The Chinese Buffet: A Hybrid Dining Practice in America

Open Access
Author:
Yee, Rosemary Koo
Area of Honors:
American Studies (University College)
Degree:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis
Thesis Supervisors:
  • John R. Haddad, Thesis Supervisor
  • John R. Haddad, Honors Advisor
  • Simon J. Bronner, Faculty Reader
Keywords:
  • Abundance
  • American Dream
  • Authenticity
  • Cantonese and Hong Kong
  • Cathay
  • China and Taiwan
  • Chinese buffet
  • Chinese immigrants in America
  • Exotic food and culture
  • Gold Rush and Gold Mountain
  • San Francisco’s Chinatown
  • Symbol and myth
Abstract:
The Chinese buffet, a relatively new culinary form, has taken America by storm since the 1990s. This thesis explores the cultural phenomenon of the Chinese buffet in the United States. Although other culinary historians and scholars have studied the role of Chinese food in American life, they have tended to focus on the adaptation, variations, and democratization of Chinese food in America. The Chinese buffet remains understudied. To investigate the distinctiveness of the Chinese buffet in America, this thesis presents an ethnographic study of several Chinese buffets, located in Central Pennsylvania, from the perspectives of both producers and consumers. The thesis argues that the Chinese buffet represents a fusion of three old cultural myths that continue to have great relevance in the United States and China: the American myth of Cathay, the American myth of abundance, and the Chinese myth of the Gold Mountain. The findings suggest that the Chinese buffet, as a site of convergence for three cultural myths, expresses the American Dream for both the Chinese buffet restaurant owners and their patrons. On the one hand, Chinese buffet restaurant owners capitalize on the popularity of Chinese buffets while serving a plethora of Chinese and American food. On the other hand, Chinese buffets deliver instant gratification and a vision of good life to patrons through a virtually endless supply of delicious food as they immerse in the grandeur of the restaurants.