A Brief History of Fortune Cookies

Prophecy and Fortune predates written history. Omens, rods, dice, and other detritus and bric-a-brac manipulated by random chance have dominated the history of the universe. The I-Ching appeared in China in 1000 B.C. and the Classic I-Ching was fully developed by the 3rd century B.C. using yarrow sticks to determine which of 64 messages guided the questioner’s fate. By the the 3rd century A.D. Kau Cim, or Lottery Poetry, was first documented involved drawing lots from a collection of sticks with messages inscribed on them. A 14th century Chinese legend holds that messages hidden in mooncakes were used to organize a revolution against Mongolian rule, and begin the Ming dynasty. Edible fortune-telling was known in ancient Greece, and found in the tsujiura senbei of Japanese temples.

There may be evidence of prehistoric migration from China to the Americas, but large numbers came around the time of the California Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. The majority worked in the mining and railroad industries and by 1850 there were five Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. The first in Great Britain didn’t open until 1905. At the time Chinese restaurants were known for excellent service and inexpensive food (often modified for American tastes and ingredients) but not fortune cookies.

In 1869 the first transcontinental railroad was created by joining the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, U.T. As the railways spread eastward, so did Chinese restaurants. While Chinese immigrants were met with racial animosity and race riots by the people around them, eventually they faced legal discrimination from the federal government. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act ended migration to the United States from China; although the demand for (and animosity towards) exploitable migrant labor remained popular. Industrialists soon sought out cheap Japanese, Korean, and Filipino labor to offset the loss of migrants from China. Chinese enclaves were now pan-Asian, but these new Asian workers were greeted with growing racial animosity and “fears of an Asian take-over” as groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, the California Joint Immigration Committee, and the Native Sons of the Golden West organized in reaction to the so-called “Yellow Peril.”

In 1894 the World’s Fair was hosted by San Francisco, it included a Japanese Village, after the fair Makoto Hagiwara oversaw the conversion of this village into a traditional Japanese Tea Garden. Hagiwara introduced a sweetened version of the tsujiura senbei from Japan’s temples to this tea garden between 1910 and 1914, in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Each senbai was made by hand and filled with a fortune written in English. In the late 1800s Suyeichi Okamura opened a Japanese bakery named Benkyodo in San Francisco selling the senbei and other treats, and by 1918 they were contracted to make these “fortune tea cakes” for Hagiwara’s Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. They continued making them until the Okamura family was interred after America’s entry into World War II and Benkyodo was shuttered. Machinery to partially automate the creation of these tea cakes was also invented around this time; the messages were still folded into them by hand.

The Chinese Exclusion Act had an exception for merchants and in 1915 Restaurateurs were added to the list of businesses eligible to acquire merchant visas. This created an opening to use restaurants as a vehicle for immigration, which eventually became known as the “Lo Mein Loophole.” Chinese restaurants were one of the few ways to bring friends and families to the “Free World.”

Japanese migration remained fairly open until 1924, when the Asian Exclusion Act & National Origins Act were signed into law to prevent immigration from Asia, and set quotas on the number of all immigrants from the eastern hemisphere. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity,” historian Mae Ngai writes that before the World War I the United States had “virtually open borders.” Although the Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that only people of white descent were eligible for naturalization, the law was modified in 1866 when eligibility was extended to people of African descent in the wake of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and in 1898 the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark was brought before the Supreme Court guaranteeing birthright citizenship to people of Chinese descent.

Although a 1941 report showed the “Japanese problem” was non-existent, In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive order 9066, beginning the internment of thousands of Japanese people on the West Coast of the United States. In the words of the architect behind the internment program, Colonel Karl Bendetsen anyone with “one drop of Japanese blood” was placed in the internment camps. As Japanese people were rounded up into internment camps, the businesses and restaurants they owned were shuttered, often forever. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese American internment by ruling against Fred Korematsu’s appeal for violating an exclusion order. The Court limited its decision to the validity of the exclusion orders, avoiding the issue of the incarceration of U.S. citizens without due process guaranteed by the 14th amendment. More Chinese restaurants opened during this time as demand remained constant, and Chinese manufacturers adapted to create their own fortune tea cakes. As the war went on “patriotic” anti-Japanese malevolence increased, out of fear of mistaken identity Chinese people in the United States began wearing buttons proclaiming “I’m Chinese” and the tea cakes became markedly Chinese along with them.

During both World Wars (1914–1918 and 1939-1945), troops were moved throughout the US before shipping out to various theaters of action. Many moved through California and discovered the Fortune Cookies served there, presenting them with the novelty of a fun surprise in a world full of danger. Upon their return home, they began asking the local restaurateurs why they didn’t serve the Americanized tea-cakes they thought were an integral part of “authentic” Chinese cuisine. Servicemen demanded “Chinese Cookies” from their local restaurants and soon fortune cookies were firmly woven into America’s cultural fabric.

In 1943 the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that immigration from China became a regular occurrence. Chinese restaurants began integrating Szechuan and Hunan elements into their Cantonese-style menus, and their popularity continued to grow. By 1981 machinery was created to fully-automate the manufacture of fortune cookies.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 (equivalent to $42,000 in 2018) to each camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans.

In 1989, fortune cookies were reportedly imported into Hong Kong and sold as “genuine American fortune cookies”. Wonton Food attempted to expand its fortune cookie business into China in 1992, but gave up after fortune cookies were considered “too American”. As of 2015 the United States had 46,700 Chinese restaurants.