This post is meant to update and hopefully correct some errors, as requested by the OP BrianS!
The vast improvement in the way Chinese food, both served and eaten in the United States, actually began after Nixon’s seven day visit to China in 1972. Americans became fascinated with the names of dishes served up the twelve-course banquets held in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Across the country, new Chinese restaurants opened up and top chefs were brought in from Taiwan and Hongkong as diners were able to turn away from Chop Suey and Egg Foo Yung to exotic new dishes made with fermented black beans, wood ear or sea cucumbers.
How could it have come to this? After all, a love affair with China had taken hold in colonial America. Chinese silks, porcelain, tea tables and embroidered cloth were luxury items held in high demand by the elite class. In 1755, George Washington ordered a Chinese porcelain tea set from London. Ben Franklin was an admirer of Chinese inventions like the civil service and paper-making and saw how useful they could be in a new land. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of The General History of China - an influential book written in 1736. Alexander Hamilton knew about the vast array of Chinese goods like cinnamon pepper, musk and many valuable “drugs and gums.”
Chinese merchants and sailors began arriving in America in 1784 but usually did not stay. The earliest known Chinese living in America are fixed in New York by 1808 and by the 1820’s Chinese sailors were living in Corlears Hook in Manhattan, when California was called Californios and San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena. By the 1850’s at least 150 Chinese lived in New York and a man named Ah Sue opened a candy and tobacco store on Cherry Street.
Within one month of the accidental discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma on January 24, 1848, two Chinese servants of one Charles Gillespie deserted him and fled to Coloma. Soon people from around the world were arriving in California to try to strike it rich. The experience of the first Chinese there was no different than other Europeans or new Americans. Census data from the west taken between 1860-1880 shows that Chinese were listed as miners, merchants, gamblers, laundrymen, cooks, servants and restaurant owners. They also brought with them their cuisine and by 1849 there were three Chinese restaurants in San Francisco.
Chinese miners arrived in large numbers only after Mexicans were forced out. Although initially welcomed by Governor McDougal, prejudice and discrimination were soon the order of the day. In 1852, California passed a law preventing Chinese from making mining claims. What did the Chinese do? They bypassed the law and simply bought abandoned claims from White miners. Since they had come from Guangdong province, one of China’s principle rice-growing regions, they were very familiar with water-management techniques and knew how to build dams, sluices, ditches and flumes to divert water and extract gold from worked-over deposits. By 1852, 20,000 Chinese had arrived in California and by 1860, 25% of all miners in California were Chinese. Chinese miners were among the first “foreigners” to settle in Oregon (1852) Nevada (1855) and Idaho (1859.) Chinese mining camps were also established in the Washington territory, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Alaska.
In the winter months they logged timber, hunted and fished. They introduced commercial fishing to the west coast; bringing sampans, junks, gill nets and trawl lines from China. In the 1850’s thirty such fishing camps were established on the California coast. They opened a fish processing plant in Monterey Bay. The first Chinese language newspaper, The China Daily News began circulating in Sacramento in 1856. They grew fresh produce and introduced fruits and vegetables to California. Ah Bing developed a cherry hybrid in Oregon in 1875 – known today as the Bing Cherry. The Chinese were the first to realize the value of the wild mustard that grows in Napa Valley. They brought both Chinese medicine, which was highly valued by the White settlers and a gambling game called White Pigeon Ticket, or as it is known today: Keno. Restaurateur Quong Gee Kee was well known in Tombstone (AZ) and friendly with Doc Holiday and the Earp brothers. He died at age 96 in 1938 and was buried in Boothill Cemetery. Chuck Ah Fong was widely respected in Idaho as a physician, apothecary and acupuncturist and upon his wife’s death in 1902 more than a thousand people, including the Governor, attended her funeral.
Almost as soon as the Chinese arrived and began contributing, anti-Sino violence rose up. In Tuolumne County in 1849, a group of White miners drove 60 Chinese miners off their claim. In 1865, Leland Stanford, President of the Central Pacific Railroad hired 50 Chinese workers (to replace White workers threatening to strike) to help build the transcontinental railroad. By 1869 when the railroad is completed, over 90% of the 17,000 workers were Chinese.
In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty between China and the U.S. is ratified. Although it allowed Chinese to immigrate it did not allow them citizenship. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad, unemployment rose in California and more anti-Chinese violence ensues. In 1871, 15 Chinese are lynched in Los Angeles and four more are murdered in Chico. In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese were ineligible for U.S. citizenship. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act (CEA) is passed by Congress – the only time in U.S. history that a specific ethnic group has been targeted for exclusion. While it prevented both skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from immigrating; officials, scholars, merchants, students and teachers were exempted. Chinese laborers already in the U.S. were not allowed to bring in their wives and were basically barred from all the licensed professions. More anti-Sino violence breaks out in Tacoma (WA;) Rock Springs (WY) and Snake River (OR.) In 1888, the Scott Act was enacted, which prohibited Chinese residents of the U.S. to return after they visited China. Overnight, some 20,000 Chinese were stranded in China.
Before passage of the CEA, about 190,000 Chinese emigrated to the U.S. Between 1882 to 1930, the U.S. Chinese population dropped to 75,000 while some 28 million White Europeans arrived. For protection, many Chinese start to migrate to urban areas. The National Origins Act of 1924 set immigration quotas at 2% of “each national group” but barred the foreign born wives of U.S. citizens of Chinese descent.
In 1943, with the U.S. allied now with the Nationalists in China under Chiang Kai-Shek, the CEA was repealed. Chinese were now “free” to immigrate but at the old 1924 law, which was based on numbers from the 1890 census. The result: only 105 Chinese a year were allowed in. Meanwhile 13,000 Chinese served in the U.S. Armed Forces in WW II. The War Brides Act of 1945 allowed some 7500 Chinese women who had married American servicemen to emigrate.
The McCarran-Waller Act of 1952 allowed greater numbers of Chinese students in to study and in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, abolishing quotas in place since 1924. A limit of 170,000 new immigrants per year was set with no more than 20,000 from any one country. Family re-unification immigrants though were unlimited. Taiwan was granted the 20,000 immigrant number and Hongkong only 600. In 1979, when U.S.-Sino relations were normalized, China was also allowed 20,000 emigrants per year. The Chinese population in the U.S. rose from 240,000 in 1960 to 2.9 million in 2000. Today 70% of the Chinese population in the US is concentrated in just five states: New York, California, New Jersey, Texas and Massachusetts.
For excellent further reading - and from which the information stated above was paraphrased from:
Burrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kuo, John Wei Tchen. New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture 1776-1882. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Kwong, Peter and Miscevic. Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest Community.” New York: The New Press, 2005