Many people view chop suey as a uniquely Chinese American dish. For these individuals, the dish’s logical beginnings coincide with the first wave of immigrants that came from China to the United States. The first Chinese immigrants were nearly all single men from the Guangdong province who were drawn to North America’s west coast in the 19th century by tales of Gold Mountain, known as gam saan. The idea of Gold Mountain did not just pertain to the California Gold Rush but rather the idea that North America was a land where someone could make their riches.
San Francisco was a popular place for these immigrants to disembark. Some 25,000 Chinese people moved to California between 1849 and 1851. While some did go searching for gold, many decided to make a living by catering to the ever-growing Californian populace. Starting a restaurant was one way of doing so.
These restaurants typically served cheap, wholesome food, a category chop suey fits neatly into. One story names a San Franciscan restaurant, Macao and Woosung, as the birthplace of chop suey. According to this legend, drunk miners demanded food late one night and the tired owner served them scraps from around the kitchen stir-fried and served with rice. Although there is little evidence to support this legend, it demonstrates the importance Chinese restaurants had in California’s nascent restaurant industry.