California's First AAPI Businesses

As part of our #AAPIHeritageMonth celebration, we want to spotlight early Asian restaurants and show our appreciation towards the humble beginnings of API cuisine in America.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Interior Chinese Restaurant, S.F.,” (ca. 1880) (Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views/New York Public Library)

Modern America is known for its intense flavors of cultural diversity in cuisine, but it didn’t start out this way. In fact, many ethnic cultures in America struggled to establish their own communities and make their mark in this new land. Their persistence for success is a huge contribution to the modern diversity of American cuisine that we know today.


Canton Restaurant (1849)

Canton Restaurant was identified by Dr. Haiming Liu, professor at Cal Poly Pomona and author of From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, as the first Chinese restaurant in California and the United States. Located on San Francisco’s Jackson Street, it opened in 1849 and catered to the miners searching for gold.

With the capacity to seat 300 people, Canton Restaurant was undoubtedly the largest Chinese restaurant among its competitors. Such a large space benefited the community, especially on November 19, 1849, where Chinese people gathered to fill all 300 seats and selected Selim E. Woodworth as their adviser and arbitrator to purchase a piece of land in Tuolumne County for mining and agriculture.

Open for less than a year, Canton Restaurant was replaced by “New Canton Hotel and Restaurant” later that autumn. Even with this change, the new establishment enjoyed extreme popularity during the Gold Rush and among the people.

Macao and Woosung Restaurant (1849)

Macao and Woosung Restaurant was founded by Norman Asing in 1849. Located in San Francisco on Kearny and Commercial Street, this all-you-can-eat buffet was immensely popular for its cheap price and large portions. In addition, this restaurant was listed as the only Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s first published city directory in 1850.

The owner, Norman Asing, was the elected leader of the Chew Yick Association. A prominent San Francisco merchant, his knowledge of American customs and grasp on the language greatly assisted the struggling Chinese-American community.

His restaurant was used to bridge together the Chinese-American community with the local politicians and policemen, creating trust and friendship between the different groups. He is famously known for his letter opposing California Governor John Bigler’s anti-Chinese immigration speech in 1852, where he used rhetoric similar to the Declaration of Independence to strengthen his stance.


Though these restaurants are no longer in operation today, we can still remember and appreciate their historic contributions. Their establishment and widespread success is a testimony of the strength of Asian-American communities. For the new generation looking back to the past for a sense of belonging, they can discover inspiration, strength, and pride from their ancestors along the way.

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