indigo som chinese restaurant project
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Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous throughout the U.S. that they constitute an integral part of American life. They are the most pervasively visible manifestation of Chinese American presence in this country. For most Americans of non-Chinese descent, Chinese restaurants provide the main point of contact with Chinese culture and Chinese people.

Yet this potent influence remains generally unacknowledged, even invisible. Historical patterns of racism have stereotyped Asian Americans as perpetually foreign and intrinsically un-American, so that Chinese food, despite its position as a fixture in the American foodscape, remains an exoticized outsider to the usual considerations of “American” culture and identity.

The Chinese Restaurant Project aims to investigate and elucidate the complex relationships between Chinese restaurants and “American” culture.


Sometime in the early 90s I had the idea to do a project about those Chinese restaurants that you see in tiny towns when you've been driving for hours with no Chinese folks in sight. Or maybe it’s not a small town at all, but a city in some part of the country with hardly any Asian Americans. Poof, suddenly there’s a Chinese restaurant sandwiched between the gas station and the Burger King! What’s it doing here? Who runs it, and how did they wind up here?

I thought I would compile a list of these places and make a book out of it. But I wasn’t really sure how to find the restaurants; should I beg some soy sauce distributor for their list? Other projects occupied me and I forgot about the Chinese restaurants for almost ten years.

Fast forward to January 2002: I was sitting in my studio, contemplating what my next project should be, when I remembered the Chinese restaurant idea. In a flash I realized that technology had caught up with me; I ran to my computer and within a couple minutes was almost screaming with excitement as I scrolled through a web listing of Chinese restaurants in Kansas.

Okay, so I realize that's not exactly normal. Hey, I’m an art geek and proud of it!

I quickly became overwhelmed (a common websurfing side effect) and realized I needed to get specific about what I wanted. I came up with some guidelines for where I would look for Chinese restaurants, within the USA:

  • Places where Chinese Americans are a very low percentage of the population
  • Places where Asian Americans in general are a very low percentage of the population
  • Places where one does not expect to see Chinese Americans or other Asians
  • Rural or wilderness places; places far from any big city &/or with low population density
  • Places that are or may be hostile to Chinese or Asian people

These criteria still allow enough subjective interpretation for artistic flexibility, but they are specific enough so that I could start working somewhat systematically. I looked at Census 2000 data and saw that almost the whole country could easily fall within my parameters, at least on a state-by-state basis: Only six states have a Chinese population percentage higher than 1%. This realization made me take a step back from my initial concept, and start to think more generally about Chinese restaurants in America.

As ideas began mushrooming in my head, it became clear that there was not just one project here, but many projects, all exploring different aspects of Chinese restaurants in America—which is how I arrived at the statement at the top of the page.

Two of the projects involve audience participation. That means you! Please check out the menu and survey pages.

I’m also keeping a project blog, where I post updates and other fun little tidbits.

Thanks for looking!


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