One hundred, please: When the Chinese restaurant came to Germany

1923 is still considered the fateful year of the young Weimar Republic.

One hundred, please: When the Chinese restaurant came to Germany

1923 is still considered the fateful year of the young Weimar Republic. The year of upheaval also brought something for Germany that everyone takes for granted today - the Chinese restaurant. The successful story of immigration began in Berlin, or in Hamburg?

Imagine a restaurant that would be called "Italy restaurant", "France restaurant" or even "Europe restaurant" because of its food. That sounds kind of strange. But with "Chinese restaurant" that obviously works. Last but not least, this circumstance shows that there is something special about restaurants in this country that offer Chinese cuisine on the menu. The first Chinese restaurant in Germany is said to have opened 100 years ago. Time to search for clues. The year 1923 is still considered the fateful year of the young Weimar Republic. Economy down, state bankrupt. The fired-up printing press caused inflation to explode. A bun at the bakery? Cost up to 25 billion marks. But of course not only catastrophic things happened that year, but also culinary ones.

"In 1923 the first Chinese restaurant opened in Berlin at Kantstrasse 130b." This is what the Federal Agency for Civic Education writes in an essay about Berlin. "It was run by the former legation cook and was called 'Tientsin'." "Tientsin" (literally roughly "Heaven's Ford City") is a former name for the northern Chinese city and province of Tianjin. Today, at Kantstrasse 130b/corner of Leibnitzstrasse, there is a rather inconspicuous building with an eyewear shop and a pharmacy on the ground floor.

According to the Federal Agency, the first Chinese came to Berlin at the beginning of the 20th century and studied, for example, at the Technical University of Charlottenburg. At that time, the Chinese embassy was also located on nearby Kurfürstendamm. In the 1920s, the association of Chinese students, which had existed since 1902, had its office at Kantstrasse 118. To this day, Kantstrasse - it begins at Breitscheidplatz with the Memorial Church - is considered the Asia or Chinatown of the German capital, even if it is by no means comparable to American quarters in San Francisco or New York.

"In the 1920s, a restaurant with non-European cuisine was absolutely unusual," says Hamburg historian Lars Amenda, who has been studying Chinese migration history for decades. "The Berlin "Tientsin" from 1923 was probably the first Chinese restaurant in Germany that was also aimed at the German population and, for example, attracted young intellectuals and bohemians." Things started a bit earlier in Hamburg, but this story is pretty much in the dark. "As early as 1920, the police authorities there noticed that Chinese from English port cities were coming to St. Pauli and opening bars and shops with Cantonese food because many seafarers were from Hong Kong. But there is hardly any information about these very early places."

The ingredients for the kitchens, such as soy sauce, spices, dried fish and tofu, are likely to have been well organized via the shipping line. As evidence of an early Chinese restaurant, there is an advertisement from 1921 in a Hamburg guide, says Amenda. Content: "Peking - Chop-Suey-Restaurant - first and only Chinese Restaurant in Germany - Jazz music". The restaurant is said to have been on Fuhlentwiete street (number 27) in the city centre. "However, it is astonishing that there are no other reports at all. Maybe it never opened or closed again very quickly."

In any case, the first Chinese restaurants in Hamburg were not aimed at Germans, but at Chinese crews on steamships. There were also Chinese themed entertainment venues with dancing and lead dancers. Kurt Tucholsky, for example, raved about "New China," says Amenda. In the Nazi era and during the war, international cuisine had a harder time again. But she wasn't completely banished, as Amenda knows. "In the film "Große Freiheit Nr. 7" from 1944 there is a longer scene in a simulated restaurant called "Shanghai", which is actually quite important for the film because Hannes Kröger alias Hans Albers decides to go back to sea And the China restaurant serves as a symbolic environment for the international nature of shipping."

In the post-war period, Chinese restaurants in the young Federal Republic were quickly seen as a sign of the big, wide world. And today? According to a representative Yougov survey, the Chinese restaurant is in third place among adults in Germany when it comes to eating out abroad - behind Italians and Greeks. The clichés about Chinese restaurants will also be very much alive in 2023: You order by number ("Once the 43, please") and the menus are laminated. There is not always Peking duck, but sweet and sour with pork, beef, duck, chicken or fried noodles with meat, often seasoned with glutamate, the controversial flavor enhancer that can cause headaches, body aches and even nausea: the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome .

In East Germany in particular, the Chinese restaurants are often not run by the Chinese at all, but by Vietnamese, who, as former GDR contract workers, created new livelihoods after reunification. In 2023 there will be countless Chinese restaurants in Germany. In Hamburg, the "Dim sum house" has existed at the main train station since 1964, which it claims is the "oldest Chinese restaurant" in the city. In Munich there was "Hong Kong" in Schwabing for 65 years (until 2018).

And in Berlin, "Lon Men", not far from Bayerischer Platz in Schöneberg, which has existed since 1969, calls itself the "oldest Chinese restaurant". Its operators emphasize that in China people usually eat at round tables, with the dishes on a rotating plate in the middle of the table. Hosts always try to offer more than the guests can eat. "If the guests ate all of the food, it would be a sign that the host had provided too little food, leading to a loss of face for the host."

(This article was first published on Saturday, January 07, 2023.)

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