Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

The Circus Origins of Pink Lemonade

By Betsy Golden Kellem

Few things whip up an appetite quite like the playground of cotton candy, popcorn, fried food and sweet drinks that accompanies a circus. Pink lemonade in particular has long been associated with the circus, which does not simply claim to enjoy the beverage, but to have invented it: and in a business that relies so heavily on oral tradition (in industry parlance, “cutting up jackpots”), there are two tales about how the drink was therein first created.

Black and white ad, reading 'Iced lemonade, cool and refreshing'. There is a picture of a glass, lemons, and tools for making lemonade.
Iced Lemonade, published, Currier and Ives, 1879. Image credit: Library of Congress.

 

The first comes from Henry E. Allott, whose New York Times obituary (1912) bills him as the “Inventor of Pink Lemonade,” and attributes his creation to a stroke of luck: one day, mixing a batch of plain yellow lemonade, Allott claimed to have knocked a pile of red cinnamon candy into the tub by mistake. “The resulting rose-tinted mixture sold so surprisingly well,” relates the Times, “that he continued to dispense his chance discovery.” 

George Conklin begged to differ. A career showman and lion tamer, Conklin included the creation myth of pink lemonade in his 1921 memoir The Ways of the Circus, crediting his brother Pete with an equally happy accident on the Mabie circus. Conklin stated that one day in 1857, with concession sales going swimmingly, Pete found that he was out of water and there were no nearby natural sources from which he could refill his beverage stock. Racing frantically through the show lot, Pete found the bareback rider Fannie Jamieson in the middle of laundry day, wringing out a pair of her pink tights. “Without giving any explanation or stopping to answer her questions,” Conklin explained, “Pete grabbed the tub of pink water and ran.” Sales of what Pete billed as strawberry lemonade went gangbusters, and “from then on no first-class circus was without pink lemonade.”

Glittering concession stand purveying all sorts of foods and treats at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado.
Modern concession stand at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado, ca. 2015. Image Credit: Library of Congress.

 

And, look… everyone likes lemonade. Lemonade is refreshing and tart and has the whiff of summer indulgence to it. Not everything that was sold as lemonade in the nineteenth century was what you and I and the Federal Trade Commission would regard as lemonade, though: it was common practice, inside the circus and beyond, to serve a form of lemonade that had more citrus in name than composition. 

Some vendors truly did make a point of ensuring the purity of their lemon beverages. Others simply took anything that would make a vaguely tart-sweet combo and floated a lemon slice on top: one 1867 vendor, selling to incoming immigrants to the United States, was said to have offered a dingy mix of molasses, vinegar and water with a few sad lemon rinds floating on top. The standard circus recipe, relayed by Conklin, long involved water, tartaric acid (a fruit-based acidulant compound that lends a sour flavor, and from which cream of tartar is derived), a pinch of red aniline dye (a coal tar derivative now largely used to tint wood stain), and slices of re-usable “floater” lemons for appearance’s sake. (And before you gasp in horror, a modern combination of high fructose corn syrup, petroleum-based red #40 and “natural flavors” may not be too far off.) 

That said, as long as the drinks were cold and the show was good, no one much needed to pretend that pink lemonade came from anything organic: one writer in 1872 concluded that only “a possible purchaser with hereditary proclivities to insanity may be deluded into the idea that strawberries enter into the composition of the potable.” 


About


Betsy Golden Kellem is a scholar of the unusual. A historian and media attorney, she has written for The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Atlas Obscura, The Washington Post and Slate, and serves on the board of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She blogs at Drinks With Dead People, and is at work on a book about remarkable performing women.

Food Identity Standards and Recipes as Legislation

By Clare Gordon Bettencourt 

In 1933, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) organized an exhibit that came to be known as the Chamber of Horrors. The horrors on display were examples of packaging intended to deceive consumers. The FDA organized the exhibit to call attention to the pervasiveness of dishonest dealings in the food marketplace, a marketplace that the FDA was ostensibly in charge of regulating. Despite the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking sensation The Jungle (and decades of organizing by grassroots campaigners), the FDA argued that the law offered inadequate regulatory power. 

Five years later, after another watershed public health crisis captured public attention, regulators repealed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and replaced it with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. As a part of this overhaul, lawmakers looked to recipes as a new way to regulate food purity. 

In the process of evaluating why the Pure Food and Drug Act had failed, some believed that the 1906 law had been too negative by focusing on regulating adulteration rather than defining purity. The Consumers’ Guide newsletter of July 1938 explained:  “it named certain practices as taboo, but did not list the affirmative requirements of honesty and safety in the merchandising of food and drug products.”[1] One way the framers of the new law sought to balance the carrot with the stick was through a new form of legislative “recipes” called the food identity standard provision. 

The provision states: 

‘Whenever in the judgement of the Secretary such action will promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers he shall promulgate regulations fixing and establishing for any food under its common or usual name so far as practicable, a reasonable definition and standard of identity, a reasonable standard of quality and/or reasonable standards or fill of container.’[2]

In short, this provision grants the FDA commissioner the power to create a grade of quality, standardize packaging fill, or establish a recipe (of sorts) for a commonly recognized food. With this new power, the FDA began writing standards detailing the permitted ingredients and production methods. In the first years, the FDA wrote standards for canned fruits and vegetables, jam, and a variety of egg and milk foods. 

The earliest food standards followed a format similar to a recipe a home cook might have used at the time. A good example of this is the canned pea standard enacted in 1940:

Pea standard published in the US Code of Federal Regulations, 1940

Though the standard contains some technical language like the scientific names for the acceptable pea varieties, and the option to include ingredients like dextrose and artificial coloring that home cooks may not have had in their pantries, for the most part the ingredients and method of this standard would have likely made sense to a home cook in 1940; it aligned with common home-canning practices.

 

“Don’t let pretty labels on cans mislead you, but learn the difference between grades and the relative economy of buying larger instead of small cans. The Pure Food Law requires packers to state exact quantity and quality of canned products, so take advantage of this information and buy only after thorough inspection of labels.” US Office for Emergency Management, 1942 Image Courtesy the Library of Congress.

The recipe format is significant because it suggests a radical and somewhat romantic belief that national food regulations could be based on home cookery. The standardization process also suggests that one single standard could be established that would align with the expectations of consumers across backgrounds, regions, and socioeconomic categories. Despite the innovation of detailing exactly what made a food “pure”, the recipe format operated under the assumption that industrial food production and home food production were analogous. While this approach was possible for foods like canned peas, new processed foods that did not exist outside of industrial preparations (like pasteurized prepared cheese food product), particularly in the postwar period, would go on to test how standards were written, and whether a recipe format continued to be applicable. Since the implementation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the FDA has created more than 300 standards of identity. While the recipe format has changed since 1938, the process demonstrates the centrality of recipes to state-level notions of purity, identity, and integrity. 

 

[1] Agricultural Adjustment Administration, “Consumers’ Guide”, Volume V Number 6, July 1938

[2] 34 Stat. 768 (1938) http://constitution.org/uslaw/sal/052_statutes_at_large.pdf

Meals on Wheels: The “Kitchen Cars” and American Recipes for the Postwar Japanese Diet

By Nathan Hopson

From 1956 to 1960, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) sponsored a fleet of food demonstration buses in Japan (“kitchen cars”) to improve national nutrition and fuel the nation’s economic recovery with more “modern” and “rational” cooking methods and, most importantly, ingredients (i.e. American agricultural surpluses: wheat, corn, soy, and to a lesser extent meat, dairy, etc.) The concept was first floated to the US by Dr. Ōiso Toshio, chief of the health ministry’s nutrition section, 1953-1963. Along with the school lunch program instituted under the US occupation, the kitchen cars became one of the most important tools for marketing American farm products in Japan. The school lunch program, centered on bread and (reconstituted skim) milk until the 1970s, taught young Japanese new tastes. The kitchen cars taught their mothers to reproduce those flavors at home.

The initial fleet of a dozen buses, operated by the Japan Nutrition Association (a semiprivate organ of the health ministry), reached over two million people in towns, villages, and apartment blocks across Japan. The nutritionists staffing the buses put their professional imprimatur on the many novel foods they demonstrated, and distributed samples, nutritional pamphlets, and the day’s recipes to their audiences of mostly housewives. The kitchen cars were wildly popular. When US funding expired, local Japanese governments built their own to meet public demand; the number exceeded 100 by the end of the 1960s. Though it is difficult (impossible?) to quantify, the kitchen cars contributed in subtle but profound ways to transforming the postwar Japanese diet.

Despite their popularity at the time, today the kitchen cars are mostly forgotten. When they are remembered, it is mostly for destroying “traditional” Japanese dietary patterns and contributing to the “Westernization” of the diet during the period of high economic growth. This backlash stems in part from the fact that American financing was hidden not just from the public, but also from all those who staffed or assisted with the kitchen cars. Still, in the short run, these buses were a win-win for the US and Japan. America’s Cold War “Food for Peace” campaign put agricultural surplus to work supporting a critical ally, and Japan received enormous amounts of free or cheap food and generous development loans.

Figure 1: Kitchen car demonstration in rural Aomori, year unknown (probably 1950s). Courtesy of the Aomori Prefectural Museum.

The photo above shows a typical scene from a day in the life of the kitchen car. The audience crowds around the back of bus, which opens up like a thrust stage for the nutritionists to perform upon. The gathered women listen intently, some taking notes. The kitchen installed in the rear of the bus is the state-of-the-art chrome and gadgetry emblematic of the new postwar “bright life” of happy consumerism. The nutritionists in their white lab coats bring the authority of science. The foods they are preparing may not seem like the stuff of American farm surplus propaganda, but as Ōiso himself observed, “Propaganda is truly effective when people don’t notice it.”[1] To wit, the noodles are most likely soba: buckwheat mixed with (American) wheat. Even subtler is the use of sautéing, undoubtedly in (American) corn or soy oil. This kind of gradualist approach, expressed in slogans such as “Flour-based food once a day,” helps explain both why nobody suspected American involvement and why the kitchen cars were so popular and effective.

Few detailed records of 1950s’ kitchen car menus remain, but those that do are consistent with accounts from the 1960s. A list of favorites from mid-decade Okayama prefecture includes milk donuts, udon stew, sautéed amaranth leaves with liver, fried meat and vegetables with ketchup, vegetable cream soup, fried soybean fritters, chicken and peanuts in tomato sauce, bok choy with peanuts and mushrooms, and cheese sponge cake. Roughly simultaneously, the prefecture’s public health center sponsored competitions for original, tasty, nutritious, economical foods (about ¥20 each) using ingredients like soy, skim milk, and flour. Winners included vegetable omelets, fried tofu-wrapped sardines, fried sardine balls, and mysterious entries such as “nutritional bread” and “nutritional fried dumplings.”

These lists lend credence to the remarks of Richard Baum, Ōiso’s initial American collaborator. In a 1978 documentary, Baum expressed immense satisfaction at the kitchen cars’ success. As he explained, “the housewives would come out and gather around and learn how to make different wheat foods. And then they would get to sample the wheat foods. And they found these very delicious and so they would say ‘Oishii desu. Mō sukoshi’ [This is delicious. A little more, please].”[2]


[1] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Amerika komugi senryaku: Nihon shinkō (Ie no Hikari Kyōkai, 1979), 106.

[2] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Shokutaku no kage no seijōki: kome to mugi no sengoshi (NHK, 1978).


This post is part four in an ongoing series by Hopson on the history of nutrition in modern Japan. You can read his previous post here. This entry is based on his article “Ingrained Habits: The ‘Kitchen Cars’ and the Transformation of Postwar Japanese Diet and Identity.” Food, Culture & Society, November 2020.