Cultural Guide to China & the Cincinnati Chinese Community
China has over 1.3 billion people representing 56 ethnic minority groups. The largest is the Han Chinese with about 900 million people. There are five legal religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Confucianism is technically not considered a religion, but a state sponsored philosophy. However, it does take on some religious characteristics such as dogmatic worshiping.
There are seven major dialects of the Chinese language. The most spoken is Mandarin. Wu is spoken by 8% of the population followed by Cantonese with 5%. The lesser known dialects are: Xiang (spoken by 5% of the population), Hakka (4%), and Gan (2%).
Cincinnati is the home to many Chinese who speak different dialects. Most of the Chinese that immigrated to Cincinnati before the early 1990’s are from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or other southern regions of China. They mostly speak Hakka or Cantonese. After 1990, a rush of “Mainlanders” came to Cincinnati from China. They mostly speak Mandarin. There is no census data on what ethnic groups comprise of the Chinese population here in Cincinnati.
Food is important to the Chinese. Despite what you see in the United State, Chinese food is as diverse as China’s language and customs. There are eight major regional cuisine styles: Yue, Chuan, Su, Zhe, Min, Ziang, Hui, and Lu.
Yue Cuisine originates from the Guangdong/Canton region. It is the most popular internationally. It is commonly sweeter favoring braising and stewing.
Chuan Cuisine originates from the Sichuan region and is famous for being spicy and bold. Chuan Cuisine is known to use a lot of garlic, ginger, and peanuts.
Su Cuisine originates from the Jiangsu province and Shanghai. It’s usually fresh, salty and sweet. It is known for precision of cooking methods favoring seafood, soup, and colorful presentation. It is known to be refined and gourmet.
Zhe Cuisine originates from Zhejiang (south of Jiangsu). It is mellow using fresh fish, bamboo, and various cooking methods. It is similar to Su Cuisine but less elaborate.
Min Cuisine originates from Fujian. It is known to be lighter with sweet and sour taste using ingredients from the sea and the mountains.
Xiang Cuisine originates from Hunan. It is probably spicier than Chuan Cuisine. But unlike Chuan, Xiang Cuisine does not peppercorn so it is not a numbing spiciness. The techniques of Xiang Cuisine usually involve stir-fry, steaming, and smoking.
Hui Cuisine originates from Anhui. It tends to use wild plants and animals for ingredients favoring stewing and using more oil.
Lu Cuisine originates from Shangdong and is a northern style of cooking. Seafood is a favorite and often cooked with simple ingredients. Unlike southern Chinese food, northern cooking usually involves less rice and more wheat-based food such as noodles. Lu Cuisine also is known for its use of vinegar.
Cincinnati is the home of many Chinese restaurants. The earliest record of a Chinese restaurateur is probably Mr. Wong Yie. Mr. Wong Yie began with a small café on Walnut Street sometimes in the 1910’s. He opened his full size restaurant and ballroom on the northwest corner of Sixth and Main in 1921. (“ORIENT IS VISUALIZED: By Guests at Opening of Chinese Restaurant and Ballroom.” Cincinnati Enquirer, Nov 15, 1921).
Today, Cincinnatians can taste Yue Cuisine in most Chinese restaurants, albeit much Americanized. There are a few well-known Chuan Cuisine places most notably Sichuan Chili next to Cam Market on Reading Road. The head chef at Sichuan Chili, Zhao, is a native to Sichuan. He began cooking at age 15 and has served as head chef of restaurants in Sichuan, Beijing, and Chicago.
China is also famous for noddles. Over the centuries, many different styles of noddles developed in China. One notable style is called “La” (pulling). Noddles are made by pulling, stretching, and folding dough repeatedly until it becomes very thin. You can try this type of noddle at the Fortune Noddle House in Clifton. They are also set up so you can actually see the chef “pull” these noddles.
The ancient Chinese are avid writers and philosophers. There is a rich history of literary work in China most famously the “Four Major Works” – Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber.
The Chinese also pay attention to the development of both body and mind in its artistic endeavors. Kung Fu is developed not only as a self-defense technique, but also a way to advance the mind and the spirit.
Chinese musical instruments are classified into eight categories: silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, gourd, and skin. The Chinese Opera is a popular form of entertainment. It is often high-pitched and tells of famous stories that children learn from a young age. The styles of opera are many and characters of an operate are usually marked by painted faces.
Authentic Chinese music is making an appearance in Cincinnati. The Greater Cincinnati Chinese Music Society has been putting on annual performances to introduce Cincinnatians to traditional Chinese music and instruments. This year’s (2017) concert presented a Kun Qu Opera, “the crown jewel of hundreds of local Chinese operas with a rich history of over 600 years.” The concert also featured an Er Hu player Lu Yiwen and a Dizi player Wan Junkan. They performed along side of CCM Philharmonia orchestra directed by Maestro Mark Gibson.
The major celebration of the Chinese is the Lunar New Year, or The Spring Festival. It usually falls between January and February depending on the lunar calendar. It is a 15-day celebration marked by family gatherings, food preparations, fireworks, and customs and traditions such as dragon dance and paper lanterns.
Chinese New Year celebrations have been a long tradition in Cincinnati. The earliest record dates back to 1894. The Cincinnati Enquirer editorial noted Sam Kee’s laundry closing down for the lunar new year and celebrating with close to 30 Chinese living in Cincinnati at the time. (“’SUN NIN,’: The Chinese New-Year’s Day, Celebrated
By Cincinnati Celestials with Much Ecla.” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb 6, 1894).
In 1921, Mr. Wong Yie celebrated Chinese New Year with some 500 Cincinnatians with some notable judges and city council members. The the Postmaster gave the celebrating toast. (“RARE FEAST IS SERVED: By Wong Yie, Chinese Restaurateur, To Host of Friends.” Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan 4, 1921).
Today, there are many Chinese lunar new year celebrations in Cincinnati. Most large companies (e.g., 5/3 Bank) have their own Employee Resource Groups and they host new year banquets. Additionally, the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Chamber of Commerce hosts a new year celebration each year and many Cincinnatians have been in attendance in the past.
The blog is in part of the Mission Continues blog series, written by Jin Kong and therefore all words and thoughts are his own and not a reflection of GCWAC.