The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    NYP: moo shu of riveting, Chinese-food-related anecdotes and facts

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 3, 2008

    The New York Post review is long and quite nice Another punny headline (“Hot and Sour Scoop”). Best lines: “a moo shu of riveting, Chinese-food-related anecdotes and facts” and “Lee condenses a formidable amount of research into a compact, breezy page-turner.” This is the first review that mentions the conversations with my mom.


    March 2, 2008 — In 2005, an $84 million Powerball drawing yielded 110 winners nationwide, an unprecedentedly large and possibly suspicious number. Jennifer 8. Lee traced the source of the many winning numbers to mass-printed fortunes in cookies given out by Chinese restaurants all over the country, all of which originated from the same Brooklyn company.

    As the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants and a Harvard-educated New York Times reporter who speaks fluent Mandarin and pretty good Cantonese, her curiosity was sparked. “I decided to follow those fortune cookies back to their source – from the winners back to the restaurants, back to the factory and the people who wrote the fortunes,” she writes, “back to the very historic origins of fortune cookies.”

    The result is “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” a moo shu of riveting, Chinese-food-related anecdotes and facts, from the connection between Jews and Chinese food to the origins of chop suey and General Tso’s chicken to the vicissitudes of being a Chinese delivery person to the arduous, expensive, often dangerous human trafficking that keeps Chinese restaurants stocked with workers.

    Lee condenses a formidable amount of research into a compact, breezy page-turner. Most of the workers in Chinese restaurants speak no English; Lee was able to get their stories: “‘When I first got here, I felt like I was in Mongolia,’ ” one Fujianese woman says about her new home in South Dakota. ‘There is a lot of grass. They eat a lot of meat. There is a lot of sky. There is livestock.’ ” When asked if he had ever been to Mount Rushmore, the woman’s husband told Lee, “It doesn’t have much meaning to us. It’s just rock.”

    Lee tells the wrenching story of one immigrant couple’s struggle to buy and run a Chinese restaurant in rural Georgia and the havoc it wreaked on their already fragile family. Isolated and overworked, they family spends most of their time in the restaurant until the local authorities begin to intervene on behalf of their children. When the mother, Jenny, gets pregnant for the fourth time and contemplates traveling to Chinatown for an abortion, Lee writes, “It would take her four weeks to travel there, recover, and get back to Hiawassee to work at the restaurant. If she actually gave birth, she would be out of work for only two weeks. She decided to carry the baby to term.”

    On the connection between Jews and Chinese food, Lee writes, “For one thing, Chinese people and Jews were among the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in the United States, which meant they didn’t share the same days of worship” as the Christian majority of Americans. “Chinese cooking uses essentially no dairy,” which makes keeping kosher a snap. Also, “Chinese food helped the generation of immigrant Jews feel more American, in part by making them feel more cosmopolitan at a time when they were trying to shed their image as hicks from Eastern Europe.” Geographic proximity also played a role: both groups densely settled the Lower East Side of New York; as the Jews moved out to Long Island, the Chinese restaurants followed, in a kind of parallel American immigrant diaspora. But the real reason might be that, as an old Jewish woman living in China told Lee, “Chinese food tastes good.”

    Her search for the story behind the Powerball fortune cookies finally leads Lee to Brooklyn’s Wonton Foods, the manufacturer of the fortunes containing the winning numbers. We learn about the demise of Wonton Food’s head fortune writer’s career due to burnout: “‘He told me it was the hardest job he ever got,’ ” his former boss tells Lee. Lee meditates on the mysterious pull that these tiny fortunes have. “For people who don’t have time to contemplate the life well lived,” she writes, “or read Confucius, Immanuel Kant, or Aristotle, fortune cookies provide the Cliff’s Notes version of wisdom.”

    She interviews a 27-year-old fortune collector and a fortune-cookie performance artist and delves into the bitter rivalry between the country’s two foremost fortune purveyors. Steven Yang worked for Yong Sik Lee as a salesman, then decided to make some important changes and go into business for himself, eliminating the machines and selling just the fortunes. “Steven copied Yong Lee’s repertoire of fortunes wholesale – typos and all. Then, by focusing mainly on the fortunes themselves and implementing some innovative packing techniques, he overtook Yong’s business.” The two “no longer talk.”

    Lee recounts a conversation with her mother about the differences between Chinese and American attitudes toward fortunes that turns into a lovely dissection of some of our profound cultural differences. “In Chinese culture, you criticize your children to make them better. (Why did you only get a 97 on the test? You need to lose weight. Your piano playing needs practice.) Here, you have to affirm your children’s self esteem.” Lee’s mother tells her in Mandarin, “We’ve had to recalibrate our thinking. It’s not easy.”

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