New York

The History of Chinese Take-Out

Updated: Feb 26, 2018 14:07
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Completely sloshed from the night’s activities, or have had a long Friday day of work and just want to veg out in your pad, one will always come across Chinese food as an easy and convenient way to fill that tired stomach.

Although in the City, it’s much more amazing. Chinese Food is one of the staples of the Metropolitan cuisine around here, next to Pizza, Halal, and Hot Dog cart water. It is a modern miracle and marvel that you could be calling the place asking for a Shrimp Lo Mein at 8:30 and have the delivery guy be at your building by 9:00! I still find that amazing (Readers of this writer’s articles will know by this point, that he is very easily amazed at everything). In fact, there are more Chinese Food Takeout places than McDonald’s in the United States! So how did this influx of Chinese food places arrive in the states and in New York City? And also, the amazing ingenuity of the Chinese Food Takeout box!

Ye Olde Chinese Food ad from New York, early 1900’s Photo Credit: The China History

Chinese people first started really coming en masse into this country in 1848 to California during the Gold Rush, and for the expansion of the Union and Pacific Railroads. A majority of them were from Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) due to an 1842 Qing Empire Treaty with Britain that increased the number of open ports to the area (Cantonese people were losing jobs!). Merchants had traveled across the Pacific to California with their woks and recipes. Chinese chefs set up small restaurant businesses for the Gold Miners and emigrants who missed home-grown cooking. This turned successful and Chinese anti-immigrant sentiment rose, with the stereotype that Chinese people were “subhuman” and ate rodents (as one 1877 Thomas Nast cartoon depicted it). When the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 were passed, the mass influx of Chinese laborers ceased, and from 1882 to 1943, Cantonese food was the only Chinese food Americans knew.

This made the Chinese folks already here try to make a name for themselves, so they started adding familiar American delicacies into their cuisine, like “Fine Cut Chicken Chop Suey” or the use of Broccoli, a vegetable foreign to China, into their Lo Mein.

In the 60’s immigration laws were relaxed, and especially by the time Nixon visited the Mainland in 1972, American society started opening up to more authentic Chinese cuisine from places like Shanghai and Taipei. California’s Chinatown in San Francisco and New York City’s Chinatown in Manhattan became hubs for city slickers to get their late-night grub on, and where the take out was popularized.


Stuff of dreams Photo Credit:


That well-known take-out box. What an amazing invention. It was actually never intended for Chinese food, it was actually an oyster pail developed in the late 1800’s, but soon found its way to Chinese restaurants for its inexpensive design.

The take-out box is all from one piece of cardboard paper, folded upright so liquid doesn’t spill out, and the origami shaped design lets hot steam out from the box. And better yet, if one takes that wire handle from the box, it can serve as a small plate.

Chinese food has been a staple of urban living for years. Little do people know that the Chinese food we eat here is incredibly different from the food served in the mainland. American laws and society, for good and for bad, helped shaped the cuisine we order drunkenly today. Now I want some Lo Mein.

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Zack Daniel Schiavetta

Zack Daniel Schiavetta

Zack Daniel Schiavetta is a quiet kid, musician, writer, village idiot, and student. He is currently studying at Baruch College, contributing to the Opinions section of his college's newspaper, The Ticker. He's also a history buff. His music can be found at He can be contacted via

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