There is perhaps no one in America with more experience dining at Chinese restaurants than David R. Chan. By his count, he’s eaten at more than 7,440 of them around the country.
In almost every way, Chan is an unlikely connoisseur of Chinese cuisine. He cannot use chopsticks, does not drink tea (too much caffeine), and cannot speak Chinese. He strictly adheres to a low-sugar, low-cholesterol diet, does not like spicy food, and in fact, doesn’t care much for food at all.
Chan is adamant that he is not a foodie, but his now-famous list—a spreadsheet of every Chinese restaurant he has visited in the past four decades—has become a reference for those who are.
For Chan, a former tax lawyer, the list does not appeal to him as a diner but as an accountant.
“This is just another Excel spreadsheet,” he says. “I was always into lists.”
He’s also a consummate collector. “I’ve collected stamps, went through coins, went through records, baseball cards.”
Although he presents himself as a numbers guy, Chan is, above all else, a historian. It was an ethnic studies course during his undergraduate years at the University of California in Los Angeles that sparked his interest in Chinese-American history.
“I was always an American-history buff, so this was fascinating to me,” Chan says. “There was next to no academic history of Asian-Americans, no textbooks, no nothing, so everybody who took that first class was basically on the ground floor of an academic subject.”
Chan wrote two papers for that class: one on the history of Chinese people in Los Angeles and the other on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese immigration to the United States.
Many years later, he would learn even more about Chinese-American history from the restaurants where he ate.
More than just a spreadsheet
Chan’s list is exhaustive and contains nearly every Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area, where Chan has lived all his life.
As a result, one can trace the history of Chinese food trends on the West Coast using Chan’s list.
“In 1978, people in LA started talking about this great, new Hong Kong-style restaurant that had opened up in San Francisco,” Chan says. “It was called Kam Lok. People from LA would fly up there just to eat.”
Two years later, Chan and his wife made their first trip to Hong Kong, where they noticed restaurants selling seafood tank to table. Customers could select a lobster from a tank and have it fished out and cooked for them.
“It was something we’d never seen before,” he says. “Then, we came back to LA, and six months later, all of these seafood places started opening up. Within two or three years in LA’s Chinatown, San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York’s Chinatown, every new Chinese restaurant had seafood or ocean or something like that in its name.”
That seafood restaurant boom—the “golden age of Cantonese food in the United States,” as Chan likes to call it—began in the mid-1970s as a result of new immigration patterns. After the United States relaxed immigration laws in 1965, a wave of new immigrants came from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
These Chinese immigrants were different from the ones who were already in America. For one, they were wealthier than the earlier wave, which mostly comprised people from a rural backwater in southern China called Taishan, or Toisan in the local dialect. They had gone to California for the gold rush in the 1840s.
“The Toisanese brought the food that they knew with them, and that formed the basis of what, until the late 1960s, Americans thought of as Chinese food,” Chan says. “But in fact, it was really just food from this small rural area, and that had been adapted for ingredients found in the United States and to the tastes of local populations. You’re talking about stuff like sweet and sour pork and chop suey.”
Chan’s grandparents were among the Toisanese who came to San Francisco during the gold rush, but Chan himself did not grow up eating much Chinese food.
“We’d go to Chinatown for two things,” he recalls, “banquets for somebody’s birthday or a wedding, or if we had relatives visit from out of town.” Otherwise, the family rarely ate out.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Chan began regularly eating at Chinese restaurants.
His work took him all over the country, so he began “collecting” Chinese restaurants with gusto, eating at as many as four establishments a day.
By the end of the decade, Chinese restaurants had proliferated to the point that Chan was afraid he would unknowingly eat at the same place twice, and thus the famous list was born.
Witness to culinary history
The Chinese food scene in America has changed a lot since Chan began his list more than 40 years ago.
For one, there’s greater regional diversity than ever before, with over 20 out of China’s more than 30 provinces represented in the Los Angeles area.
As China has prospered, Chinese people are visiting the United States in greater numbers—and demanding food that is closer to what they know.
“About 10 years ago, there was a notable shift in the foreign buyers of single-family residences in the United States,” Chan says. “Until 10 years ago, the percentage of all foreigners buying houses in the United States who were Chinese was 10 percent. Ten years later, that number is 30 percent.”
Especially in cities with large Chinese populations, there are chefs from mainland China who, for the first time, are cooking for Chinese consumers without having to worry about white American tastes.
With his list, Chan has had a front-row seat to that evolution. He saw Taiwanese immigrants with familial roots in Hunan and Sichuan introduce those provinces’ food to Americans in the 1970s. He saw the proliferation of Shanghainese restaurants after China and the United States established diplomatic ties in 1979.
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All these new Chinese restaurants recently got Chan thinking about Kam Lok, the Cantonese restaurant considered so good that it was worth flying to San Francisco to eat there in 1978.
He decided to do something he didn’t usually do: visit a restaurant a second time.
“It’s still there, in the same location,” Chan says. “The restaurant looked the same, the menu looked the same, but we thought the food was awful.”
It was not that the food had changed, but that it had, indeed, stayed the same.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.