Published by EH.Net (February 2004)

Yee, Alfred, Shopping at Giant Foods: Chinese American Supermarkets in Northern California. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. xi + 193 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-295-98304-3

Reviewed for EH.Net by Albert J. Churella, Social and International Studies Department, Southern Polytechnic State University.

While both academic and popular audiences are generally familiar with iconographic elements of the Chinese immigrant experience in America — ranging from the transcontinental railroad to mining camps to Chinatowns in major West Coast cities — they may be less aware of Chinese involvement in the supermarket industry. The retail grocery industry employed more Chinese Americans than any other occupation except laundry and restaurant workers. While many Chinese immigrants opened small grocery stores in Chinese enclaves, stores that sold traditionally Chinese foods to fellow immigrants, Yee studies larger establishments that catered to the Anglo market. By opening supermarkets in neighborhoods that were typically white and working class, Chinese immigrants earned a respectable income, provided employment and on-the-job training for relatives, and helped break down racial barriers. However, Chinese American supermarket operators were rarely known for their entrepreneurial skills or their commitment to modernization, Yee argues. When shifting cultural norms and increasingly effective union organizing campaigns precluded the low-cost, deferential labor that was the basis for their success, Chinese American supermarkets were transformed from modest success stories into universal failures.

Before writing the doctoral dissertation that became the basis for this book, Yee spent many years in the grocery trade, and both his knowledge and his interest in that subject shine through on every page. Despite its title, Shopping at Giant Foods is about selling, not buying. Beginning in the 1920s, Chinese immigrants established small grocery stores, selling traditionally American foods to Anglo customers. These entrepreneurs often entered retailing after gaining experience as cooks, butchers, farmers, or peddlers. They formed loose partnerships, typically with relatives who would often buy a share of the firm solely to obtain a guarantee of employment. By hiring family members as store clerks, owners exploited trust and cultural deference, yet found it difficult to discipline or dismiss incompetent workers. Clerks received room and board, which, combined with the scarcity of alternate employment, helped keep wages low. They possessed few entrepreneurial skills, often selecting store sites based on hunches. Their unwieldy partnership arrangements created considerable suspicion and discord. This, combined with the reluctance of Anglo banks to lend money to Asian entrepreneurs, made expansion and modernization difficult.

In spite of these limitations, Chinese American supermarkets thrived in the few decades after World War II, thanks to increasing consumer affluence, burgeoning auto travel and suburbanization (Chinese American supermarkets were often built on inexpensive land away from older commercial districts), and a growing population. At the same time, larger and more modern Chinese American-owned stores displaced the first generation of Chinese American supermarket owners. By the 1960s, changing immigration patterns and the growing acculturation of persons of Chinese ancestry into American society dissolved the deferential workforce. Unions increasingly recruited Asian store clerks, although their bid to improve the lot of Chinese American workers ironically undermined Chinese American entrepreneurs. Having lost the wage differential that had been their only significant basis for success, Chinese American supermarkets soon fell victim to larger, better financed, and more modern supermarket chains in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, none remain in business.

There are some serious limitations to this book, as Yee himself admits. First, he relies extensively on recently published secondary sources, combined with his interviews of supermarket owners. Few written primary sources exist, since most supermarkets were small family-run businesses or partnerships, operated by individuals who were deeply suspicious of employees, government bureaucrats, and even their own partners. He wisely leavens interviews of owners with some interviews with employees and wholesalers, although not, interestingly, with customers. Still, Yee might have made better use of local, national, and, especially, state government records, as well as records from unions and civic organizations. The book discusses the relationship between ethnicity and the establishment of supermarket chains beginning in the late 1920s, yet does not mention the anti-chain store movement that culminated in the 1936 Robinson-Patman Act. Did the anti-chain store movement draw business away from larger white-owned chains, and thus benefit Chinese American retailers, or did it coincide with nativist attitudes to limit the spread of the Chinese American supermarkets? The book does not answer these questions.

Second, Chinese American supermarkets were a distinctly localized phenomenon, limited to Sacramento and its environs. Yee addresses this issue, but does not fully explain why similar supermarkets did not emerge elsewhere in the United States, nor does he adequately link his rather anecdotal account to larger issues involving the Chinese American community or the broader immigrant experience. These supermarkets were undoubtedly important to a small number of store owners (and obviously invoked considerable emotion), but they may not have had much of an impact on the economic gains of the Chinese American community as a whole, or as Yee alleges, on the assimilation process.

Despite these flaws, Shopping at Giant Foods provides fascinating insights into one facet of the Chinese American economic life and thus into the complexity of the Asian immigrant experience. It is worthwhile reading for those with an interest in the history of food retailing, Asian-American history, or the history of business in the trans-Mississippi West.

Albert J. Churella is an assistant professor in the Social and International Studies Department of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. He is the author of From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Railway Locomotive Industry (Princeton University Press, 1998). He has worked on the relationship between tourism and ethnic identity in the American Southwest, and he is currently working on a history of the Pennsylvania Railroad.