The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Derek Shimoda’s The Killing of a Chinese Cookie

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 20, 2008

    Derek Shimoda’s documentary, The Killing of the Chinese Cookie, is playing in the International Asian American Film Festival. I convinced Derek to come with me to Japan to document the Japaneseness of the cookies when I heard he was working on a documentary. I have a funny story about when we first talked on the phone, but will share it later. San Francisco Chronicle does a piece on the doc.

    Killing of the Chinese Cookie

    Thursday, March 20, 2008

    Here’s the first thing you should know about fortune cookies: They don’t come from China. Surprising, perhaps, but not completely shocking. But how about this: They were not invented by Chinese Americans.

    They are Japanese.

    As Derek Shimoda’s documentary “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” shows, fortune cookies occupy a special place in U.S. cuisine. Like American Chinese food itself, fortune cookies have little to do with China. But until recently, bakeries in Los Angeles and San Francisco both claimed provenance of the cookie. Eventually the evidence pointed to San Francisco baker Makoto Hagiwara as the originator, in 1909. (David Jung, Los Angeles founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Co., had been thought to have invented them in 1918.)

    Shimoda became interested in the cookies after hearing a 2005 news story about 110 Powerball players getting five of the six numbers right. It turns out that they all had gotten their numbers from fortune cookies made in a Queens factory.

    “It was such a great story,” he said. He followed up with research on fortunes, and, he says, a “chance conversation” with his mother about fortune cookies being invented by Japanese Americans in Los Angeles spurred him on.

    The resulting film weaves the history of the cookies with thoughts on their position in U.S. culture. Shimoda traveled to Japan with Jennifer 8. Lee, whose book on American Chinese food, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” was published this month. He documents the similarities between American fortune cookies and the Japanese counterparts, which share a folded shape and have paper inserted in them. The movie features interviews with Martin Yan from “Yan Can Cook,” Giant Robot founder Eric Nakamura and a 26-year-old woman who writes fortunes.

    When Shimoda began filming, he thought that he’d showcase the differing historical accounts of the San Francisco and Los Angeles fortune cookie bakeries and let the viewer decide which was really the first. But then came the revelation about the Japanese origin, and that “threw everything out of the sink.”

    Another revelation is that there are no fortune cookies in China. “In China, it’s an exotic item. A fortune cookie company from New York opened up a business in China in 2002, but it closed down in two years,” Shimoda says, noting that the label said “genuine American fortune cookies.”

    Noon Sun. Part of the International Asian American Film Festival. $11. Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 Second St., San Jose. (408) 998-3300. For festival information, go to

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