chinese diaspora as tracked through chinese restaurants

In 2004 I backpacked through Eastern Europe for 3 or 4 months, from Prague to Istanbul. As most tourists to foreign cultures can attest, sometimes you get tired of “foreign.” Every once in a while, you just want to do something that’s familiar so that you can take a break from experiencing something new. Seriously; all the excitement can actually wear you out. And sleeping doesn’t count as rest in this case because your subconscious mind at that point is recalibrating all your foreign experiences of the day.

So yeah, I love Eastern European food. Polish food, Czech food, Hungarian food, Croatian food, Bosnian food, the Serbian food I had wasn’t that good but, Bulgarian food… it’s all good and different and yummy. And also I love their beer and liqueurs. And so many different ways to prepare cabbage. Genius.

But I arrived at this point of wanting a break from new food one afternoon in Krakow. I just didn’t want what I ordered off the menu to be a surprise or a game of charades. Obviously McDonald’s was out of the question. Cha– majorly tacky thing to do while in Foreign, though BK is sometimes okay. Besides, there weren’t any around and US fast food is actually relatively expensive overseas (it’s treated like real restaurants…)

So anyway my stomach was grumbling, and I was kind of staggering around from hunger in this weird industrial section looking for something that wouldn’t be a communication struggle or a Frenchbread pizza with ketchup on it (zapiekanka, which I still can’t pronounce either).

I passed a Chinese restaurant. And the menu in the window was in Chinese. Sort of. Polish Chinese. The point is I knew what the words meant. It was spelled a little differently, but I knew what a “vontun” was. And the menu had pictures on it. Of egg rolls and lo mein.

So from then on I learned that if I wanted a meal that wasn’t a cultural novelty to me, I could just look for a Chinese restaurant. And in fact find it, easily. From a large city like Budapest to quaint Veliko Târnovo, Bulgaria, there are Chinese restaurants. I ate at them.

Which made me realize, there are Chinese people in those places, too. Where there are Chinese restaurants there are Chinese immigrants. If there are Chinese restaurants in Kazakhstan and Camaroon, which I’m betting there are, then that means Chinese people have immigrated to those places.

Think about this: the number of mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants vs the number of McDonalds there must be in the world.

Indigo Som is an artist in the SF Bay Area that collects Chinese restaurant menus from all over the US (BFEs represent heavily). To illustrate their omnipresence.

Here is the Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project group on Flickr. “Worldwide” meaning everywhere except China and Taiwan.

I was stoked when the Chinese restaurant Kung-Fu Bing opened in New York’s Chinatown. Because that restaurant is not an immigrant restaurant. It is actually a fast food restaurant that is a popular chain in China. The Chinatown branch was the first to open in the US. Will Kung Fu Bing soon give McDonald’s imperialism a run for its money?

Chinese restaurant in Budapest

Menu from a Chinese takeaway in Glasgow (click to enlarge)

88 Palace, 88 East Broadway, Chinatown, New York


5 responses to “chinese diaspora as tracked through chinese restaurants

  1. Very interesting post. As you can immagine, there are chinese restaurants in Portugal too, not in every town nor even every municipality but close.

  2. Thanks. Yes, I don’t mean to generalize that they are “everywhere,” but it’s surprising the places they’re found. Britain or Holland or somewhere else that has a past with them, yes, but Bulgaria? It’s not the first place I would imagine moving to open up a restaurant which serves the food of my motherland.

    I just checked out your blog– do you mainly focus on Portugal? It looks like you invite local expertise from everywhere. I’m in Mexico City, and there are a couple of good local food blogs that cover the area. My friend Lesley Tellez is linked on here (Mija Chronicles, under Good DF Blogs); she does one and she has links to several others.

  3. This is an awesome post! Food is such a power way of spreading culture! The Chinese Restaurant Worldwide documentation is also amazing as well.

    • Hey, thanks for commenting! Tell me about it– food is so underestimated, especially in the States where we often just assume we can find food from all over. It really is a special thing that there are Chinese restaurants in small towns in Eastern Europe.

      And I was really happy to find the Chinese Restaurant Documentation Project, too. Good to see other people really appreciating just how far-reaching the Chinese diaspora actually is.

  4. Pingback: Food and the chinese Diaspora « 華僑

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