The Chinese in New Orleans and Yaka Mein
When I sat down and spoke with Leah Chase in February of 2007, she mentioned the Chinese as one of the many people who have influenced New Orleans culture and cuisine. I was floored when she said it, and thought she must have been mistaken. Sure enough, about 6 months later I received my Fall 2007 issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas (the publication of the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities) featuring an article entitled “Chinatown New Orleans”. The article quotes an 1871 issue of The New Orleans Bee, stating “a year ago we had no Chinese among us; now we see them everywhere in the streets of New Orleans”.
Now I know that there are plenty of Vietnamese currently in NOLA, and that some of my cousins have a significant amount of Filipino ancestry, but had never heard of Chinese in NOLA before.
“What happened to them,” I asked Ms. Chase.
“They moved on – people move on.”
When I came home and relayed the conversation to my mother, she told me they intermarried with us, too, (again- I should have known! ), and that she had friends who have Chinese ancestry, even mentioning her friend Jeniece Wong.
Using Chinese workers was a trend in Cuba before it hit New Orleans, and because New Orleans was a regular port of call on the circular Caribbean trade route of the day, it should have come as no surprise to me that planters in southern Louisiana followed the lead of Cuban plantation owners, in their ever continuing search for cheap labor. Yeah- I really should have known. In my New York days, I had a Cuban boyfriend, and one of his friends was from the Oriente province of Cuba. He used to kid him, saying he had “chinky” eyes.
Well, of course, I brought the issue up when I met with Ms. Chase again this spring. She had quite a bit to say-even told me that her first job was at a Chinese laundry, and talked about a dish called “Yaka Mein”. Synchronistically enough, a couple of days before I met with her, that name had jumped out at me from one of the food booth at Jazz Fest.
After learning about his dish, I did a Google search on it. There’s a description and a good picture of the dish at Sazerac’s Ficker Gallery . I’ve posted a clip below with what Ms. Chase had to say about it.