History of Portland’s Chinese Restaurants

By Gary Libby from the March 2006 CAFAM Newsletter

Gary Libby has published an article “Historical Notes on Chinese Restaurants in Portland, Maine” in Chinese America (2006). This is from the journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Through meticulous research, Gary has recreated the story of these eating places starting with the first Chinese restaurant in Maine, established in 1880 at One Custom House Wharf. He brings the story up to the present 22 restaurants presently operating in Greater Portland.

Gary calls the period up to World War I the era of “chop suey joints,” a time when Chinese eateries catered to a downscale and sometimes rowdy clientele. Starting around World War I, Portland saw the advent of high class Chinese restaurants, and during Portland’s World War II boom years a variety of establishments flourished.

The sixty years since World War II have seen the spread of Chinese restaurants from downtown into the suburbs and shopping malls, as their menus evolved into spicier and regional versions of Chinese cuisine. New fast-food Wok-Inn type and Great Wall all-you-can-eat buffet type formats have come in as well.

This most interesting article might be titled, “All you would ever want or need to know about Portland area Chinese restaurants and their owners.” If you would like more information, contact Gary at pwdt94@yahoo.com.

Extract from the Chinese Historical Society of America:

According to the 2000 Census, Maine was the “whitest” state in the country. (1) While Portland, Maine’s largest city is somewhat more multiethnic than Maine as a whole, it is not thought of as having had a historic Chinese community. However, Chinese people have called Portland home since 1858 and have owned restaurants there for 125 years. Since Portland has had a only small Chinese population, (2) its Chinese restaurants have had to cater to the taste of the general community by offering strictly “American” fare along with heavily Americanized Chinese food based loosely on the Cantonese cuisine familiar to the early Chinese immigrants who most frequently originated in or near the Toishan District of Kwangtung (Guangdong) Province in southeastern China.

Portland’s early Chinese restaurants were often referred to by the non-Chinese community as “chop suey joints” after their most popular dish. (3) “Chop suey” can be loosely translated as “leftovers” or “hash” and usually consisted of a mix of stir-fried vegetables and meat in a brown sauce. Other American Chinese dishes served up in the early twentieth century included chow mein, fried rice, egg foo young, and egg rolls. Chow mein, that second staple of American Chinese restaurants, was a one-dish main course most often consisting of fried noodles with chopped chicken, mushrooms, and onions.

An October 8, 1884, newspaper article on the Portland Chinese community’s celebration of the Moon Festival contained the earliest known local description of a Chinese food item, reporting that moon cakes were “made of rice and wheat flour, and filled with a mixture of watermelon seeds, almonds, walnuts, and a Chinese aromatic seed called gee ma, made into a thick paste with quince jelly.” (4) This delicacy was consumed by Portland’s Chinese community members and not served in Portland’s earliest Chinese restaurant.

When Ar Tee Lam opened what is believed to be Maine’s first Chinese restaurant at 1 Custom House Wharf in 1880, Portland’s population of 33,810 included nine Chinese men. At that time Ar Tee Lam was twenty-five years old and single, although his census return indicated that he lived with a twenty-one-year-old white servant woman named Lizzie Barbarck. (5) When he registered to vote on November 28, 1891, he said that he had lived in Portland for thirty-three years, making his year of arrival approximately 1858. (6) He first appeared in the Portland directory as “R. T. Lamb,” a cigar maker, in 1873. (7) From 1875 to 1879 he was listed at addresses on Federal Street where he was a tobacconist. He lived at the 1 Custom House Wharf premises while he ran his restaurant.

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