It’s Chinatown

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
If you’re walking in San Francisco, you might not know when you’re crossing from the Western Addition neighborhood into Hayes Valley, or if you’re in Portola or Excelsior, but you could be aimlessly wandering around any Western city of significant size including San Francisco or Oakland, and you’ll know exactly when you’re in Chinatown. Those visual cues may be simple to pick up on, but it turns out the origin stories of Chinatown and the architecture and food that come from it are far more complex and interesting than you can imagine. We did a couple of stories on this a few years ago and we’ve compiled them together into this episode. I hope you like it.

Roman Mars:
In 1968 George Tsui stepped off a plane from Hong Kong and into the San Francisco International Airport. It was his first time on American soil. At 22-years-old, he had left his homeland of China and traveled across the ocean to build a new life for himself and his young wife in this land of opportunity.

Bonnie Tsui:
When immigrants first come to the U.S., and this is such an old trope and an old story that you expect, you know the streets are paved with gold.

Roman Mars:
This is Bonnie Tsui, George’s daughter. She’s also the author of a book about American Chinatowns.

Bonnie Tsui:
Even today, like Chinese people still call San Francisco, Gam Saan.

Roman Mars:
Meaning “gold mountain”.

Bonnie Tsui:
This is where you find your fortune in San Francisco.

Roman Mars:
George Tsui’s very first stop in San Francisco, his very first stop in America, like generation upon generation of Chinese immigrants before him, was San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Bonnie Tsui:
And he was not impressed.

Roman Mars:
To George San Francisco’s Chinatown felt out of date.

Bonnie Tsui:
All the things he saw in Chinatown, these pagoda roofs, these dragon gates, these flourishes that to us signal China and Chinese-ness, there were things that he actually hadn’t seen in back in China for years and years and years, and they were not used in that architectural vernacular back there. And so he wondered how Chinatown in this really supposedly modern America was… why did it feel older than the oldest parts of Hong Kong where he’d grown up?

Chelsea Davis:
Because it was designed that way.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Chelsea Davis.

Chelsea Davis:
For George Tsui and many other Chinese immigrants, San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Chinatowns in a lot of American cities, they don’t look much like the China they know.

Felicia Lowe:
It looks like a bit of a movie set actually. It’s so out of context to anything else next to it on either side.

Chelsea Davis:
That’s filmmaker Felicia Lowe. She made a documentary about San Francisco’s Chinatown. Walking around Chinatown together, we passed Bank of America ATMs guarded by gold dragons, shops with neon-lit names like “Heart of Shanghai”, selling paper fans and plastic Buddhas, and towering four-story bazaars crowned with little pagodas.

Roman Mars:
But Chinatown hasn’t always looked this way. In fact, before the massive earthquake that leveled San Francisco in 1906, Chinatown looked like most of the other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Rows of brick homes done up with Victorian Italianate facades.

Philip Choy:
The only thing you recognize as Chinatown are the people in it and the Chinese signs instead of American signs.

Chelsea Davis:
That’s Phil Choy, a retired architect and historian of Chinese American culture. He grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and still lives there today. He says it’s not like Chinese immigrants in SF had strong opinions either way about their neighborhood’s Victorian flourishes – the columns, the porches.

Roman Mars:
They just didn’t have much choice when it came to where they lived. After arriving in America, they moved into the old homes that white people had abandoned for greener pastures. And after that …

Philip Choy:
Basically, the Chinese didn’t have time to really pay attention to the architecture of creating Chinese architecture. The basic desire was to make a living.

Chelsea Davis:
And making a living was easier said than done if you were Chinese in early 20th century San Francisco. Since the 1860s, Chinese immigrants had been a convenient scapegoat for nationwide job shortages. The result was federal legislation like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the vast majority of Chinese people from entering the States and made it impossible for Chinese already in the U.S. to become new American citizens.

Roman Mars:
In San Francisco, racist housing policies made it almost impossible for people of Chinese heritage to live outside of Chinatown. And when they did set foot outside the 15-square blocks of the Chinese enclave, it was at the risk of physical violence.

Chelsea Davis:
So the self-contained world of Chinatown served as a desperately needed refuge for Chinese San Franciscans.

Roman Mars:
But in 1906, that refuge would be eviscerated by a double whammy of a disaster.

Roman Mars:
Early in the morning of April 18th of that year, San Franciscans woke up to a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. It was the biggest quake in the city’s recorded history, still is, but those violent tremors were just the beginning.

Chelsea Davis:
Because the earthquake shattered the city’s gas mains. And the gas that leaked out, somewhere, it connected with a spark.

Roman Mars:
The massive fires that resulted lasted for three days and destroyed about 500 city blocks. Chinatown was one of the first neighborhoods to go up in smoke

Andrea Davies:
The safe space for Chinese really is that 15-block radius of the neighborhood and without it, it becomes a very dangerous situation.

Chelsea Davis:
Andrea Davies is a historian at the Stanford Humanities Center, but before her career in academia, she was in a slightly different line of work.

Andrea Davies:
I was a San Francisco firefighter for about five years. And so my first assignment was Chinatown.

Chelsea Davis:
Fighting fires in that neighborhood later led Davies to write a social history of the 1906 catastrophe. She says that in the wake of the disaster, newspapers peddled this feel-goodie story that the SF quake and fire were social equalizers, that the shared experience of suffering united San Franciscans of all colors and creeds, man helping man, and so on.

Roman Mars:
But while white man may have helped white man, no one was helping the Chinese. And in fact, the racism against them only intensified.

Andrea Davies:
I call it heightened post-disaster racism.

Chelsea Davis:
You could see this heightened racism happening on at least two levels. First with individual white San Franciscans.

Andrea Davies:
The built environment keeps everyone in their place. And that’s what gets erased on April 18th, 1906. So if you’re an elite, white San Francisco, you don’t have to see the residents of Chinatown unless you go there. As the Chinese are leaving their homes in desperation, they’re being yelled at to get out and don’t turn back.

Chelsea Davis:
And according to Davies, it wasn’t just private citizens who were guilty of that heightened racism because the second place that the fire spurred a flare-up and racism wasn’t how the recovery efforts were managed.

Andrea Davies:
The fire department did very little to stop it in Chinatown and in fact, made it worse. And the water mains are broken, so there is not enough water to fight the fires. If you look at Chinatown, which is nestled right against Nob Hill, where all the elite mansions are, all the water goes, directed by the mayor, to save Nob Hill and all the dynamite goes into Chinatown.

Roman Mars:
At the time, fire departments would dynamite buildings to keep fire from spreading. But the fire department used the wrong kind of dynamite and Chinatown burned all the faster.

Chelsea Davis:
In the following days, as the embers of Chinatown cooled, the Chinese found themselves homeless and newly vulnerable in hostile streets, but things were about to get worse.

Andrea Davies:
So many of the city’s political and business leaders were actually excited about this social equalizing disaster because it eliminated Chinatown and they thought, “We’ll never rebuild it.”

Chelsea Davis:
Before the quake, many whites had seen the Chinese neighborhood as a Gomorrah of opium dens, prostitution, and disease.

Roman Mars:
In 1885, City Hall had prepared a municipal report on Chinatown, and in that report …

Philip Choy:
Pages of documentation listing all the houses of prostitution and the number of gambling houses and opium dens throughout Chinatown.

Chelsea Davis:
This reputation for vice had actually created a minor industry of slum tourism in Chinatown. Thrill-seeking white people could hire a guide to lead them through scenes of alleged depravity. They would be taken through dimly lit buildings and shown opium smokers and prostitutes and gambling.

Roman Mars:
Evidence suggests that some of these scenes may have actually been staged by the guides themselves. And one thing that was definitely fake was a widespread rumor that San Francisco’s Chinese residents lived in underground tunnels.

Philip Choy:
This is what they really believe, that the Chinese lived underground. And even today, people want to see Chinatown’s underground.

Chelsea Davis:
On top of all this, Chinatown was right in the middle of choice downtown real estate. Real estate that San Franciscan elites had long wanted for white businesses. In fact, two years before the fire, then-mayor James Phelan had hired an architect to drive sketches for a new downtown.

Roman Mars:
The architect they hired, you may have heard of him, Daniel Burnham.

Andrea Davies:
And in his plan, there is no Chinatown.

Roman Mars:
Burnham was a proponent of the City Beautiful movement, an urban planning philosophy popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Andrea Davies:
And this idea of City Beautiful, it’s very racialized, this view. And the idea is a more beautiful urban environment creates a more beautiful citizen. Like we want a beautiful city of well-educated citizens and everyone is white and productive.

Chelsea Davis:
And with Chinatown burned to the ground, city leaders see the chance to make that white dream a reality. Within a week of the fire, city hall created a committee dedicated solely to relocating Chinatown. The group included former mayor James Phelan, the one who had hired Burnham to draw up those revised drafts of San Francisco.

Andrea Davies:
And so the minute the city goes up in flames, I’m not kidding, I don’t think the city is finished burning, and James Phelan is telegraphing Daniel Burnham, “Send more reports immediately, get them to the hands of the city leaders. And business leaders. Here’s our plan. We can rebuild. Here’s the perfect city.”.

Chelsea Davis:
The plan for that perfect city booted the Chinese all the way to Hunter’s Point, a region on the edge of town. It’s where the city’s slaughterhouses were, but it wasn’t long before the Chinese residents found out about the plan.

Andrea Davies:
And they fought back and I think they fought back very intelligently.

Roman Mars:
They got China’s Empress Dowager Cixi involved. She sent her cultural general from Washington to meet with San Francisco officials.

Chelsea Davis:
But the coup de gras was financial. For decades, San Francisco had been a key hub for trade with China. So a group of the city’s top Chinese business owners wrote to the current mayor in a language San Francisco officials could easily understand.

Andrea Davies:
And so, on the business level of the negotiation was, “Okay, you don’t want us to come back? We’re not going to Hunter’s Point. We can go to Tacoma, we can go to Portland.” So there’s a panic of a loss of revenue for the city.

Chelsea Davis:
And that was a loss that city leaders couldn’t take. Less than a month after the quake, the mayor dissolved his committee to relocate Chinatown.

Roman Mars:
For Chinese-Americans at this time, this was an unprecedented political victory, but they didn’t stop there.

Chelsea Davis:
The fire had left Chinatown a blank slate. And for the first time, the Chinese were holding the chalk.

Roman Mars:
They were sick of Chinatown getting this bad rep for vice, sick of city hall harassing them, sick of visitors asking them if they lived in tunnels.

Chelsea Davis:
The Chinese wanted a makeover for their neighborhood. And an American born Chinese businessman named Look Tin Eli knew just how to go about it.

Felicia Lowe:
The word was, “Build me a pagoda.”.

Chelsea Davis:
That’s Felicia Lowe again. She says that Look Tin Eli figured, “Hey, if tourists are always going to come to Chinatown seeking a taste of some imaginary East, let’s give them what they want.”.

Felicia Lowe:
And so he was able to hire white architects to create a Chinatown that looked the way white people imagined Chinatown to look. Even though he knew in his own mind that the buildings in China didn’t all look like this.

Roman Mars:
Now, Look’s plan might seem a bit counterintuitive at first. For decades, the Chinese of San Francisco had been harassed precisely because they looked and dressed differently from mainstream white America. And he was the guy saying, “Let’s rebuild our neighborhood in a way that emphasizes our foreignness, that carves our difference from the rest of the city into the very face of our buildings”.

Chelsea Davis:
But Bonnie Tsui, whose father had been flummoxed by the look of Chinatown when he arrived in San Francisco, she says that the Chinese community of 1907 saw a positive side to that foreignness.

Bonnie Tsui:
And they also were pretty savvy with the fact that people were interested in them, and they were interested in this exotic element. And if they could build that in a way that was attractive instead of repellent, that that would be protective for them.

Chelsea Davis:
Look hired an architect named T. Patterson Ross and an engineer named A.W. Burgren. These two men had never been to China

Philip Choy:
At the time, the architects were not trained into tradition or anything about oriental architecture because also at the time the orient was considered way behind the West. So culturally, everything was looked down upon, let’s say, it’s nothing to study about.

Chelsea Davis:
Ross and Burgren’s knowledge of China was limited to a few images they’d seen of ancient palaces from the Song dynasty, an architectural style that was already hundreds of years old by the early 20th century.

Roman Mars:
But that didn’t stop Ross and Burgren from using their imaginations and oh, how they used their imaginations.

Philip Choy:
They created this sort of a Disneyland effect.

Roman Mars:
For instance, the Sing Chong Building was topped with a small structure that sort of looked like a pagoda.

Chelsea Davis:
But Tsui says that in China, you typically wouldn’t see a pagoda on top of another building. Pagodas there are freestanding structures, not a decorative flourish. And secondly …

Philip Choy:
In China, these were monuments for religious purposes, the religion of Buddhism.

Chelsea Davis:
Here, in its San Franciscan form, the pagoda instead houses a monument to consumerism. Sing Chong became a bustling department store, hawking Asian art, which it still is to this day.

Roman Mars:
But nonetheless, the designers that Look Tin Eli hired, created a striking building. And other merchants rebuilding in Chinatown couldn’t help but notice.

Chelsea Davis:
Soon, Sing Chong’s bombastic chinoiserie look had become the style for most new structures going up in Chinatown.

Roman Mars:
The architects who are trying to reproduce Beijing in San Francisco may have gotten a lot of the details wrong.

Chelsea Davis:
But for the tourists, they were wrong in all the right ways. Tourists loved the new Chinatown. This was exactly the Westerner friendly version of China they wanted. Vaguely exotic, but safe enough for a middle-class white America. The visitors began to flow into Chinatown and so did their cash.

Roman Mars:
And Chinatown’s pleasant new appearance was beginning to change popular sentiment towards the Chinese people. American newspapers made it explicit that the neighborhood makeover was causing them to rethink their contempt for the Chinese. As one newspaper, The Bulletin put it in 1909, “Chinatown is one of the most noted places on the American continent. We have held up to the public gaze for too long the racial grief that separates the yellow and white people of the earth.”.

Chelsea Davis:
Look Tin Eli’s plan had worked and Chinese communities elsewhere in the U.S. were taking note.

Bonnie Tsui:
All of the success of Chinatowns that have come in America, take a cue from this, take a page from this playbook. New York, San Francisco, L.A., Honolulu. They all sort of have their roots in San Francisco.

Chelsea Davis:
That’s Bonnie Tsui again. She says the visual style and tourist-friendly attitude that San Francisco’s Chinatown had perfected soon began to spread.

Roman Mars:
In fact, the new Chinatown brand was so successful that it’s still influencing Chinatown’s being built in our own time. For instance, take the Chinatown in Las Vegas, which was created in the ’90s.

Bonnie Tsui:
It also had the same pagoda roof lines and dragon gates, like the same language, architectural language, and the same architectural vernacular was being used to create the newest Chinatown that was used to create the oldest Chinatown.

Felicia Lowe:
You know, you outsmarted the devil. Basically, there is a phrase that they called white people, Bak Gwei, which is the “white devil”. I think that it was a victory. Absolutely.

Chelsea Davis:
Of course, this architectural revenge didn’t instantly fix everything for the Chinese in San Francisco. They still faced plenty of legal and popular discrimination.

Chelsea Davis:
For example, they were still required by real estate laws to live in Chinatown and on a federal level, the Chinese Exclusion Act itself wouldn’t even be repealed until 1943, more than 30 years later.

Roman Mars:
And even if the rebranding of Chinatown helped ease negative sentiment towards the Chinese, Philip Choy believes it may also have helped promote certain stereotypes.

Philip Choy:
It continues to promote our foreignness. I remember my daughter coming home one day very annoyed and upset, and said, “These people look, look, look. It’s like they never seen a Chinese person before.”

Chelsea Davis:
By contrast, look at the other traditionally ethnic neighborhoods in San Francisco, Japantown or the Italian neighborhood of North Beach. Tsui says those neighborhoods didn’t self exoticize in the 1900s to nearly the same extent that Chinatown did.

Philip Choy:
They deliberately not embellish and embrace their ethnicity.

Chelsea Davis:
Other immigrant groups at that time didn’t face the same antagonism that the Chinese did. So only the Chinese were forced to cater to white people’s fantasies as a survival mechanism.

Philip Choy:
Well, that’s the irony at that time. We had to promote our foreignness to be accepted.

Roman Mars:
But even if Chinatown’s architecture is a somewhat inauthentic representation of the real thing what a lot of tourists don’t realize is …

Bonnie Tsui:
The fact that real people live there, and that it is a place actually that is for poor people, you know. I mean it is at its essence a place where people come to live when they first get here because they can’t afford to live anywhere else because they need the services that are provided there.

Chelsea Davis:
Bonnie Tsui says this is true of all the Chinatowns she studied.

Bonnie Tsui:
They’re all portals of entry for new immigrants of a particular class. You know, working-class immigrants who don’t speak English.

Chelsea Davis:
In fact, thanks to factors like rent controls, zoning restrictions, and really active tenants rights groups in the community, San Francisco’s Chinatown has managed to remain a relatively affordable neighborhood for low-income immigrants

Roman Mars:
And Bonnie says, yes, Chinatown has been Disney-fied and rebranded to cater to American taste, but there’s still an authentic and important history there.

Bonnie Tsui:
There’s something about it that if you can sort of read the skyline, you can read the story of how this place came to be. And also in that is Chinese-American history, and in that there’s like there’s this power in that, for sure.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Chelsea Davis and Katie Mingle. A version of the story was originally broadcast in the public radio history program, Backstory.

Roman Mars:
One of my favorite episodes and episode titles of all time, “A Sweet Surprise Awaits You” is up next after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
This is still 99% Invisible and I’m still Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It was the night of March 30, 2005 and the Powerball Jackpot was $25 million. On TV, the white ping pong balls rolled out one by one as the host announced the winning numbers,

Avery Trufelman:
22, 28, 32, 33, 39, and your Powerball is 42.

Roman Mars:
And that’s producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
And there was a winner in Tennessee. But the way the Powerball drawings work, they’re usually some second-place winners who guess all of the numbers except for the very last one. On average, there are three or four of these players.

Roman Mars:
But on March 30, 2005, there were 110 second place winters.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Was there a computer glitch that played all the same number? Has someone compromised the system?

Avery Trufelman:
This is journalist Jennifer 8. Lee.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Lottery officials are panicking now because something is up.

Roman Mars:
So the next day as the winners around the United States came to collect, the Powerball officials asked them …

Jennifer 8. Lee:
“So where’d you get your number from?”

Avery Trufelman:
And each of them had the same answer. They had gotten their numbers from a fortune cookie.

Roman Mars:
They were different cookies in different states, but they all had the same fortune and the same lucky numbers … very lucky numbers.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
And so it just sort of made you realize like how much fortune cookies and Chinese food have become an American ritual.

Roman Mars:
Chinese food along with pizza and the frankfurter has been adopted and modified to become American cuisine, rooted in some good old-fashioned American xenophobia.

Avery Trufelman:
In the early waves of Chinese immigration in the 1850s, the new Chinese population worked mostly as miners and farmers and laborers; and Americans, as ever, were concerned about these new immigrants taking away jobs.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
And it was actually only after a huge anti-Chinese backlash that the Chinese actually moved into two fields, one was laundry and the other one was restaurant. So they started cleaning and cooking, which are women’s work, and thus they were safe and no longer a threat to the American male.

Roman Mars:
And as their livelihoods depended on it, Chinese restaurant owners made up dishes to cater to American tastes.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
American’s basically like things that are sweet and that are fried and are chicken.

Avery Trufelman:
And that’s how dishes like chop suey were invented. Chop suey, the name actually means assorted pieces like odds and ends.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Oh, chop suey is the biggest culinary joke that one culture has ever played on another.

Roman Mars:
Chop suey is not a real Chinese dish at all. It’s as American as apple pie. And speaking of apple pie …

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Americans want dessert because we are American and we like things which are sweet and fatty, so you needed a dessert.

Avery Trufelman:
And as Chinese desserts go, there aren’t that many options that the American pallet would go for.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
The Chinese desserts, there is the mooncake which tastes and looks like a hockey puck, but there’s not a lot of stuff.

Roman Mars:
And so around the 1920s, the fortune cookie somehow enters the American-Chinese restaurant culture. Where they came from originally is a bit of a mystery, but we’ll get to that.

Avery Trufelman:
First, let’s make this perfectly clear. The cookies are not from China.

Steven Yang:
I don’t know why, but Chinese they don’t eat the fortune cookie.

Avery Trufelman:
Steven Yang is founder of “Yang’s Fortunes Incorporated” in San Francisco.

Roman Mars:
Chinese people in China don’t eat fortune cookies, but Americans consume billions of them, which means great business for Steven because he prints a lot of the paper fortunes that go inside fortune cookies.

Steven Yang:
If you go anyway, whether New York, Boston, Houston, anywhere at all you can see my fortune.

Roman Mars:
Including all the fortunes for Panda Express, that’s definitely Steven’s biggest client.

Avery Trufelman:
Steven’s tiny warehouse in San Francisco’s Dogpatch District is filled with boxes, all stuffed full of tiny strips of fortune paper. Each box contains 300,000 paper fortunes.

Steven Yang:
I print a lot of them. I’ve been a lot of them, see.

Roman Mars:
And Steven prints all of these boxes and boxes with only five other employees.

Avery Trufelman:
And Lisa, Steven’s daughter, writes all the fortunes. When I visited, she was away on maternity leave, but she has written most of the company’s 5,000 unique fortunes.

Roman Mars:
This is amazing because when you think about it, fortunes are deceptively difficult to write.

Avery Trufelman:
The messages have to be really, really generic because they could be for anyone. You can’t write messages like, you will meet a tall, dark stranger because an eight-year-old could read that and be like …

Child:
“I don’t want that. Why would we?”

Roman Mars:
And fortunes also have to be careful not to offend.

Avery Trufelman:
Famously, there was once a fortune that said, “Lighten up.” And a lot of customers were like, “Is this cookie calling me fat?”.

Roman Mars:
And of course, no bad predictions. Americans like their fortunes sunny.

Avery Trufelman:
So fortunes tend to be vague or just generally uplifting, like tomorrow will be better, or the fortunes are nabbed from quotation books, just whatever Lisa can find. Steven doesn’t really care. He doesn’t read them.

Steven Yang:
I don’t know why the American people, they like them. They say they will do, when they get a fortune after eating dinner, they will keeping the words. They keep them.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah, it’s true. Some people do keep the fortunes in their wallets. When I asked around, it turns out a few of my friends do this or can recite their favorite fortunes from memory. And it’s crazy because a lot of these fortunes are Steven’s, written by his daughter, Lisa.

Roman Mars:
But there are a few ways to tell where your fortunes come from. If you get one with blue corners on it, that was printed by a giant company in New York called “Wonton Food”. They make over four million cookies a day and were responsible for the cookie that made all those Powerball winners in 2005.

Avery Trufelman:
If you’re fortunate has smiley faces on it, it was probably printed by a Chinese company for the American market, of course.

Roman Mars:
And if the fortune doesn’t have blue corners or smiley faces, chances are it was one of the many thousands that Steven prints in all different colors and fonts, and sends to factories all over the country, including “The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company” in a tiny alleyway in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Avery Trufelman:
The “Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company” is pretty touristy. It charges visitors 50 cents a photo and doesn’t actually have a very big cookie output. Actually, calling this place a factory is kind of an overstatement. It’s just one narrow room with most of the space taken up by three hulking fortune cookie machines, versions of machines that were invented by Edward Louie.

Ming Louie:
My father used to call his machine like this fourth child. He had three sons and then the fourth was his baby.

Avery Trufelman:
Ming Louie, one of Edward’s three sons, met me at “The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company”.

Roman Mars:
These fortune cookie machines are pretty simple. They flatten round dabs of batter onto a conveyor belt and a worker sits next to this belt and folds the hot cookies around the paper fortunes, one-by-one by hand.

Ming Louie:
And we pick them off as you see them doing here, fold it and put them on a conveyor.

Avery Trufelman:
Ming learned how to fold the cookies when he was around eight years old. The Louie family used to have a fortune cookie company of their own and it was their whole life.

Ming Louie:
Even during dinner, we took shifts. Somebody eats, the other one works. That’s how we did it. And we used to call ourselves the prisoners and that was a famous saying. “Help. I’m a prisoner in this fortune cookie factory.”

Avery Trufelman:
Ming’s father later developed the next generation of fortune cookie machines, a fully automated version, which also folds the cookie. And because of this technology, fortune cookies are widely available and cheap enough that restaurants can give them out for free.

Roman Mars:
No one in the Louie family really questioned where the cookies originated, but it was a mystery that other people tried to solve. People like Sally Osaki, she knew they were not invented in China.

Sally Osaki:
What do you mean the Chinese fortune cookies? It’s Japanese.

Avery Trufelman:
Sally Osaki is California born and raised, but her parents came from Japan in the early 1900s.

Sally Osaki:
When I was a child, the fortunes used to be in Japanese rather than the Chinese character.

Avery Trufelman:
And the cookies weren’t something you’d get at the end of a meal at a restaurant.

Sally Osaki:
They’d come in a bag, and mostly I know when we got them when I was a child was, we would go see Japanese movies.

Avery Trufelman:
So in Sally’s California childhood, the cookies were a casual snack. But if you trace them all the way back to their origins in Japan, you actually find them at a shrine …

Jennifer 8. Lee:
In Kyoto. And if you kind of walk around there, you will be able to find these Japanese bakers grilling fortune cookies.

Roman Mars:
Jennifer flew to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine in Kyoto specifically to try them.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
But they’re not like the fortune cookies we see in the United States. They’re like bigger and browner and they’re actually kind of this nutty, savory flavor.

Avery Trufelman:
So they’re more cracker-like, but still, they’re that same iconic fortune cookie shape we all know.

Roman Mars:
There’s actually an old Japanese image of a baker folding these crackers and it dates back to 1878, decades before the first reports of American fortune cookies.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
One of the bakers that I spoke to thought that fortune cookies they designed to look like a bell in part because there are bells all along the paths up into the shrines.

Avery Trufelman:
But then why don’t we eat it after sushi?

Jennifer 8. Lee:
Because people were not eating sushi in like 1920.

Roman Mars:
When Japanese immigrants were opening businesses in the 1920s, there was no market for Japanese food. Again, like the Chinese immigrants before them, they pandered to American tastes.

Jennifer 8. Lee:
So a lot of the Japanese families ran a lot of Chinese restaurants.

Avery Trufelman:
And these Japanese families ran American-Chinese restaurants full of chop suey and other faux Chinese cuisine, and these Japanese owners would throw in a fortune cookie for dessert.

Roman Mars:
When Sally was a kid, fortune cookies were still made in Japanese bakeries in both LA and San Francisco, and the fortunes were still in Japanese. And then something happened that completely disrupted everything about Japanese-American life in this country.

Sally Osaki:
I don’t know if you know that the Japanese-Americans, 120,000 of us during World War II were sent away to concentration camps. I was nine years old when we got sent to the concentration camps.

Avery Trufelman:
Sally and her family were farmers in Fresno. They were summoned to a train station and sent off to a camp in Arizona.

Sally Osaki:
You had to carry whatever you were taking. I was a child. I mean, I couldn’t carry that much. I carried a small suitcase and I remember my mother took me to a store near our town to buy boots because she heard that where we were going a desert in Arizona, there were rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Avery Trufelman:
Were there?

Sally Osaki:
Oh, there were, yeah. Oh yeah, Gila monsters and scorpions and rattlesnakes. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
In the camp, her parents were given jobs that earned hardly any money.

Sally Osaki:
Top salary was like $16 or $18 a month. A month.

Avery Trufelman:
For four years, from 1942 to 1946, California’s Japanese and Japanese-American community was marooned in the desert, out of sight, out of communication and out of business.

Roman Mars:
Including a lot of Japanese bakers and Japanese restaurant owners.

Sally Osaki:
My recollection was that after we came out of the camps, it was a Chinese fortune cookie. The Chinese actually commercialized it and all the Chinese restaurants started to serve it.

Avery Trufelman:
Thanks to Chinese business owners and later Edward Louie’s fortune cookie machines, the Chinese-American fortune cookie, as we now know it, flourished.

Roman Mars:
It’s nearly impossible to pin the Americanization of the cookie to one specific Japanese-American baker or Chinese-American restaurant. The transfer from Japanese cracker to American-Chinese cookie was a larger phenomenon that occurred more or less across California, and then swept the rest of the United States and then the world, except for China. They still don’t eat fortune cookies.

Roman Mars:
Part two of 99% Invisible was produced by Avery Trufelman. This story was largely inspired by Jennifer 8. Lee’s book, the “Fortune Cookie Chronicles”, which goes into even more depths about the origin of American Chinese cuisine. And believe me, there are way deeper depths to explore. It’s a really fun read. Check it out. The great Lullatone provided all the music in this story.

Comments (3)

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  1. Ankit Thakkar

    I could totally relate to the food choices made by restaurants here in the US. I am from India and the food at Indian restaurants is very different from what we get back home, the flavors have been changed to suit the American population which is something that irks my wife a lot, she misses the food from India so much so that she doesn’t like going to Indian restaurants here in the US anymore. Also, I have to say the Chinese food available is India has been altered to how Indians prefer their food. Similar to what’s mentioned in the episode, a few dishes that originated in India as part of the Indo-Chinese cuisine – Manchow Soup, Gobi Manchurian, Chicken Lollipo to name a few.

  2. Alexandra

    I’m curious about the history of Greek American architecture and the emphasis on kitsch classic (I’m thinking Greek town in Detroit, some Greek diners, floats in Greek parades). Could you do an episode on that!?

  3. Jean

    Your comment that they ‘knew it would be a tourist attraction’ doesn’t quite fully convey that it was always intended to be a tourist attraction. The entire point of rebuilding it with a different aesthetic was to attract visitors. That was the explicit reason for that choice, which would have made rebuilding more expensive than if simple, plain shops were rebuilt.

    This was because the earthquake and subsequent fire had pretty well stopped people from visiting the city which had a terrible effect on the economy. For a while things were really bad, and people didn’t see how businesses could viably continue. Chinatown had been poor and was considered a slum before the earthquake, after the quake things were worse, and the city did indeed want to shut it down. Pouring lots of money into cleaning it up, and attempting to rebrand it as a safe tourist destination was seen as the only path to financial viability, otherwise they were afraid it would not recover in the foreseeable future and would get stuck for years as a ghetto with the residents never being able to attract enough people in to shop to get it normalized and attracting drug users.

    “Chinatown” was promoted heavily by the community there and the city itself, special postcards with drawings of Chinatown were made and distributed. It was advertised as a vacation destination where people could look at the architecture, eat food that was unusual to them and shop at stores selling Chinese goods.

    It was sort of like a proto-Vegas in that way, but without the gambling and the idea of indulging ‘sin’. Instead, it was built so that the whole area worked together to be one big tourist experience that was family friendly that hads lots of things for them to buy…maybe more like some of the eating/shopping areas of Disney today.

    Of course, as time went on, overseas travel became cheaper and people did build larger and more entertaining attractions in other places, and it became far less interesting as an attraction, and gradually it came to be like a normal part of the city but with a larger Chinese population.

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