who is roughly five years younger than Mom and lives in Winnipeg now. “I didn’t know the difference between Western Canadian-Americanized Chinese food versus authentic. Those terms were new to me until I was older. I always just thought that this is Chinese food and then at home was just, home food.”
I ask him if he liked the restaurant food better. “Yes I did. Because I was born here and so that is what I grew up knowing, and whenever [Mom and Dad] would cook at home, the authentic stuff, I would be typical, you know, North American kid going, ‘Oh, what is that? That looks gross.’”
“But that’s Uncle Lloyd being a picky eater!” Mom teases. “I liked the food at home much better. It was authentic.”
Eventually, gung gung became manager of Exchange Café. In 1967, he led the effort to rebrand the cafe as Belair, serving both classic diner food and a handful of Chinese dishes. While Belair was located in downtown Brandon, in 1970 gung gung had the idea to open another restaurant on the east end of town. He transformed a space attached to a gas station into Kenny’s Townhouse Inn, catering to the working-class crowd—hospital staff and power plant workers. In the early days, as a gesture of goodwill, gung gung had the idea of sending over a Christmas Eve food package to the power plant nearby. In the box, he included breaded pork spareribs, egg rolls with plum sauce, and deep-fried jumbo shrimp. The workers were so touched by the gesture they pitched in tips for Kenny (as they called him) and repaid the favor tenfold by coming back regularly to the quaint and reliable booths of the Townhouse Inn.
There is no clear record of the trends in the openings and closings of chop suey-style restaurants since their emergence in the late-19th century. However, in 2018, a group of student researchers at UCLA compiled data from the New York Public Library’s menu archives and determined that the phrase “chop suey” was the 3rd highest in frequency after “chicken” and “rice” on Chinese restaurant menus during the decade of 1910-1919. From 1980-1989, the top three words were “sauce,” “chicken,” and “beef.” Chop suey disappeared entirely from the top 12 frequently used words on this group of menus.
This shifting public opinion can be traced back to the 1960s. “Food writers wanted to show that they didn’t have the same plebian taste as everybody else,” explains Mendelson. “They started to point out restaurants that they said were more authentic than the chop suey joint. A great amount of scorn was heaped on chop suey and the sweet and sour and so forth.”
Look to a 1925 issue of the New York Times. Columnist Bertram Reinitz wrote, “chop suey has been promoted to a prominent place on the midday menu. … This celestial concoction is no longer merely a casual commodity. It has become a staple.” Flash forward to 1961 in a The Villager “Table Topics” column by Eugene P. Lambinns: “numerous supposedly adventurous souls seldom get beyond chop suey… This is truly unfortunate as…the Chinese cookbook produces a host of epicurean dishes surpassed in culinary art only by the French.”
This was the beginning of the demise of chop suey, and the mom-and-pop establishments that served it. King explains chop suey’s wane is due to a couple of factors. For one, new Chinese immigrants coming from Northern China introduced different styles of the cuisine. There’s also been a push for more traditional Chinese food among the current generation of Chinese Americans, who are looking to get back to their roots, but not looking to maintain their parents’ shops. “As second generations get the education that their parents want them to have,” King explains, “they don’t want to take over a restaurant and do the backbreaking work.”
King also predicts that in the future Chinese American food will grow increasingly corporatized.
According to an industry report by IBIS World in 2022, it’s estimated PF Chang’s and Panda Express accounted for 28% of the Chinese restaurant market in 2022. The same report assessed that within the Chinese restaurant industry last year, there were 23,661 enterprises (a company that manages one or more locations) and 26,586 establishments (physical businesses), meaning a high percentage of businesses are part of a chain. This number is only expected to grow.
“These restaurants are painful for me because it’s corporate Chinese American food, right?” Young remarks. “It’s a very different feeling than mom-and-pop restaurants.”
In 1974, gung gung opened his last restaurant, Kam Lung, along with several community stakeholders. Kam Lung mirrored the shifting attitude towards Chinese food that was taking place across North America. Old-fashioned dishes like chop suey and egg fooyong were swapped for modern dishes like Cantonese chow mein, butterfly shrimp, lemon chicken, and beef tenderloin and broccoli. At Kam Lung the waiters wore crisp white shirts and black vests, and the hostess at the front wore a cheongsam.
A large-scale Chinese restaurant had never existed in Brandon until Kam Lung. It was higher-end and could serve over 150 customers. The opening landed a two-page spread in the Brandon Sun accompanied with pictures of the restaurant’s interior. After the opening, lines to get a table went out the door.
Gung gung retired in the mid ’80s and sold Kam Lung. It has since changed ownership multiple times, and I’ve heard its glory days are over. Gung gung died in 2020 at 92, having never left Brandon.
In opposition to corporatization, a new type of independently owned Chinese American restaurant has emerged, an evolution evident in New York City. Following in the footsteps of mom-and-pop chop suey joints, these restaurants are serving up new interpretations of Chinese American cuisine.
“There’s nothing more American than turning [something] into a sandwich and mimicking a McDonald’s item,” says Calvin Eng, owner of the Cantonese American restaurant Bonnie’s in Williamsburg, which he opened in December 2021. He’s referring to the “Cha Siu McRib,” an item on the menu he claims embodies what his restaurant is all about: Cantonese flavors, American presentation. “When you eat it, you’ll still get the hot mustard, still get the cha siu glaze, which is made with fermented red tofu and malto, the two traditional ingredients in cha siu sauce, just presented differently in a more playful way.”
At Bonnie’s, named after his mother who taught him Cantonese home cooking, Eng combines Cantonese flavors, methods, and ingredients with unexpected American influences. He felt like no one else was doing it at the time.“It was an opportunity, but also a responsibility,” he says.
The Cha Siu McRib lives up to Eng’s hype. Presented on a tender burger bun and speared with a steak knife, this juxtaposition continues through its flavors—tart from the pickle, sweet from the pork glaze, and spicy from the hot mustard.
“Nostalgia is my favorite ingredient,” Eng says. “Food is great when you hit certain memory points.”
Eng is what Mendelson describes as a “fashionable experimenter.” She has seen a trend in chefs who “have their own, if not revolutionary, at least innovative take on Chinese cuisine—inventing their own kinds of interchange or hybridization.”
Eng recognizes this culinary shift but suggests it is owed to a changing Chinese American identity. “The latest wave of Cantonese cooking [is] the style of restaurant owned by the American-born Chinese kids,” he says. “It’s people born in the eighties and nineties in America to immigrant families who want to pursue cooking and the food of their culture and their heritage.”
On the other side of the East River, Potluck Club, another Cantonese American restaurant, appears to confirm Eng’s second-generation theory. Conceived by five friends who grew up in Chinatown in the nineties, their tagline is “newish take on old classics.”
“We wanted to build something in our community in Chinatown, that was for our generation,” says Cory Ng, one of the founders.
Potluck Club’s identity is embedded in Chinatown and the American-born Chinese experience. The interior pays homage to Hong Kong pop culture. A wall displays stills from films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour, and Kung Fu Hustle. A retrofitted vending machine contains an array of stuff that Ng says “you would have at your grandma’s house growing up”— cartons of Vita drinks, Tiger Balm, Haw Flakes, and various herbal remedies.
Potluck Club’s mission goes beyond making good food; it was formed in response to Chinatown’s decline. “I hope that we continue to bring energy and renaissance to Chinatown and we inspire more of our generation [of] Chinese Americans to bring energy back into our community,” Ng says.
If Bonnie’s signature item is the Cha Siu McRib, Potluck Club’s is their salt and pepper chicken with scallion biscuits. “We merge both worlds, right?” Ng explains. “Chicken and biscuits is one of the most southern American things. But when you have it in our place, it’s chicken and biscuits, the Cantonese way.”
When I try it, the chicken is fried to a crisp and generously coated in salt and white pepper. The biscuits are flaky and soft, and the folded-in scallions make the starchy compound savory. It’s served with a chili-plum jam that adds a welcome sweetness.
I have no room for dessert but have to order the pineapple soft serve with bolo bao crumble. Bolo bao are Hong Kong-style pineapple buns. Gung gung would always save me one from his bakery haul because he knew they were my favorite. Whenever I eat this sweet soft bun with golden crumbly topping, packaged in slippery cellophane, I’m transported. The pineapple bun feels like an anachronism from my childhood, unchanged and dependable. And here it is on Potluck Club’s menu, albeit in crumble form, on top of a swirl of Dole Whip.
Modern Chinese American restaurant owners are serving food that represents their experience in America. The same could be said for chop suey-era cooks, who adapted their food to the conditions presented to them. The difference is that now Chinese Americans have more agency. They control the narrative, a luxury not given to generations before. Yet, chop suey paved the way for this culinary convergence. Without it, who’s to say if Chinese American cuisine would exist as we know it? It was merely the first domino of a run that is still falling.
What is authentic Chinese American food? That question has many answers. To be Chinese American is not either/or, is not one more than the other, is not an annulment of identity, is not ambiguous. It is both Chinese and American. There are no binaries when it comes to who you are, and the same goes for food. Authentic Chinese American food is an expression of lived experience, and no one’s is exactly the same.
I could never know the full picture of my grandfather’s life. What I have pieced together is a sketch. I have felt around the dark room of his past, held its objects, breathed in the dust, and stumbled looking for the door. I have always been afraid of staying in that room for too long, fearing all I would discover was evidence of suffering. But what finally got me to stay inside was chop suey. The dish, in all its mixedness, contradictions, and uncertainty, is one way I can understand history’s dialectical oppositions. I can feel guilt and gratitude; pity and admiration; elation and remorse. I can accept that gung gung’s life was both one of loss and one of sustenance.
I return to Wo Hop nearly a year after I first descended the stairs of 17 Mott. I am here with a singular goal: try chop suey. I called ahead to see if they’d do it, and they gave me a somewhat reassuring, “OK.” I slip into a side booth and watch a group of six waiters silently making dumplings before the lunch-time rush. Twelve hands move in automatic choreography. A spoonful of meat goes into a circle of dough. Powdered fingers fold and seal into half-moons.
A waiter comes promptly to take my order. I’m nervous. I ask for chicken chop suey. “You want chop suey?” the waiter asks, dubious. I nod. He scribbles into his notepad and collects my menu.
I wait for the chop suey with trepidation. Eventually, without ceremony, the waiter slides an oval dish of chicken chop suey under my nose. It is both exactly what I expected, and totally surprising. There are ingredients I anticipated: onions, chicken breast, bean sprouts, celery. But other additions create a chewier texture: canned mushrooms, snow peas, bamboo shoots, and yu choi. There’s more gravy than I could have imagined, and it’s very mild, just soy sauce and a hint of sugar. I quietly eat the dish that has been prepared for me.
As I take my last mouthfuls, I am met with a feeling of finality. I pay the bill and climb back up the stairs into the sun.
In a daze, I find myself walking to Columbus Park. I see children climbing the play structure, families facing-off in ping pong, and old Chinese men and women huddling around stone tables playing cards and mahjong.
I let the gentle cacophony of the park wash through me and head north. Waiting for the light at Bayard and Mulberry, I glance at a row of benches within the park’s boundary. Sitting there is gung gung, reading a Chinese newspaper, legs crossed, and his favorite flat cap perched on his head. I watch as he folds the paper vertically, then horizontally into a neat square. He looks up in my direction— but doesn’t see me. Which one of us is the ghost here? The light changes. I cross, knowing now, I am full.
All photos courtesy of the Louie family. This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers and publishing partner Ruth Ann Harnisch. Edited by Kiley Bense. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.
Mormei Zanke (she/her) is a Canadian journalist and poet who lives in Brooklyn. She earned her MFA in Literary Reportage at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her poems and writing have appeared in publications including The Globe and Mail, KGB Lit, Kyoto Journal, and PRISM international.