Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fortune Cookies

In Amy Tan's novel, The Joy Luck Club, two Chinese immigrant women find their first job in America at a fortune cookie factory, making desserts non-existent in their place of origin yet sold as Chinese in the United States. Fortune cookie, along with chop suey and chow mein sandwiches, was invented in the U.S. sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth century. There are many stories as to who was the first one to popularize the crisp cookie baked around a piece of paper--some say Makoto Hagiwara of Japanese Tea Garden, some point at David Jung of the Hong Kong Noodle Company, and the most recent scholarship argues that the cookie is neither Chinese nor America but Japanese (see:

But regardless of its origins, fortune cookie has established itself as an integral part of Chinese cuisine experience and perhaps even has become a symbol of exoticness that Asia American has to offer. After all, mass production of the cookie began in 1930s in San Francisco Chinatown to attract tourists and find a way to boost the local economy that was at all time low. At first containing Confucian aphorisms, the fortune papers began adopting biblical passages and other Western philosophical passages in order to appeal to the white American tourists and clienteles. During the cold war scare, five thousand Chinese fortune cookies were tossed to the crowd from a cable car, each cookie containing "Happy New Year" greeting for Chinese New Year perhaps as an attempt to diffuse the cultural difference between Chinese Americans and the rest of the Americans so that Chinese Americans wouldn't be perceived as Communists. Although most fortune cookies are now cranked out from factory machines, there are some places today where Asian Americans hand-make them to attract tourists (see the NYT article from Dec. 26th 2004). Examining the development of this cultural product should reveal one way the Asian American communities have transformed themselves to survive in this country, and it should also raise some important questions about how Asia continues to be perceived as exotic (its food contains oracular passages) and how Asian American community contends with assimilation and link to Asia.

Some websites and articles to check out:

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