How has Chinese immigration to the United States and U.S. policy impacted the evolution of Chinese food in America? How and when did a distinctively American Chinese cuisine emerge?

Through the analysis of New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” collection data, this project considers the history of 150 Years of Chinese Food in America.


First Chinese immigrants to New York settle in Lower Manhattan.

The California Gold Rush sparks and influx of Chinese immigration to the West Coast from the Canton region of South China.

text reading 'Shall we have Chinese? No! No! No!'

The Chinese Exclusion Act suspends Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States.

The Geary Act is signed to extend the Chinese Exclusion act by requiring Chinese people in the United States to carry a resident permit.

plate of chop suey

Chop suey, an “American” Chinese dish, is rumored to first appear on the East Coast. It quickly becomes a trendy food item despite its roots in America (Jung, 2018).

The Health Department in New Orleans shuts down several Chinese restaurants due to health concerns.

With a new influx of American customers, Chinese restaurants gain popularity in America.

The Magnuson Act repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The U.S. refuses to recognize the People’s Republic of China during the Cold War.

The Immigration and Nationality Act puts an end to discriminatory immigration laws of the past by removing quotas on immigration.

American-Chinese relations improve with President Nixon's visit to China, thawing Sino-American relations.

Over 30,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

Immigration Reform and Control Act criminalizes hiring illegal immigrants and places restrictions on hiring temporary ones.

New Immigrant and Naturalization Services restrictions make it difficult to hire staff for Chinese restaurants.

Over 45,000 Chinese restaurants across the United States


illustration of San Francisco Chinatown

From banquet-style dinners to 24-hour takeout, Chinese food is a verifiable modern American phenomenon, but what is the history behind this cuisine? While the majority of foreign cuisines were introduced to the American landscape through immigration in the 1800s, arguably none have had as significant an impact on American culture as Chinese cuisine. After all, General Tso's Chicken is the 4th most popular food item on GrubHub, which has 4.57 million active users. In our search for answers, we confirmed that the history of Chinese food is closely entwined with the experience of Chinese immigrants and that the food we would consider “Chinese” today is not entirely authentic and is, in fact, an Americanized version of traditional dishes initially rejected by a hostile American public. “Authenticity” in this context refers to a food’s traditional origin and composition of native ingredients. While many of these dishes have a Chinese origin, their ingredients or presentation were altered to address the demands an external market fearing a foreign “alien” culture but craving all they deemed “exotic,” to an acceptable extent. How and when did a distinctively American Chinese cuisine emerge?

The New York Public Library’s restaurant menu collection includes approximately 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s that reveal the nature of this evolution through over 60 Chinese restaurant menus and more than 6,000 Chinese dishes. The information we’ve gathered from the dataset elucidates trends relating to historical events relevant to Chinese immigration to America, immigration patterns, and discriminatory laws. Specifically, changes in the frequency and variety of dishes suggest the popularization of certain foods and evolution of Chinese food in response to American tastes.

Dish Name vs. Dish Count

tree map

The dish name and associated dish count data were extracted into Tableau to generate this treemap showing the 50 most popular dishes (approximately 30% of the total sales) among the thousands of Chinese dishes in the 20th century. Dish count represents the number of dishes being sold in Chinese restaurants from 1900s to 2000s. The top dishes are chow mein, chop suey, and fried rice with various ingredients. None of these are an authentic Chinese dish.

Before 1900

Our dataset begins in the 20th century, but Chinese immigration to the United States can be traced back to the early 1800s when Chinese migrants settled in New York’s Lower Manhattan in the early 1800s. Soon later, the California Gold Rush in 1849 sparked an influx of Chinese immigration to the West Coast from the Canton region of South China. Many immigrants opened Chinese eating houses nicknamed “chow chow houses” identifiable by the three-cornered yellow silk flags hung outside. In contrast to America’s underdeveloped restaurant system, Chinese immigrant restaurateurs offered cheap prices and hospitality to poor American miners.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act marked a sharp turn in the history of Chinese immigration, as it suspended Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. This federal policy was in part spurred by the fact that U.S. laborers disliked competing against migrants to find work, especially as the Gold Rush came to an end and the promise of quick fortunes waned. Early Chinese restaurants were more often frequented by an internal market of Chinese patrons, who enjoyed traditional dishes like salted fish, webbed duck feet, pig stomach, intestines, and fish heads.

On the East coast, Chinese restaurants received negative news coverage by editorialists in what appeared to be a reflection of broad anti-Chinese sentiments spurred by the recent policy change. A Philadelphia news writer in 1883 described Chinese food as suspicious, stating “the meat is ‘alleged’ to be (...)”, and that “the sauce (he) was consuming was a ‘mystery’”) (Jung, 2018). That same year, aside from alluding to unhygienic conditions in Chinese restaurant kitchens, another writer slanderously implied that the Chinese ate rats (New York Times, 1883). In 1892, the Geary Act served as a final blow against restaurateurs struggling to conduct their businesses in a politically and socially aggressive environment, as it required Chinese people in the United States to carry a resident permit.

The Birth of Chop Suey

Chop suey, an “American” Chinese dish, is in part responsible for a shift in American attitudes toward the Chinese immigrant population at the turn of the 20th century. The dish is rumored to have first appeared on the East Coast in 1896 when Chinese diplomat Li Huang Chuang visited the U.S. and expressed his desire to eat Chinese food. Upon his delight, after a local cook served him chop suey, the dish quickly became a trendy food item in spite of its roots in America, especially following positive news coverage in the days following the famed event (Jung, 2018).

Most Frequent Words 1910-1919

Most Frequent Words 1980-1989

This visualization was created with word analysis through Voyant, using a list of all dish names from each decade. Voyant counted the number of appearances of each word and created a list of top occuring words. Although our data is not completely representative of all Chinese dishes of the eras, this visualization points to a few interesting trends, such as the decline of “chop suey” and the rise of flavors like “hot.”

We can clearly observe the popularity of chop suey through the visualization above. Chop suey is the third most frequently occurring word in the decade of the 1910s. In comparison, a later decade, the 1980s, observes the complete disappearance of the dish from its top twelve frequent words. Instead, words like sauce and sauteed both references an augmented dish rather than a basic or more popular culture dish. A similar trend can be observed with the word “Chinese” which maintained a downward trend throughout the 20th century as dishes tended to be described less and less by its country of origin and (implicitly) by actual descriptors of the dish as people became more and more familiar with those dishes. This trend is even clearer in the line graph showing relative frequencies of the keywords below.

Chop suey is the third most frequently occuring word in the decade of the 1910s. In comparison, a later decade, the 1980s, observes the complete disappearance of the dish from its top twelve frequent words. Instead, words like sauce and sauteed which both reference an augmented dish rather than a basic or more popular culture dish. A similar trend can be observed with the word Chinese which maintained a downward trend throughout the 20th century as dishes tended to be described less and less by its country of origin and (implicitly) by actual descriptors of the dish as people became more and more familiar with those dishes.

Trends of Keywords Over the 20th Century

The dish name dataset was broken down by decades and imported in Voyant trends tool to generate this visualization. It shows the major trends of relative frequency of a few keywords in Chinese food history. “Chop suey” popped up at 1910s and was very popular in the first several decades, before it went a continuous loss of interests. “Sauce” gains popularity over time, indicating a shift taste; the word “chinese” appeared progressively less in Chinese dishes, which could indicate less bluffs and more authentic chinese dishes.

As customers became increasingly familiar with Chinese dishes, they gradually became less Americanized over time. The dishes began to shift towards more authentic and subtle tastes, achieved by the use of spices and sauces that define the taste of food. In a case-study of two Chinese restaurants, researchers found that “both [restaurants] have created their own special house sauce from a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, preserved or fresh garlic, sugar, dried red pepper, white or black pepper powder, oyster oil, plum sauce, cooking wine, tomato sauce, ginger sauce, and black bean sauce” (Lu and Fine, 1995). The popularity of the single word “sauce” thus reflects the increased complexity of ingredients.

The decreased frequency of the word “Chinese” also reflects a shift in value. As the saying “you are what you eat” indicates, it is often believed that through the consumption of ethnic cuisine we demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are cosmopolitan and tolerant (Lu and Fine, 1995). Therefore, when “Chinese” frequently appeared in the dish names in the 1910s, it marks the commercial strategies that cater to the need to flaunt one’s open-mindedness. As time goes by, people no longer need this superficial label to make others and themselves believe in their culturally diverse value.

In 1912, the Health Department in New Orleans shut down several Chinese restaurants due to health concerns. Early Chinese immigrants had found it difficult to acquire loans from discriminating American banks, and so they instead often relied on family labor and maintaining low operating costs (Jung, 2018).

illustration of chop suey

With a new influx of American customers, however, Chinese restaurants gained popularity in America in the 1920s. Young white Americans entertained themselves by “slumming:” visiting Chinatowns in New York and other popular cities, while new dishes were improvised using American ingredients, like carrots, snow peas, green peppers, broccoli, mushrooms (Tunç , 2018). Beef and broccoli, today a popular dish at Chinese restaurants, was invented in America using a titular ingredient not native to mainland China—broccoli! (Lee, 2008). Another “American Chinese” dish, General Tso’s Chicken, is named after Chinese war hero Zuo Zongtang, yet this dish was unknown to the native Chinese.

Yet in spite of the newfound popularity of American Chinese food, the treatment of the cuisine as “exotic” enforced a discriminatory mindset. This distanced the American public from developing a genuine understanding of Chinese culture while doing nothing to resolve deep-rooted prejudices against Chinese individuals (Jung, 2018).

Emerging Americanization

American ad for canned chow mein and chop suey

It is important to note that these early Chinese immigrants were partly forced to rely on their external market — the American audience — in an effort to find a place within an American landscape that had until the invention of chop suey largely rejected them. In acting as what Lu and Fine call “cultural entrepreneurs” in their 1995 essay on cultural authenticity in Chinese food, Chinese restaurateurs created market niches while understanding that their traditional culture was altered. But, they marketed their food as “ethnic” and “exotic” to fit the demands of their American clients in the hopes of eventually educating them. This underlies the “Americanization” of Chinese dishes, as restaurant owners consciously transformed their traditional recipes to fit their market in exchange for fast growth in businesses and the diversification and proliferation of American Chinese dishes (Lu and Fine, 1995). In 1943, positive sentiments toward Chinese immigrants largely derived from the newfound prominence of Americanized Chinese cuisine culminated in the Magnuson Act, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts. It was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during WWII when China and the United States were allies, and lifted restrictions on naturalization and established immigration quotas. This peak of positive sentiment is similarly highlighted in the relative frequency of unique Chinese dishes at the local maximum in the same year.

The NYPL menu data supports this trend, as the slight uptrend of unique Chinese dishes through the mid-1910s into the mid-1930s appears affiliated with the introduction of these Chinese American dishes. Assuming a business-driven perspective wherein market demands closely influence the operations of small businesses, such Chinese restaurants, the variation and proliferation of Chinese dishes could be tied to increased demands from the American market as competing restaurants pushed for innovated recipes. Another possibility lies in the fact that an increase in dish variety suggests the increased financial success of Chinese restaurants able to introduce more dishes to an interested and demanding public.

Unique Chinese Dish Count in the 20th Century

tree map

The data for this visualization was obtained by creating a table of the number of unique chinese dish ID numbers in relation to the total number of unique dish ID numbers per year. While the lower dish count during the early 20th century could be linked to a data silence during those years, our research also supports that early Chinese dishes tended to gravitate towards a smaller variety of popular “americanized” chinese food.

Flavors and Politics

An emerging correlation between American politics and policy and the popularity of Chinese cuisine endured, however. As the relationship between the United States and China grew tense in the 1950s, the U.S. has refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China during the Cold War, Chinese food dipped in popularity in spite of the continued curiosity of Americans, who heard stories about China from the G.I.s stationed in Asia. In response to the flux, many Chinese restaurants moved to the suburbs and began to center on low-priced large-portioned “family dinners,” while some urban restaurants in San Francisco and New York exchanged orientalist ornaments for sleek and modern designs. This trend is perhaps further illustrated by the declining relative frequency of unique dishes throughout the latter portion of the 1940s and through the 50s.

illustration of broccoli beef

To this day, many Chinese restaurants suffer from a difficult economic reality within the food industry tough competition with other restaurants and the difficulty of acquiring authentic raw materials made running restaurants very expensive for Chinese individuals in America. These market demand and financial challenges were manifested in the evolving preparation processes for different dishes: Americanized chow mein was dry-fried first because Americans preferred fried foods, and noodles were cut to be only one inch long — which is more suitable for forks than for chopsticks. Mongolian beef, in a similar vein, was made sweeter by adding more sugar and removing extra spices in an adaptation to American tastes (Lu and Fine, 1995).

The influence of American preferences in flavors throughout time is also evidenced by the changing relevance of those flavors in the last century as gathered from in the NYPL menu data; While Chinese enjoy light-flavored dishes, Americans, on the other hand, tend to enjoy strong flavors, like the American food stereotypes of greasy, salty and sweet food (Fine et al. 1995). Therefore, flavors are typically included in dish names as a means for restaurateurs to attract customers.

It would appear from trends in flavors over the past century that “sweet” has appeared consistently frequently in Chinese dish names in Chinese American restaurants. This suggests that sweet foods may have always tended to attract American customers, or that “sweet” has been systematically related to Chinese food since its arrival on the American mainland. On the other hand, because Americans in the 1800s and 1900s did not have a tradition of eating hot and spicy foods, “sour” and “spicy” barely appear in the first 60 years, likely reflecting low demand for those flavors. In the 80s, their prevalence increased, and today, they appear relatively frequently. Similar trends can be found in “garlic”, which rises in tandem with hot and spicy. A Chinese restaurant manager in 1992 explained that Americans gradually adapted to some of the key ingredients and flavors over time, stating that “(We) have made changes according to American tastes. [Americans] could not accept our food all of a sudden. But bit by bit they accepted our tofu, our dishes cooked with green onion and ginger, and even the hot and spicy dishes. I say, only bit by bit” (Fine et al. 1995).

Trends of Flavors Over the 20th Century

The dish name dataset was broken down by decades and imported in Voyant trends tool to generate this visualization. It shows the progressive pattern of relative frequency of various flavors and spices that appear in the dish names. Although not all flavors are labeled in their names, so this graph might not represent the actual proportion of flavors, it does provide an insight into how much each flavor get advertised.

But again, a positive change in American attitudes in the 1960s appeared in tandem to changes in American policy: In the 1960s, Americans began to cook basic Chinese dishes at home after the restaurants’ moves to the suburbs, and in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act put an end to discriminatory immigration laws of the past by removing quotas on immigration. This resulted in an influx of 419,373 Chinese in the U.S. between 1965 and 1984, and a massive increase in regional cuisines from Sichuan, northern China, Peking, Hunan, and Shanghai saw in Chinese restaurants (Tunç, 2018). This meant a diversification of menu options and again results in an increase in the relative frequency of unique Chinese dishes in the menu dataset. In 1967, the fine-dining Sichuan restaurant Shun Lee Palace became the first Chinese restaurant to receive a 4-star review from the New York Times.

American-Chinese relations continued to improve as President Nixon visited in 1972 China, thawing a relationship hardened by the Cold War. Meanwhile, Americans became increasingly interested in banquet dishes like Peking duck and shark fin soup, two traditional Chinese dishes prepared since the Chinese imperial era, the latter is believed to originate from the Song Dynasty in 960 A.D. (The Culture Trip, 2017). It seems that gradually, parts of the American public gain interest in these sorts of traditional dishes, and concurrently, the number of Chinese restaurants skyrocketed in the U.S. By 1985, there were over 30,000 Chinese restaurants in America, accounting for about 1/3 of all “ethnic” restaurants at the time despite the fact that Americans of Chinese descent represent less than one percent of the national population. (Lu and Fine, 1995).

Since the 1970s, Chinese food has been considered part of American cuisine (Tunç, 2018). As reflected in the NYPL data, dishes like chow mein, Kung Pao chicken, hot and sour soup, egg rolls, Broccoli Beef and General Tso’s chicken are most common in American Chinese cuisine.

Continued Challenges

photograph of Chinatown street

Chinese restaurateurs, from those who run small family-style joints to those who manage popular chains or sprawling banquet-style establishments, face continuous challenges related to labor and crime issues that a seemingly successful assimilation into American culture could not prevent.

In the late 1980s, a set of discriminatory laws against the Chinese hampered the operations of Chinese restaurants, whose owners often relied on hiring partners and relatives emigrating from China (Jung, 2018). The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act criminalized hiring illegal immigrants while placing restrictions on hiring temporary ones. Later, in 1988, Immigration and Naturalization Service restrictions make it difficult to hire restaurant staff, as they were often not considered skilled enough to merit visas.

Criminal activity centered around big-city Chinatown restaurants has also made business challenging for restaurant owners, toward whom violence is often directed. In 1980, a restaurant owner was shot and killed by robbers in Queens, New York. Chinese youth gangs often threatened owners, demanding “lucky money” from merchants around the Chinese New Year. The young, recently-emigrated members of these gangs often found it difficult to compete with American-born Chinese youth due to their poor English skills, which barred them from employment as a result of the aforementioned 1986 and 1988 federal acts (Jung, 2018). And, continued insulting treatment from customers, including racial slurs and prank phone calls in mock-Chinese, make business challenging for Chinese restaurant owners—both those who have recently immigrated and those whose families have lived in America for several generations.


Today, the Chinese American Restaurant Association states that over 45,000 Chinese restaurants across the United States, more than the number of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Kentucky Fried Chickens, and Wendy’s, combined. It’s clear that Chinese food in America has evolved from its origins feeding poor miners in “chow chow houses” to something new entirely. Our research and data analysis together suggest that Chinese food culture has shifted consistently with changes in American attitudes and policies towards Chinese-Americans.

(Left) Highlights one of the first Chinese restaurants in the New York area. (Right) The locations of all of the Chinese restaurants currently in the greater New York area. The data here was obtained by filtering the list of health inspections over the past five years for unique restaurants tagged as serving “Chinese” food. We believe this to be an accurate representation of these restaurants as each restaurant operating in the city must be inspected and recorded annually in order to remain in business.

In the 1800s, intense discrimination magnified by the Chinese Exclusion Act created deep divisions between immigrants and Americans: Chinese restaurants were focused on an internal market who preferred home cooking and regional specialties. Americans considered this food “foreign” and “unsanitary.” In the 1920s, things began to shift, as Chop Suey was invented and certain westernized dishes like Fried Rice and Chow Mein were introduced to the American market and dominated the menus of Chinese restaurants across the country. White Americans began to flood to Chinese restaurants and menus were redesigned to match their taste. With the Mid-20th century, this trend of Americanization continued with Chinese entrepreneurs appealing to external audiences by playing on the idea of foreignness. They created niche markets of Americans who liked the idea of “exotic” foods, ushering in an acceptance of more traditional dishes. The 1950s to 1980s introduced new flavors and food specialties along with financial hardship as Chinese restaurant competition increased. From the 1980s onward we’ve seen continued challenges for Chinese restaurateurs, but also the mass commercialization of Chinese food: think Panda Express, P.F. Changs, and frozen meals in grocery stores. The maps above illustrate this well, the presence of Chinese food in the United States is undeniable and our analysis of the New York Public Library dataset shows changes in cuisine over time: As dishes like Fried Rice and Chow Mein, with limited traceable Chinese origin, have become increasingly popular so have their presence in our data. Increases in ingredient names like “sauce” or “hot” show similar signs of changing tastes away from traditional naming and towards American preferences. In short, what our project has done is contextualize a history of Chinese Food menu data that shows the evolution of over a hundred years of Chinese cuisine and the larger historical trends that are reflected in the pages of a simple menu.


The New York Public Library’s restaurant menu collection includes approximately 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present. In addition to a scanned image, each menu’s information is manually transcribed. The dataset is divided up into four separate csv files called: dish, menu, menu item, and menu page. The Dish dataset includes data fields including the name of the dish, a description, number of menus the dish has appeared on, the first and last date of appearance of the dish, and the high/low prices the dish was listed for. The Menu dataset includes data fields such as the sponsor of the menu, the event the menu was for, the location of where the dishes on the menu were being served, a description of the menu, and the occasion. The Menu Item dataset includes data fields such as the menu the dish was from, the price the dish was listed, and the geographical coordinates of the menu location. The Menu Page dataset contains data of the photographs of each of the menu pages.

Each menu is a primary source. The original copies are stored at the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division and are mainly native to New York, but not exclusively. Miss Frank E. Buttolph (1850-1924) began the collection and gathered 24,000 menus on behalf of the library between 1900 and 1924. Since then, the collection has grown through mostly gifts of “graphic, gastronomic, topical, or sociological interest.” The datasets are constantly updated by adding the information from each of the menus’ pages to the database of menus and dishes already a part of the database. A majority of the workload is completed by volunteers who manually transcribe each page of the menu to the database—so this leave room for subjectivity and bias when translating certain words or phrases since the transcribers are not all trained professionals. However, the process of copying exactly what is written on the page into an online database is a rather straightforward process. The transcription must be done manually because much of the data is not conducive to Optical Character Recognition (OCR) because many are handwritten and/or done in decorative typography and would not easily be automatically digitized.

The dataset can illuminate an incredible variety of culinary trends in New York: frequency of certain types of ingredients (vegetables, fruits, poultry, cheese, meat, seasoning), trends in wine or liquor, shift in organization of menus or variations in visual menu design, change in number of dishes or courses available, analysis of cuisine overtime, case study of specific restaurant with an interesting history, price of ingredients or dishes, comparison of similar dishes in different restaurants, tracking of nutritional and dietary habits, or the origin of certain foods in New York. The possibilities are enormous and the simple organization of the data in .csv files makes it easy to search through the data and look for trends.

Some shortcomings of the dataset can be most noticeably seen in two main areas: the dates that these menus are from and the physical locations of the restaurant. The dates for many of the menus in the dataset are unknown and would show up as either a null value or a date from a year that has yet to occur. Upon a manual inspection of a variety of the menus without dates we found that there was no way to generate years for most of the missing dates without. This problem was slightly managed by using some of the call number designations in order to fill in the year of the menu after we discovered that some call number formats contained the year that the menu was from. An additional silence in the data is through time periods with little menu representation. The best example of this is the significantly low number of menus from the 1920s and makes this decade the least represented in the data throughout the 20th century. The second potential limitation of our dataset came up when attempting to map restaurant names to geolocated coordinates. Due to the vague nature of just the restaurant name and no specific addresses listed we found that the automatic address generation and geocoding was not reliable enough to include in the analysis. Despite numerous workaround attempts we were unable to come up with a repeatable and dependable solution to add restaurant location data to the dataset.

In addition, our data leaves out many ingredients (sauces, spices, cooking oils) that are used in dish preparation—only mentioning the main elements in their descriptions. In some cases, the name of a dish is ambiguous and dated (e.g. “Rockaways”), making it even harder to interpret the ingredients in a dish. In addition, our data cannot reveal the menu data of every restaurant in New York because copies of all menus are not available. The year 1850 has only 22 Menus transcribed—all upscale restaurants that kept studious records. While the data provides dishes, prices and recipes, it can only suggest social, political and cultural trends, but contains no specific causal information. Further, the data occasionally shows the owner or chef of the restaurant at the time, but not often and typically no other restaurant personnel and there is no stored record of this information, it can only be found from physically looking at the scanned image of the menu. There is also no information about the size of a dish, nor the calories and other nutrition facts, so it is hard to observe the trend in dietary habits.

Finally, very similar dishes with alternate names are filtered into various categories (alphabetically or by year) that are not reflective of their content, making bridging the similarities between restaurants over different time periods similarly difficult. Further, without outside sources, it would be very hard to place a dish or restaurant in context because the data provided for each restaurant is limited to exactly what is on the menu. If one wanted to explore why “radishes” appear on 3263 menus in the 1850s, one would have to search elsewhere for things like export/import trends or nutritional literature published at the time.


This project was made as part of the DH 101: Intro to Digital Humanities course at UCLA during Fall 2018.


Annika Anderson, Project Manager

Annika kept track of deadlines and ensured the group stay on task by helping to break down the projects into more manageable pieces and the assignment of individual tasks. She assisted with general research, creation of the about page and data analysis, construction of the overall narrative and timeline. She also relayed important research to the visualization team to cross reference their findings and help focus the illustrations.

Kendrick Brayman, Data Specialist

Kendrick cleaned and organized the dataset into a clean and useable form through r-studio. He also worked with Helen to create graphs and plots using Excel, Voyant tools, and Tableau to translate the menu data into visualizations. Additionally, he worked to organize and write the narrative and structure the arguments of the narrative/project as a whole.

Connie Chang, Webmaster

Connie designed and developed the website. She created wireframes and mockups, took visual references from the menu images, and worked extensively writing HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. She worked with Juliette and Annika to develop an organized website that facilitates the narrative storyline.

Helen Huang, Data Visualization Specialist

Helen used Tableau, Voyant Tools, and Excel to create interactive graphs, word clouds based on dish frequency, maps showing the sources of dishes, and trendlines of flavors and specific dishes. She also ensured consistency between the data visualization and the website in terms of both content and style. Additionally, she helped Connie to design and format the website and communicate with Kendrick to make sure the graphs get published properly. She also researched and wrote the narrative and supported the arguments particularly in connection to the visualizations.

Juliette Le Saint, Content Specialist

Juliette organized the content of the narrative and its presentation. She designated sections and headings by which to divide the storytelling into a simplified format, and contributed to general research as well as narrative production. She also ensured that there was harmony between the written content, images, and data, while ensuring that the final argument was coherent and relevant to the project’s audience.


Our main source for this project was the New York Public Library’s menu database, but our research was supported by a myriad of sources. For additional information about the NYPL data set, please visit the data section. For additional information about the literature and articles used to explore the project, visit the bibliography.


The entirety of our data processing and visualization was heavily influenced by the work of Stuart Card & co. where they outline the general life cycle of raw data being processed. The first step in processing the raw csv files downloaded from the NYPL website was combining the different files into a single table to make analysis and cleaning easier. This was done by linking the different identifier numbers (dish id, menu id, and menu page id) and creating a different row for each of the different instances of a dish. This meant that we ended up with a data table containing all of the available information about each dish each time it was recorded. After cleaning the data by removing impossible entries and incorrectly entered/recognized values we created a method of subsetting the full dataset into just the relevant dish entries. This involved creating a set of dish names that we knew to always be chinese food (ie “lo mein” or “chop suey”). From here we were able to pull all menu pages that had more than three of these dishes listed which was our cutoff for what was considered likely to be a Chinese restaurant menu page. In the end this method gave us approximately 8,000 dishes in which were sufficiently confident were on a Chinese restaurant menu. From here we worked on translating the data into various visualizations to best represent and support the information gained from our research.


We decided to gather all the information in one long page, much like how one would read an essay. This is for ease of presentation, but we also added many items in the navigation so readers can jump from section to section. We organized the content with HTML5 elements such as section tags and image alt text in order to increase accessibility for screen readers. In the spirit of Nathan Yau’s interpretation of visualization in “Data Points: Visualization That Means Something” we wanted to create something that helped best present the data and our story. For each visualization we asked what it contributes to the narrative as well as how the addition or lack of interaction impacts how much someone would get out of that specific visual.


Ashley Sanders Garcia, Professor
Craig Messner, Teaching Assistant


Tunç , T. (2018). Dining at the “Oriental Garden”: The Cultural Politics of American Chinese Restaurant Menus, 1940s–1970s. In TUNç T., ARNOLD B., & CHONG R. (Eds.), Chop Suey and Sushi from Sea to Shining Sea: Chinese and Japanese Restaurants in the United States (pp. 15-34). Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. Retrieved from

This essay illustrates the role of the Chinese-American restaurant menu at both ends of cultural appropriation––both as recipient and as self-orientalizing propagator. It cites academic articles in the areas of Asian American studies, food studies, sociology, as well as a number of menu archives (including the NYPL collection) and personal photographs of menus. This resource is important because it directly addresses parallels among Chinese restaurant menus, public perception of Chinese-Americans, and Chinese-American history. This essay is one chapter of the book Chop Suey and Sushi from Sea to Shining Sea, which has multiple essays regarding the cultural politics behind East Asian cuisines and their evolution in the United States. Since Tunç ’s essay also directly references our data set, it lays critical groundwork for our project to build upon through digital analysis.

Chinese Immigration and The Chinese in the United States. (2018). United States National Archives. Retrieved From

This source contains a thorough history of U.S. policy and data in regards immigration from China to the United States over the last three hundred years. The National Archive compiled information from the U.S. district courts, Bureau of the Census Record Group, Public Health Service Group, U.S. States Attorney’s Office, Court of Appeals and State Marshal Service. This article provides a valuable overview of legal limitations and documentation of Chinese immigration to the U.S. that will allow us to contextualize the Chinese population we are studying in U.S. history. We can look at the national census and immigration records to track periods of Chinese population growth in the United States over time and compare that to the prevalence of Chinese cuisine in the New York Menu Data. One interesting connection would be to look at the surge in Chinese immigration after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and compare that to food menu data for the corresponding years.

Shun Lu, and Gary Alan Fine. "The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment." The Sociological Quarterly 36, no. 3 (1995): 535-553. Retrieved From

This paper argues how an ethnic culture has to balance between being unique and authentic and being comfortable and Americanized in order to become a popular trend. Chinese food, as popular as it has always been, accomplishes both of these expectations. The paper used both previous papers and articles, and studies of four Chinese restaurants to support the argument. The source provides an academic and concrete insights into the evolution and adaptation of Chinese foods, and specifies the dishes that was used as a transition and introduction for Americans to get used to, as well as the food being served after the Americans become more used to Chinese foods, such as dishes with tofu, green onion, and ginger. It also points out the Chinese foods that are popular in mainland China and Taiwan but are no way popular in the US, such as the steamed fish. Overall, this source inspires us to think why particular ethnic cuisines or cultures are favored while the others don’t.

Jung, John. "The Sour Side of Chinese Restaurants." Chop Suey and Sushi from Sea to Shining Sea: Chinese and Japanese Restaurants in the United States, edited by Arnold Bruce Makoto, Tunç Tanfer Emin, and Chong Raymond Douglas, 139-50. University of Arkansas Press, 2018.

“The Sour Side of Chinese Restaurants” argues that despite the popularity of Chinese restaurants in the United States, Chinese restaurateurs face incredibly difficult circumstances: workplace discrimination, social prejudice, and health regulations plague the community. The essays in this book combined a variety of disciplines including “history, sociology, anthropology, ethnography, economics, phenomenology, journalism, food studies, and film and literary criticism” and cite the relevant sources as facts arise. The multidisciplinary approach allows for a fascinating analysis of Chinese cuisine with a focus on the history of prejudice that occurred when immigrants first came to the U.S. and the evolution of that social climate. This essay will allow us to better understand the Chinese perspective with regards to cuisine and the immigrant experience, as well as the social restrictions placed on Chinese culture. With our data specifically, we can better look for connections between the spread of restaurants/dishes and the eventual integration of Chinese cuisine into the American culinary landscape.

“Mott-Street Chinamen Angry, They Deny That They Eat Rats—Mott Kee Threatens A Slander Suit.” 1883. The New York Times. Retrieved from

This New York Times News Article from 1883 is a primary source that provides a startling example of published racism against a Chinese restaurant owner. The article takes the side of Dr. Charles Kaemmer who accuses “Chinamen” living in Manhattan of cooking and eating rats to the “wrath” of local Chinese Immigrants who denied the charge. The language used to describe the doctor is positive and supportive, while the characterization of Chinese immigrants is extremely negative and condemning. This source is a single example of a larger trend of the discrimination and social isolation faced by Chinese Immigrants in New York and beyond.

Lee, Jennifer. The Hunt For General Tso [Video Talk]. (2008). Ted: Ideas Worth Spreading. Retrieved from

In “The Hunt For General Tso” Jennifer Lee discusses how there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wendy's, combined. She discusses how most foods Americans consider “Chinese” have no connection to China whatsoever. Lee describes this phenomenon in a clear and illustrative way. Besides using many of the anecdotes and facts she mentions, the ease at which she blends facts with storyline inspired how we tried to structure our narrative.

Larson-Wang, Jessica. A Brief History of Shark Fin Soup. (2017). Culture Trip. Retrieved from

Jessica Larson-Wang’s article “A Brief History of Shark Fin Soup” tells the story of a unique yet controversial dish. It was first introduced to the United States after President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China publicized him consuming the soup and how it has become a delicacy of sorts. This overview works as an example of changing attitudes towards more traditional Chinese dishes as the status of Chinese-Americans evolved over time.