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Dec 30, 2022

Research into the history of computers sometimes leads down some interesting alleys - or wormholes even. My family would always go out to eat Chinese food, or pick it up, on New Year’s day. None of the one Chinese restaurants in the area actually closed, so it just made sense. The Christmas leftovers were gone by then and no one really wanted to cook. My dad mentioned there were no Chinese restaurants in our area in the 1970s - so it was a relatively new entrant to the cuisine of my North Georgia town.

Whether it’s the Tech Model Railroad or hobbyists from Cambridge, stories abound of young engineers debating the merits of this programming technique or chipset or that. So much so that while reading Steven Levy’s Hackers or Tom Lean’s Electronic Dreams, I couldn’t help but hop on Door Dash and order up some yummy fried rice. Then I started to wonder, why this obsession? 

For one, many of these hackers didn’t have a ton of money. Chinese food was quick and cheap. The restaurants were often family-owned and small. There were higher end restaurants but concepts like P.F. Chang’s hadn’t sprung up yet. That wouldn’t come until 1993. Another reason it was cheap is that many of the proprietors of the restaurants were recent immigrants. Some were from Hunan, others from Taipei or Sichuan, Shanghai, or Peking (the Romanized name for Beijing). Chinese immigrants began to flow into the United States during the Gold Rush of California in the late 1840s and early 1850s. 

The Qing Empire had been at its height at the end of the 1700s and China ruled over a third of humans in the world. Not only that - it was one of the top economies in the world. But rapid growth in population meant less farmland for everyone - less jobs to go around. Poverty spread, just as colonial powers began to pick away at parts of the empire. Britain had banned the slave trade in 1807 and Chinese laborers had been used to replace the slaves. The use of opium spread throughout the colonies and with the laborers, back into China. The Chinese tried to ban the opium trade and seized opium in Canton. The British had better ships, better guns, and when the First Opium War broke out, China was forced to give up Hong Kong to the British in 1842, which began what some historians refer to as a century of humiliation while China gave up land until they were able to modernize. Hong Kong became a British colony under Queen Victoria and the Victorian obsession with China grew. Art, silks (as with the Romans), vases, and anything the British could get their hands on flowed through Hong Kong.

Then came the Taiping Rebellion, which lasted from 1851 to 1864. A Christian was named theocrat and China was forced to wage a war internally with around 20 million people dying and scores more being displaced. The scent of an empire in decay was in the air. Set against a backdrop of more rebellions, the Chinese army was weakened to the point that during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, and more intervention from colonial powers. By 1900, the anti-colonial and anti-Christian Boxer Uprising saw missionaries slaughtered and foreigners expelled. Great powers of the day sent ships and troops to retrieve their peoples and soon declared war on the empire and seized Beijing. This was all expensive, led to reparations, a prohibition on importing arms, razing of forts, and more foreign powers occupying areas of China. The United States put over $10 million of its take from the Boxer Indemnity as they called it, to help support Chinese students who came to the United States.

The Qing court had lost control and by 1911 the Wuchang Uprising began and by 1912 2,000 years of Chinese dynasties was over with the Republic of China founded in 1912, and internal conflicts for power continuing until Mao Zedong and his followers finally seized power, established the People’s Republic of China as a communist nation, and cleansed the country of detractors during what they called the Great Leap Forward, resulting in 45 million dead. China itself was diplomatically disconnected with the United States at the time, who had backed the government now in exile in the capital city of Taiwan, Taipei - or the Republic of China as they were called during the Civil War. 

The food, though. Chinese food began to come into the United States during the Gold Rush. Cantonese merchants flowed into the sparkling bay of San Francisco, and emigrants could find jobs mining, laying railroad tracks, and in agriculture. Hard work means you get real hungry, and they cooked food like they had at home. China had a better restaurant and open market cooking industry than the US at the time (and arguably still does). Some of he Chinese who settled in San Francisco started restaurants - many better than those run by Americans. The first known restaurant owned by a Chinese proprietor was Canton Restaurant in 1849. As San Francisco grew, so grew the Chinese food industry. 

Every group of immigrants faces xenophobia or racism. The use of the Chinese laborers had led to laws in England that attempted to limit their use. In some cases they were subjugated into labor. The Chinese immigrants came into the California Gold Rush and many stayed. More restaurants were opened and some catered to white people more than the Chinese. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 and tourists began to visit San Francisco from the east. China Towns began to spring up in other major cities across the United States. Restaurants, laundries, and other even eastern pharmacies. New people bring new ways and economies go up and down. Prejudice reared its ugly head. There was an economic recession in the 1870s. There were fears that the Chinese were taking jobs, causing wages to go down, and crime. Anti-Chinese sentiment became law in the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which halted immigration into the US. That would be repealed in 1943.

Conservative approaches to immigration did nothing to limit the growing appeal of Chinese food in the United States. Merchants, like those who owned Chinese restaurants, could get special visas. They could bring relatives and workers. Early Chinese restaurants had been called “chow chow houses” and by the early 1900s there were new Chop Suey restaurants in big cities, that were affordable. Chop Suey basically means “odds and ends” and most of the dishes were heavily westernized but still interesting and delicious. The food was fried in ways it hadn’t been in China, and sweeter. Ideas from other asian nations also began to come in, like fortune cookies, initially from Japan.

Americans began to return home from World War II in the late 1940s. Many had experienced new culinary traditions in lands they visited. Initially Cantonese-inspired, more people flowed in from other parts of China like Taiwan and they brought food inspired from their native lands. Areas like New York and San Francisco got higher end restaurants. Once the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, plenty of immigrants fled wars and cleansing in China. Meanwhile, Americans embraced access to different types of foods - like Italian, Chinese, and fast food. Food became a part of the national identity. Further, new ways to preserve food became possible as people got freezers and canneries helped spread foods - like pasta sauce. 

This was the era of the spread of Spam and other types of early processed foods. The military helped spread the practice - as did Jen Paulucci, who bought Chun King Corporation in 1947. The Great Depression proved there needed to be new ways to distribute foods. Some capitalized on that. 4,000+ Chinese restaurants in the US in the 1940s meant there were plenty of companies to buy those goods rather than make them fresh. Chop Suey, possibly created by the early Chinese migrants. A new influx of immigrants would have new opportunities to diversify the American pallate. 

The 1960s saw an increase in legislation to protect human rights. Amidst the civil rights movement, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 stopped the long-standing practice of controlling immigration effectively by color. The post-war years saw shifting borders and wars throughout the world - especially in Eastern Europe and Asia. The Marshal Plan helped rebuild the parts of Asia that weren’t communist, and opened the ability for more diverse people to move to the US. Many that we’ve covered went into computing and helped develop a number of aspects of computing. They didn’t just come from China - they came from Russia, Poland, India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and throughout. Their food came with them. This is the world the Hackers that Steven Levy described lived in. The first Chinese restaurant opened in London in 1907 and as well when people who lived in Hong Kong moved to the UK, especially after World War II.

That number of Chinese restaurants in the US grew to tens of thousands in the decades since Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1972 to open relations back up with China. But the impact at the time was substantial, even on technologists. It wasn’t just those hackers from MIT that loved their Chinese food, but those in Cambridge as well in the 1980s, who partook in a more Americanized Chinese cuisine, like “Chow mein” - which loosely translates from “fried noodles” and emerged in the US in the early 1900s. 

Not all dishes have such simple origins to track down. Egg rolls emerged in the 1930s, a twist on the more traditional Chinese sprint roll. Ding Baozhen, a governor of the Sichuan province in the Qing Dynasty, discovered a spicy marinated chicken dish in the mid-1800s that spread quickly. He was the Palace Guardian, or Kung Pao, as the dish is still known. Zuo Zongtang, better known as General Tso, was a Qing Dynasty statesman and military commander who helped put down the Taiping Rebellion in the later half of the 1800s. Chef Peng Chang-kuei escaped communist China to Taiwan, where he developed General Tso’s chicken and named it after the war hero. It came to New York in the 1970s. Sweet and Sour pork also got its start in the Qing era, in 18th century Cantonese cuisine and spread to the US with the Gold Rush.

Some dishes are far older. Steamed dumplings were popular from Afghanistan to Japan and go back to the Han Dynasty - possibly invented by the Chinese doctor Zhang Zhongjing in the centuries before or after the turn of the millennia. Peking duck is far older, getting its start in 1300s Ming Dynasty, or Yuan - but close to Shanghai. Otto Reichardt brought the ducks to San Francisco to be served in restaurants in 1901. Chinese diplomats helped popularize the dish in the 1940s as some of their staffs stayed in the US and the dish exploded in popularity in the 1970s - especially after Nixon’s trip to China, which included a televised meal on Tiananmen Square where he and Henry Kissinger ate the dish.  

There are countless stories of Chinese-born immigrants bringing their food to the world. Some are emblematic of larger population shifts globally. Cecilia Chiang grew up in Shanghai until Japan invaded, when she and her sister fled to Chengdu, only to flee the Chinese Communists and emigrate to the US in 1959. She opened The Mandarin in 1960 in San Francisco and a second location in 1967. It was an upscale restaurant and introduced a number of new dishes to the US from China. She went on to serve everyone from John Lennon to Julia Child - and her son Philip replaced her in 1989 before starting a more mainstream chain of restaurants he called P.F. Chang’s in 1993. The American dream, as it had come to be known. Plenty of other immigrants from countries around the world were met with open arms. Chemists, biologists, inventors, spies, mathematicians, doctors, physicists, and yes, computer scientists. And of course, chefs. Diversity of thought, diversity of ideas, and diversity-driven innovation can only come from diverse peoples. The hackers innovated over their Americanized versions of Chinese food - many making use of technology developed by immigrants from China, their children, or those who came from other nations. Just as those from nearly every industry did.