Tiger people are aggressive, courageous, candid, and sensitive,” the placemat informed me. “Look to the Horse or Dog for happiness. Beware of the Monkey.” By the time I saw this, I think, I knew I was a Scorpio — also aggressive, also sensitive under my protective exoskeleton. But now, another mystical way of ordering the world was telling me the basic tenants of who I was — a Tiger person — an act of discovery achieved just by looking down while waiting for my wonton soup.
Regardless of whether you have any Chinese heritage or cultural connections, if you’ve ever eaten at a Chinese-American restaurant, you probably remember something about what your birth year means within the Chinese zodiac. Maybe you’re a noble and chivalrous Boar, or a wise but vain Snake. Or maybe you just remember the red and gold, nearly symmetrical design on top of the placemat. Typically, the mat features a thick red border, and perhaps a wheel in the middle, but there are always drawings of the animals associated with the 12-year cycle, and descriptions of what your year has in store for you. (It’s currently the year of the pig.)
There are multiple histories about how the Chinese zodiac system came to be. The 12 Earthly Branches ordering system — which encompasses understandings of time and astrology — is prevalent in several Asian cultures, and is based on a 12-year cycle that just about lines up with the orbit of Jupiter. The most prevalent accompanying myth describes a race in which animals competed to be the first to reach the Jade Emperor; the Emperor would name one year for each animal in the order they completed the race. Variations of the myth unfurl different ways in which the animals ended up in their final order, with the narratives corresponding to the accompanying “personality traits” of each animal.
But no one seems to know where the zodiac placemat came from, or which illustrated version might be the first. The original artist’s name was either never on or was erased from the current versions of the designs. “I’m not sure who originally created these placemats,” says Kian Lam Kho, a food writer, cookbook author, and co-curator of “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant,” an exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City. “But the Chinese zodiac has been a common cultural symbol among non-Chinese in the U.S. for many years.”
There are a few places that currently print the zodiac menu, the foremost probably being Kari-Out, a New York-based company run by Howard Epstein. The company is best known for popularizing the modern soy sauce packet, which was a re-imagination of Epstein’s father’s freezer pop packaging business, but the company now sells all manner of Chinese restaurant staples. CNN reported in 2001 that “the near universality of Kari-Out packets testifies to the company’s huge market share, which has also allowed it to branch out into wholesale restaurant-supply distribution for items like napkins, chopsticks, and cardboard containers.” However, a call to the company yielded no answers as to where they got the design, though one administrative assistant said they’ve been printing it since at least the ’90s.
According to Lam Kho, the placements likely served as an easy-to-parse bridge for people familiar with Chinese-American cuisine, who could be made interested in learning more. “They were designed to share a bit of Chinese culture to the restaurant patrons,” he says. Catherine Piccoli, another curator at MOFAD, agrees. “For some Chinese-American restaurateurs in the mid-20th century, I think there definitely is a move towards education,” she says. But its omnipresence in Chinese-American restaurants tells the story of the changing role those restaurants played in American lives, and how their proprietors used Orientalism to drive acceptance of their culture.