By Nancy Finlay
While most European immigrants to the United States landed on the East Coast and made their way west across the continent, Chinese immigrants primarily arrived on the West Coast and traveled east. The first Chinese restaurant in America opened in San Francisco in 1849 to serve Chinese miners and laborers drawn by the gold rush. Almost 50 years later, in 1898, the first Chinese restaurant opened in Hartford.
Chinese Food Comes to Hartford
The Café Do Yan Low opened on State Street on February 20, 1898—an event newspapers hailed as a sign that Hartford had become a metropolis. Though seemingly successful, the restaurant lasted just over six months, closing on September 2nd, when the cook returned to Boston. Unable to find another cook, Do Yan Low sold the restaurant to Wah Hop and Tun Ham, two other local Chinese. Neither the Hartford Courant nor the Hartford City Directories, however, give any indication that there was another Chinese restaurant in Hartford until 1901, when the King Far Low Restaurant opened at 136 State Street. By the following year, the restaurant relocated to the second floor of 21 Central Row, where it remained until 1910, serving as a gathering place for the local Chinese community.
King Far Low’s Success
Lee Foo was the driving force behind the King Far Low Restaurant; at different times serving as proprietor, manager, waiter, and head cook. On March 3, 1903, a group of Hartford residents met at Lee Foo’s restaurant to establish a local branch of the Chinese Empire Reform Association—an organization which advocated the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in China. Lee Foo later served as the secretary of the association and helped bring Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao—the founders of the association—to Hartford to meet with local members. Inevitably, these visits included elaborate multi-course dinners at the restaurant.
In 1903, Kang Tongbi—the daughter of Kang Youwei—came to Hartford to finish her English education as the guest of Yung Wing, who had remained in Hartford after the Chinese Educational Mission ended in 1881. Like her father, Kang Tongbi was a staunch advocate of reform—but also of Chinese women’s rights. After attending Hartford Public High School, she studied at Radcliffe, Trinity, and Barnard Colleges before returning to China in 1911. She hosted at least one dinner at the King Far Low restaurant for Yung Wing and her American friends while she was in Hartford.
Reception of Chinese Food in Hartford
Like many Chinese in early 20th century America, most of Hartford’s Chinese came from Guangdong Province in southern China, from the area around the city of Guangzhai, which was then known as Canton. Hartford’s early Chinese restaurants served essentially Cantonese food, modified to suit American tastes and American ingredients. Chop Suey—a mixture of pork fried with bean sprouts, dried mushrooms, celery, and onions—was especially popular with American customers. Restaurants served more authentic Chinese dishes such as shark fin and bird’s nest soup at banquets for visiting Chinese dignitaries and other Chinese customers. These delicacies were difficult to obtain—the merchants often imported the ingredients to the West Coast from China, then shipped them over land to Hartford. Traditional Chinese vegetables became more readily available in 1907, when an enterprising shop owner named Quong Mow began growing Chinese vegetables and raising chickens on his property on Brown Street and sold them to restaurants.
Anti-Chinese prejudice was widespread in the early years of the 20th century—heightened by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its subsequent renewals. Lee Foo was the victim of two attacks that appear to have been racially motivated. On one occasion, the police arrested two men for “annoying” Lee Foo. On another occasion, diners in his restaurant poured tea on the floor and broke dishes. When Lee Foo tried to stop them, one held him while the other punched and beat him. Incidents of this kind were not uncommon in different parts of the country, but appear somewhat limited in Hartford.
A fire damaged the building on Central Row where the Far King Low Restaurant was located in the summer of 1910. The restaurant, however, had recently closed and its owner had apparently left Hartford. Chinese restaurants continued to grow in popularity in Hartford and expanded into the suburbs in the ensuing years as immigrants from other parts of China introduced new dishes and tastes.
Nancy Finlay grew up in Manchester, Connecticut. She has a BA from Smith College and an MFA and PhD from Princeton University. From 1998 to 2015, she was Curator of Graphics at the Connecticut Historical Society.