Last week, many felt that a line was crossed when the Instagram account of a new restaurant in New York City’s West Village, called Lucky Lee’s, purported to serve a “clean” version of American Chinese food, sans MSG and the supposed “oily,” “salty,” and “icky” feeling with which American Chinese food leaves you. Owner Arielle Haspel argued to Eater NY that the concept “celebrated” Chinese food, but positioned Lee’s version of it in contrast to the Chinese-American food developed over decades to cater to, well, American palates: “I made some tweaks so I would be able to eat it and my friends and other people would be able to eat it,” Haspel said. “There are very few American-Chinese places as mindful about the quality of ingredients as we are.” She has since apologized. But the controversy has made clear a divide over the co-option of the term “lucky” by modern restaurateurs, and brings into question its relevance in Chinese food culture.
Perhaps Haspel could have been more mindful of her restaurant’s name, too. Lee is the first name of owner Haspel’s husband, and they are both Jewish American. As Esther Tseng pointed out in an Eater NY op-ed, “It does not signal respect when Haspel uses her non-Asian husband’s first name in her alliterative branding in a manner that suggests Chinese ownership.”
“Lucky” is a common word used in Chinese restaurant names in the U.S., likely coming into prominence in the early 20th century, as restaurant owners tried to grow beyond their all-Chinese clientele and chose names that were Western equivalents, instead of transliterated versions, of their business names. It’s now ubiquitous enough that its use is an almost-immediate signal to diners that it’s a Chinese restaurant. That shorthand is so pervasive that it’s increasingly common among white owners of Chinese restaurants, some of them controversial: Andrew Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket, Gordon Ramsay’s upcoming Lucky Cat, and Jacob Hadjigeorgis’s Lucky Pickle Dumpling Company, in addition to Lucky Lee’s.
For many Asian Americans, a white business owner cherry-picking parts of Chinese culture for their own version of Chinese food can feel like it’s poking fun at longstanding traditions: In an interview that started the appropriation conversation surrounding Zimmern’s Chinese concept, the celebrity chef responded to questions about appropriation by noting the restaurant sold shirts printed with “Get Lucky” on the back. “It is interesting that all these people think it’s clever and funny to refer back to these classic tropes, and no, it’s not, it’s stupid and it’s not even that clever,” said Diane Chang, a Brooklyn-based personal chef and caterer of Po-Po’s. “When I read about [Lucky Lee’s] I was like, ‘Why is she trying to convey that feeling that you’re going to an old takeout place, but then you’re getting this other experience that is purporting to be better for you?’”
Chinese restaurateurs, especially in earlier generations, often give their businesses auspicious names based on beliefs dating back to antiquity. The word “lucky” holds deep meaning and significance in traditional Chinese belief systems. The Chinese character 福, or “fu” in Mandarin, can be translated as “luck,” “prosperity,” or “fortune”; anyone who might want to bless their restaurant with success might use the word luck, or something symbolic of it. In a 2016 Washington Post survey of Chinese restaurant names in America, “lucky” and “fortune” appear prominently in the word cloud, as does “fu,” albeit less frequently. (When transliterated from Cantonese, “fu” is actually spelled “fuk,” which is probably why it’s not in too many names stateside.) These words figure into many Chinese restaurant names, as do other traditional Chinese auspices of good luck, such as bamboo (symbolic of strength and resilience), jade (which represents 11 Confucian values of virtue), and the number eight (which sounds similar to a word meaning wealth or fortune).
“I just think good fortune and auspiciousness is essential to every aspect of Asian culture,” said Danielle Chang, founder of Lucky Rice, a lifestyle brand that hosts the Lucky Chow dining event series. She explained that luck is intertwined with everyday living in China, and has a strong connection to food. “Back in the days when China was primarily an agricultural society, praying for a good harvest — much of that has to do with good luck, like the amount of rainfall you get, and so on. So it’s tied to the harvest,” she said.
Chang doesn’t think that the full meaning of “fu” is very well understood in the United States. There is often hidden meaning and wordplay in Chinese restaurant names, she notes, even in how they’re written. Traditional Chinese characters can be written with an intricate combination of strokes that are considered beautiful to the eye, including those for “luck” and “happiness.” “That’s part of the beauty of Chinese language,” she said. “Everything is a pictograph and has all these different connotations.”
There is also a trio of deities known as the “three stars,” which are fu, lu, and shou (roughly “luck,” “status,” and “longevity”); combined, they represent cultural values about success. In fact, “fu lu shou” was the Chinese name of Cecilia Chiang’s pioneering San Francisco Chinese restaurant, the Mandarin. It isn’t so unusual for restaurants to have different English and Chinese names — “the Mandarin” was perhaps much more salient for a non-Chinese American audience because it called out the fact that the restaurant specialized in Northern Chinese cuisine at a time and place where that wasn’t the norm. (Place-specific names have always been common for American Chinese restaurants, too — Nom Wah refers to Southern China, which its cuisine is based on, says its owner, Wilson Tang.)
Restaurant owners would also find that use of words like “Lucky” drew in non-Asian customers, growing restaurants’ consumer base. As John Jung, a professor emeritus in psychology and a historian of Chinese-American history, writes in Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants, Chinese restaurant owners courted tourists “with remodeled restaurants designed with a stereotypical Oriental motif both inside and outside” as early as 1900. In addition to decor, they’d attract non-Chinese customers, who would struggle to remember transliterated Chinese names, by selecting restaurant names “that evoked images of the exotic Orient to appeal to Westerners’ romantic images of China.”
However, by the mid-20th century, changing conditions in both countries saw a shift. When Mao Zedong and his People’s Republic of China party took power in 1949, the country was declared an atheist state; as part of the Cultural Revolution he led, social values were upended, ancient religions were banned, and traditional Chinese pictographic characters were simplified to fewer strokes. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Jung writes that “as non-Chinese customers became better acquainted with Chinese names and more tolerant toward Chinese culture, it became fashionable after 1950 to return to Chinese names.”
That leaves the “lucky” name with a smack of old-timeyness, but there are still plenty of them — American-Chinese restaurants often don’t change names when a new owner takes over, for consistency’s sake. In other cases, restaurant owners might lean in on the “lucky” name to intentionally create a sense of nostalgia; many of the new restaurants from non-Chinese owners employ it alongside a cheeky, retro feel to their decor and branding. Think old-fashioned poster art or cigarette labels with women in Mandarin dresses, old Chinese newspapers, or Tiki bar aesthetics. Nostalgia is a big ticket in U.S. restaurants today: It’s the secret sauce in everything from dishes to decor to cocktails at such esteemed restaurants as the Grill and Rocco Dispirito’s new Standard Grill, both in New York.
For Chinese restaurant owners, many might look to the example of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a restaurant in its 99th year of existence in New York City’s Chinatown; it hasn’t modernized its look. Perhaps for many non-Chinese restaurant owners, “lucky” evokes an era of Chinese restaurants that they grew up in. But Chinese restaurants stateside are evolving and expanding, and these nostalgic sensibilities can feel like an inaccurate representation of where the cuisine stands today. Coming from high-profile restauranteurs like Gordon Ramsay and Andrew Zimmern, who are already immensely popular — and powerful — it can look like the spotlight is in all the wrong places.
And when the food at a pricey restaurant from non-Chinese owners isn’t even very good — even the rice isn’t cooked properly, as Soleil Ho noted of Lucky Cricket, and as Gothamist observed of Lucky Lee’s — yet the restaurant proclaims that it’s “saving” people from “horseshit” Chinese food (as in Zimmern’s case) or from “icky” and “bloated” feelings afterward (as in Haspel’s case), well, that can zap any intended fun out of the experience. In other words, it can leave you with an “icky” feeling.
Danielle Chang says she’s noticed the word really cross over to non-Asian restaurant owners in recent years, citing Lucky Bee, a now-shuttered New York City Thai restaurant. She thinks that David Chang’s Momofuku, which from Japanese translates to “Lucky Peach” (also the name of its former magazine) and its mainstream success may have something to do with it. For her, using the word “lucky” in her company name was a way to bridge cultures. She thinks of it as fun and universal — something that everyone can grasp to some extent.
This all goes to say that the associations of “lucky” may be generational, and have everything to do with where you’re coming from. Today, there are plenty of young people who want to shake up that sense of old-fashioned branding when it comes to Chinese food. Diane Chang named her business Po-Po’s, which translates to “grandma’s” in Mandarin. “I couldn’t think of a better name because that’s why I started cooking, it’s a tribute to my grandma and her recipes,” she said. She was well aware of the confusion and unfortunate connotations that the name might cause for an American audience — the results when you Google “eating po-po’s” are unsavory — but she felt it best represented her.
“To this day I still have to explain whenever I call in orders, but for me, it was like, why should I bend with a quirky, cute name, because that’s just not me,” she said. She’s come to embrace the confusion, owning it with a smile when people mistakenly call her “po-po” thinking it’s her name. And on the flip side, she describes the warm feeling of familiarity as a “secret handshake” when people understand the meaning.
Rich Ho, chef-owner of the Taiwanese noodle soup restaurant Ho Foods, can relate to the confusion with vendors, because his restaurant sounds similar to “Whole Foods” — then, there’s the other, slang usage of “ho.” But he thinks his restaurant’s name is evocative of its clean, pared-down aesthetic, and it’s a sort of “dad joke” that it sounds like Whole Foods.
Growing up, Ho says he was made fun of a lot for his last name, even, he thinks, by his fourth grade teacher. But he’s come to embrace the name with pride. “At the end of the day it’s my name, and it’s just an Asian name and I’m proud of it, so I’m not gonna change it.”
Whereas earlier Chinese restaurants tended to stick with contrived Chinese restaurant names for mass branding’s sake, these relatively young, American-born business owners are picking names that are personal to them, despite the confusion or so-called negative connotations they may provoke for a Western audience. As Jung wrote, “Changes in the characteristics of Chinese restaurant names occurred over time provide a barometer of the acceptance of the restaurants in the larger society.”
In the end, it’s not so much the nomenclature as the superior marketing positioning that’s problematic for these white-owned Chinese restaurants today. One need not understand all the nuances to enjoy something. But there are layers of complexity in the “lucky” terminology, and meanings and generational attitudes evolve. And as a young group of Chinese Americans fights an uphill battle to be seen amid the stereotypes associated with their culture, they may be more inclined to leave “lucky” behind.
Cathy Erway is the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island, The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, and the host of the Heritage Radio Network podcast Eat Your Words and the upcoming podcast Self Evident.
Emily Chu is an illustrator and visual artist from Edmonton, AB, Canada.
Editor: Erin DeJesus