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Where Did the All-Too-Familiar Chinese Zodiac Placemat Come From?

Chances are if you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant in America, you’ve seen one of these

“Tiger people are aggressive, courageous, candid, and sensitive,” the placemat informed me. “Look to the Horse or Dog for happiness. Beware of the Monkey.” By the time I saw this, I think, I knew I was a Scorpio — also aggressive, also sensitive under my protective exoskeleton. But now, another mystical way of ordering the world was telling me the basic tenets of who I was — a Tiger person — an act of discovery achieved just by looking down while waiting for my wonton soup.

Regardless of whether you have any Chinese heritage or cultural connections, if you’ve ever eaten at a Chinese-American restaurant, you probably remember something about what your birth year means within the Chinese zodiac. Maybe you’re a noble and chivalrous Boar, or a wise but vain Snake. Or maybe you just remember the red and gold, nearly symmetrical design on top of the placemat. Typically, the mat features a thick red border, and perhaps a wheel in the middle, but there are always drawings of the animals associated with the 12-year cycle, and descriptions of what your year has in store for you. (It’s currently the year of the pig.)

There are multiple histories about how the Chinese zodiac system came to be. The 12 Earthly Branches ordering system — which encompasses understandings of time and astrology — is prevalent in several Asian cultures, and is based on a 12-year cycle that just about lines up with the orbit of Jupiter. The most prevalent accompanying myth describes a race in which animals competed to be the first to reach the Jade Emperor; the Emperor would name one year for each animal in the order they completed the race. Variations of the myth unfurl different ways in which the animals ended up in their final order, with the narratives corresponding to the accompanying “personality traits” of each animal.

But no one seems to know where the zodiac placemat came from, or which illustrated version might be the first. The original artist’s name was either never on or was erased from the current versions of the designs. “I’m not sure who originally created these placemats,” says Kian Lam Kho, a food writer, cookbook author, and co-curator of “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America,” a 2017 exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America. “But the Chinese zodiac has been a common cultural symbol among non-Chinese in the U.S. for many years.”

There are a few places that currently print the zodiac menu, the foremost probably being Kari-Out, a New York-based company run by Howard Epstein. The company is best known for popularizing the modern soy sauce packet, which was a re-imagination of Epstein’s father’s freezer pop packaging business, but the company now sells all manner of Chinese restaurant staples. CNN reported in 2001 that “the near universality of Kari-Out packets testifies to the company’s huge market share, which has also allowed it to branch out into wholesale restaurant-supply distribution for items like napkins, chopsticks, and cardboard containers.” However, a call to the company yielded no answers as to where they got the design, though one administrative assistant said they’ve been printing it since at least the ’90s.

According to Lam Kho, the placements likely served as an easy-to-parse bridge for people familiar with Chinese-American cuisine, who could be made interested in learning more. “They were designed to share a bit of Chinese culture to the restaurant patrons,” he says. Catherine Piccoli, curator of “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant,” an exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City, agrees. “For some Chinese-American restaurateurs in the mid-20th century, I think there definitely is a move towards education,” she says. But its omnipresence in Chinese-American restaurants tells the story of the changing role those restaurants played in American lives, and how their proprietors used Orientalism to drive acceptance of their culture.

Chinese restaurants in the U.S. date back to the first wave of immigration from China, predominantly from Guangdong (then known as Canton), in the mid-1800s. It was spurred by the Gold Rush, and then work on railroads, farms, and in laundries. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act as white Americans increasingly blamed Chinese immigrants for low wages and a lack of jobs. “Out of sheer necessity, Chinese had to find or develop forms of self-employment because most forms of work were denied to them,” writes John Jung, a professor emeritus in psychology and a historian of Chinese-American history, in Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants. Restaurants popped up both as places for the predominantly male Chinese population to cook their own cuisine for each other, and as a business opportunity — especially since Chinese immigrants were often unwelcome or segregated from other communities.

“You see early on… the menus are pretty standard,” says Piccoli. They were black text on white paper, no illustration or design, just a list of food. These restaurants were typically located in Chinatowns, and because they were run by Chinese people for Chinese people, there was no signaling necessary.

The rise of Orientalist design in Chinese-American restaurants begins at the turn of the 20th century. By this point, Chinese restaurants were at least a familiar sight to non-Chinese people, and some diners who fancied themselves adventurous began to pop in — the way the bohemian class always prides themselves on their willingness to eat at a “hole in the wall.” Chinese business owners realized they could capitalize on, and expand, this new consumer base, and “courted business from tourists and the curious with remodeled restaurants designed with a typical Oriental motif both inside and out,” writes Jung. They brought in bamboo shoots, the dragons slithering along menu spines, Buddha statues sitting on windowsills. By 1903, there were over 100 of these Chinese-American restaurants between 14th Street and Times Square in Manhattan.

While some of these design changes were just restaurant owners trying to see what brought customers in, other times, these aesthetic changes happened as a result of more pernicious, and unforeseen, factors. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, city officials saw the resulting damage to Chinatown as an opportunity to get rid of the Chinese population in such a valuable section of the city’s real estate. The Chinese government stepped in, vowing to build its consulate in the heart of old Chinatown, and with the rebuilding came a redesign. The Chinese Businessmen’s Administration “worked with a white American architect to rebuild, and purposely rebuilt in the sort of stereotypical way that we think of Chinatowns,” Piccoli says. “They were trying to… create a Disney-fied version, trying to attract outsiders to come and spend money at these businesses.” That aesthetic included roofs that looked like pagodas, big gates at the neighborhood entrance, lions, and other details.

A change in immigration law sparked another catalyst for the change in aesthetics — and the customer base. In 1915, restaurant owners were added to a list of exceptions for merchant visas, allowing some proprietors to recruit employees from China and bring them to the U.S. According to Piccoli, only “the main investor in a ‘high-grade establishment’” would qualify for the visa. In response, Chinese Business Associations, using a rotating credit of funds pooled together from immigrant communities, helped Chinese-Americans and new Chinese immigrants start these “high-grade establishments,” setting them up as investors and instructing them on what to build. Chinese Business Associations, which coordinated the opening of multiple businesses, created the now-familiar standardization of Chinese-American restaurant: teak carving and hanging lanterns, bamboo-inspired patterns, and menus with a more “Oriental” design.

Though we don’t know specifically when this placemat showed up, “there really is this standardization,” Piccoli says. “So then something like a zodiac placemat ends up some place and it kind of travels.”

Paper placemats, especially ones with “ethnic” designs, became popular across multiple kinds of restaurants in the ’60s and ’70s. “During that period there are other types of placemats designed for Italian, Mexican, Greek diners, and other types of cuisine,” says Kho. “I would not be surprised if the design were created by restaurant supply companies.” And the rise of the New Age movement — spurred in no small part by the popularity of Hair, which opened on Broadway in 1968, and its song “Age of Aquarius” — resulted in an increased appreciation for zodiacs of all kinds.

Though the Western zodiac is a staple of newspaper columns and quizzes, it tends to regain its popularity in uncertain times. It’s a way of assessing yourself when the world is confusing and therapy is expensive, a series of stories and patterns to compare your life with and see what makes sense. Yes, some people excuse all of their behavior by saying they’re an Aries, but at its best, the zodiac is a starting point for conversation. Do you feel like an Ox? Why or why not? In the ’70s, as the Vietnam War and the oil crisis raged, and Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China reinvigorated American interest in Chinese food, a Chinese zodiac placemat would have felt familiar enough, but also provided a new point of conversation.

Given the racism Asian-Americans still face, some restaurateurs remain focused on getting Americans away from the “chop suey house” stereotype and ensuring the perception of Chinese culture doesn’t get reduced to pagodas and dragons. Others see those visual markers as things to honor in their own right, proof of a past generation figuring out how to survive and thrive in a country that was happy to eat their food but disrespect them otherwise. The placemat was an attempt to be understood — eat this, see me, please be kind.

But while some chefs have repurposed Orientalism yet again as an ironic meta-commentary on Chinese-American cuisine, at this point, most restaurants using the Chinese zodiac placemat probably don’t have a better explanation than “that’s what we have.” It’s standardized, to the point that some Chinese restaurants even have a zodiac section of their website, and it’s rooted enough in the American consciousness to have inspired this Jewish spinoff. However it got here, it’s not going away. And it’s a lingering testament that its initial effect — to normalize a piece of Chinese culture to an unfamiliar audience — worked, at least enough to know if you’re a Boar or an Ox.

Correction: This piece has been corrected to reflect that Kian Lam Kho was the curator of an exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America, not MOFAD.

Jaya Saxena is an Eater staff writer.
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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