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Why so many of America’s sushi restaurants are owned by Chinese immigrants

Eric Zhou, owner of Masa Hibachi Steakhouse & Sushi, is one of a growing group of Chinese owners of Japanese-style restaurants in Silver Spring, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Eric Zhou grew up in China’s Fujian province watching his father, an accomplished chef, whip up banquets of intricate Chinese dishes. But when Zhou moved to the United States and started working in a Chinese restaurant, he saw that his native cuisine was mostly considered cheap in this country, confined to greasy takeout counters and $7.95 lunch buffets.

So Zhou edged his way into a much more lucrative industry: Japanese food. Years later, he owns four Japanese and Asian fusion restaurants in the Washington area. With Chinese food, he says, “the price in America is too low. Japanese restaurants don’t have this problem. To us, it’s more suitable. It’s a better life.”

Zhou, 44, has joined thousands of other Chinese immigrants in the United States in seeking a leg up the economic ladder through Japanese food. From Ames, Iowa, to Lancaster, Pa., Chinese Americans have opened many of the sushi joints that dot suburban malls and city blocks across the country. It’s the result of what experts describe as a striking convergence between U.S. ethnic-food preferences and the economic pressures facing a new wave of Chinese immigrants, whose population in the United States has tripled in the past 25 years.

Which cuisines sell well and which do not may seem a combination of chance and cultural tastes. But the outsize role of Chinese Americans in the Japanese food business, according to academics who have studied it, sheds light on deeper forces. The influx of low-wage Chinese immigrants — China recently eclipsed Mexico as the largest source of immigrants to the United States — has created fierce competition to provide cheap food. At the same time, Japan’s wealth and economic success helped its cuisine gain a reputation as trendy and refined. So for many entrepreneurial Chinese immigrants looking to get ahead, Japanese food has often become the better opportunity.

“Chinese entrepreneurs have figured out that this is a way to make a slightly better living and get out of the . . . world of $10, $5 food at the bottom end of the market,” says Krishnendu Ray, who leads New York University’s food studies program.

“Japanese food has more prestige and seems to, if you just look at a menu, have greater economic opportunity attached to it, because people are conditioned to pay more for rice and protein when it’s presented as sushi than rice and protein when it’s presented as a stir fry,” said Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Sushi Economy.”

Some — but not all — of the difference in the price of Japanese and Chinese offerings has to do with food itself. Ray argues that Chinese food has earned a reputation for being cheap in large part because of the historic poverty of the country and its immigrants. “Foods we associate with poor immigrants tend to be cheap, and we are generally not willing to pay a higher price for it,” he says.

He argues that the cuisine’s reputation could change as China’s economy grows and its people become wealthier. Already, more upscale Chinese restaurants are popping up to cater to a new wave of wealthy Chinese migrating to the United States. But others are skeptical that most Americans will ever pay top dollar for Chinese food.

Kin Lee, the owner of Love Sushi in Gaithersburg, Md., was 11 when he came to the country from Guangzhou, a massive city in southern China. His father owned a Chinese restaurant. His wife, however, had worked in Japanese restaurants and advised him that it was a better business.

“I can tell you it is easier to do than a Chinese restaurant,” he says, “and the profit margins are better.”

Patterns in immigration

Since China loosened its restrictions on emigration in the 1970s, the total number of Chinese immigrants in the United States has gone from just 384,400 in 1980 to 2 million in 2013, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Some Chinese have arrived legally, aided by American laws designed to help them escape religious persecution, democracy crackdowns or forced abortions. Others paid tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the country.

Like many migrant groups, they clustered in specific industries, where language skills were less important, and where there were well-established networks of job opportunities. According to the best estimates, there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the country, more than the number of U.S. post offices. On the East Coast, many Chinese immigrants arrive in New York, and from there ride the network of long-distance buses from Chinatown to kitchens all over the country. Like Zhou, many are from Fujian province, where entire villages emptied out in the 1990s as people sought opportunity in the United States.

David Wank, a professor of sociology at Japan’s Sophia University who has studied Chinese ownership of Japanese restaurants, says that Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean immigrants began opening Japanese restaurants outside of major cities in the 1980s to take advantage of Americans’ growing appetite for the food. But it was the Fujianese who greatly expanded the reach of inexpensive Japanese restaurants, he says, first opening sushi restaurants in New York in the 1990s, then pushing up and down the East Coast.

It is impossible to say how many of the roughly 25,000 Japanese restaurants in the United States are owned by people of Chinese origin. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture estimated in the past that only about a tenth of Japanese restaurants in the States were run by people of Japanese descent. A survey of 33 Japanese restaurants in the Washington area revealed that 12 were owned by Chinese Americans and 12 by Korean Americans. Only six were Japanese owned.

Wank says Chinese immigrants abandoned Chinese food restaurants because of fierce competition. Many Chinese immigrants were poor and willing to work punishing hours to send money home to their relatives or give their children a better life in the United States. That led to a crowded industry and low wages.

By contrast, Japanese food offered a much clearer economic opportunity. As Japan’s economy roared in the second half of the 20th century, its food became associated with a new class of business travelers. The cuisine’s healthful reputation, its embrace by Hollywood stars and the invention of Americanized classics such as the California roll helped the food's popularity to grow. Americans expected to pay high prices for Japanese food. But incomes in Japan were already so high that it didn’t make economic sense for a Japanese chef to emigrate to work anywhere but in the priciest U.S. restaurants, often in major cities.

That created an opening for Chinese Americans.

“Often, the margins look better on sushi than they do on Chinese food,” Issenberg says. “If I could be selling egg rolls for $3 each or cucumber rolls for $5 each, why am I not in that business?”

Kazuhiro Okochi, a chef and owner at KAZ Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C., who trained as a chef in Japan, said that he's seen many non-Japanese chefs cook good Japanese food, and that Japanese cuisine actually borrows a lot from other culinary traditions, including China's. But he worries that the quality and the reputation of some Japanese restaurants in the U.S. might be suffering because new restaurant owners are trying to compete on price and expand quickly.

"Japanese food and, particularly sushi, has grown so fast in the past few decades, and a lot of people just try to copy and open the restaurants, without getting much [training],” Okochi says.

Big dreams

Zhou loves Fujianese food; he talks fondly of the big pot of soup that his wife keeps bubbling on the back burner at home nearly all hours of the day. But he’s happy to have specialized in Japanese cooking.

“I wanted to earn money,” he says, “so I studied the industry that had the higher salary.”

Zhou (pronounced like “Joe”) is the owner of Masa Hibachi Steakhouse & Sushi, a spacious Japanese restaurant in Silver Spring, Md., that features flat iron teppanyaki griddles on which chefs cook and perform tricks for customers. At 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in August, a birthday party of young women shrieked with delight as their chef — also from Fujian — flipped vegetables, squirted sake into their mouths and sent flames shooting across the grill.

Zhou now owns four restaurants in the Washington suburbs that serve a mix of hibachi, sushi and Asian fusion. He owns a house in Bowie and pays for family vacations and piano lessons for his two middle-school-age children. But he is still striving to improve his business and dreams of building a network of eight to 10 hibachi and sushi restaurants.

“In terms of family, I think I’ve achieved the American Dream,” he says. “Professionally, I’m still working towards it.”

For the past few decades, the Japanese restaurant business has offered people like Zhou the clearest path to success. Yet, if China’s economy continues to grow, that could gradually set its emigrants and its cuisine in the United States on a new path.

Ray believes that as China gets wealthier, its cuisine may move up-market, just as Japanese food did. He thinks Americans may soon discover what a remarkable cuisine China possesses — and has possessed throughout recorded history.

“If you go to any of the major Chinese cultures 1,000 years ago, they have a foodie culture like Brooklyn and Manhattan has today,” Ray says. “I think my son’s generation, when he grows up, is going to look at Chinese culture with totally different eyes.”

But for now, Zhou and other Chinese American entrepreneurs are still following local tastes. “If Americans really wanted to eat the authentic food, it would exist,” Zhou says.

He recalls a Chinese-style dish, a duck breast, that he added to the menu at his restaurant after it opened. Zhou thought it was delicious, but it sold poorly.

“When you open a restaurant, you need to follow local appetites, then you can earn money,” he says. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I like this.’ The customers have to think that.”

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