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Al Roker explores America's changing Chinatowns on "Family Style"

The TODAY weatherman explores the history of America's famous Chinatowns.
/ Source: TODAY

From California to Montana to New York, cultural enclaves built by generations of immigrants provide a glimpse into the rich history of the Chinese American experience — and the many foods we enjoy today as a result.

Rising rents and a changing population were already whittling away the nation’s oldest Chinese restaurants when Covid-19 hit. Businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown lost an average of 70 percent of revenue within the first three months of the pandemic, a report from the Chinatown Community Development Center stated. And in New York City’s Chinatown, 380 of its 1,670 ground-floor storefronts currently stand empty, according to the city's Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation. Still, those that remain say they are maintaining a sense of resilience.

On the latest episode of his streaming series “Family Style” on TODAY All Day, Al Roker explores the history of America’s Chinatowns and learned how Chinese cuisine became a staple on tables across the country.

Jerry Tam, the owner of the Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Montana, holds a photo of his great-grandfather who helped open the more than century-old restaurant.
Jerry Tam, the owner of the Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Montana, holds a photo of his great-grandfather who helped open the more than century-old restaurant.Tiara Chiaramonte / TODAY All Day

Though urban hubs such as San Francisco and New York City are known for their iconic Chinatowns, Al kicked off his journey in a city few might expect: Butte, Montana. That’s where Pekin Noodle Parlor, the longest continuously operating Chinese restaurant in the U.S., stands as a remnant of the bustling mining city that attracted thousands of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.

Built in 1909, the building that houses Pekin Noodle Parlor first opened as a tobacco shop and casino, fitting for an Old West-era town popular for its gambling, saloons and red light district. When the noodle shop started operating upstairs two years later, everything it served came across the ocean from China.

“They didn’t make soy sauce in America,” fourth-generation owner Jerry Tam said. “The noodles were fried and brought over on ships because they didn’t make fresh noodles. So the history of this place really holds true that this is a Chinese restaurant, from Chinese immigrants.”

By 1914, more than 60 Chinese-owned businesses populated Butte’s thriving Chinatown. Merchants (which included restaurant owners) were among those exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, paving the way for generations of Tam’s lineage to enter the country and help run the family restaurant.

For decades, Chinatowns flourished as they became tourist destinations for Americans of different backgrounds, especially when they got a taste of culinary crazes like that of chop suey, a dish consisting of vegetables mixed with a gravy often served on top of chow mein noodles.

But as industrial production waned in the 1950s, mining towns such as Butte emptied out. Today, the Butte city directory lists Pekin Noodle Parlor as the only chop suey restaurant left in business.

“I’ve been asked the question, ‘What is the future of the Pekin?’” Tam said. “And the best answer I could give you is, let’s just keep it the same. Let’s not change anything. ‘Cause that’s what people come here for.”

In the country’s oldest Chinatown, San Francisco’s Far East Cafe is one of the last remaining historic Chinese banquet halls, with its 100-plus-year-old chandeliers and lanterns imported from China. It had planned to commemorate its 100-year anniversary with a celebration, but now, the biggest restaurant left in Chinatown expects to shut its doors for good.

Even as it stayed afloat with the help of its Paycheck Protection Program loan and the generosity of its landlord, the business struggled to overcome the xenophobic avoidance of Chinese restaurants coupled with fear within the Chinese community as hate crimes soared.

“People saw the attacks when they watched the news and heard reports, and they got even more scared,” owner Bill Lee said. “They don’t want to go out, even for special events like the Mid-Autumn Festival. We tried to invite them, but they didn’t want to come.”

Beyond pandemic-related challenges, the closures of mom-and-pop eateries in recent years also prompt the question of what’s next for these legacy restaurants. One chef in New York City is testing a new business model by investing in the popularity of fusion cuisine.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lucas Sin didn’t experience his first taste of Chinese American food — dishes like orange chicken or General Tso’s chicken — until he attended a summer camp in the U.S.

His love for this type of fare ultimately inspired him to co-found Nice Day, an enterprise with plans to buy family-owned Chinese restaurants facing closure and remodel them into Chinese American takeout restaurants. Sin opened his first Nice Day pop up in New York City last summer and will open the first permanent location on Long Island this spring.

“It’s important to me that these new (restaurants) work with the previous generation of owners, because they have a lot of knowledge that we don’t,” Sin said. “They know their customers. They know what sells. They know how to cook these dishes.”

Sin said he aims to “give back to this last generation” to ensure these owners can retire well while having their legacy preserved in a new type of restaurant serving untraditional Chinese American dish combinations like mapo mac and cheese.

“We have lost so much during the pandemic,” culinary historian Grace Young told Al, “and I think it makes us all so much more conscious that we have to protect what we love.”

"Family Style with Al Roker" airs Wednesday, March 23 at 11:30 am ET.