Sixty years ago, Chinese food got a makeover. Its new look—in American restaurants, at least—revolved around a single piece of furniture, the “Lazy Susan” rotating table. Through the 1950s, many Chinatown restaurants had a reputation for being dingy and cramped, but the introduction of lazy susan tables was the key element in a transformation toward refined and spacious restaurants. Chinese food wasn't as ubiquitous back then as it is today, and it wasn't necessarily that Chinese, either. Staples like chow mein, chop suey, and fortune cookies had vague culinary roots in Asia, but all three were invented stateside.
Lazy Susans became standard fare during the 1960s. The Washington Post described a 1963 Chinese New Year celebration by highlighting crispy duck, shark's fin, and a Lazy Susan. The New York Times described one piled with crab rolls, dumplings, and moon cakes at a celebration of the 1965 Mid-Autumn festival. Diners gathered around a big round table, chopsticks ready, and turned the Lazy Susan to bring each dish within reach.
In the decades that followed, travel guides and restaurant reviews proclaimed the Lazy Susan a Chinese tradition. A popular book of food anthropology even called it an “ethically ideal table shape...[that] emphasizes the democratic nature of the meal.” But of course, tracing the roots of a tradition can be tricky business. Sometimes objects catch on because they're traditional. Other times, as in the case of fortune cookies, an object only seems traditional because it's so ubiquitous.
You don't really find fortune cookies in Asia, but Lazy Susans, by contrast, are all over. The composer Igor Stravinsky ate off one in 1959, at a Chinese restaurant in Japan. In 1971, an American visitor to Taiwan found them in common household use. And just before President Nixon's historic 1972 visit, the first American commercial flight in decades landed in Shanghai, 23 years after Chairman Mao Zedong severed most of China's ties with the West. The plane’s crew was promptly treated to lunch—served on a Lazy Susan. So either this style of eating really was, so to speak, made in China, or it had been outsourced from the West even during an era of chilly international relations.
Let's take a minute to get the name straight. Technically, the “Lazy Susan revolving table” isn't a table at all. Today, it describes a spinning platter that rests on the tabletop. Back in the early-1900s, however, “Lazy Susan”—previously known as a “dumb-waiter”—described not only revolving tabletops, but also revolving tables, as well as elevators that carried plates and food. All three devices were used in Europe and America to save domestic labor during meals. Basically, the idea was to buy a “dumb-waiter” so you could layoff your real waiter.
This means that a century ago, the name Lazy Susan had nothing to do with Chinese food. So for now, we have to leave our friend Susan—whose identity, by the way, is lost to history—in the 20th century, and turn back the clocks to 1313.
The first known mention of a Chinese revolving table, and the source of much speculation about the Lazy Susan's origins, comes from the 700-year-old Book of Agriculture. Its author, Wang Zhen, was a Chinese official who helped pioneer movable type. He faced the challenge of organizing thousands of individual Chinese characters (alphabetic languages, by contrast, require about 100). Wang's solution was to make the table move, so the typesetter didn't have to. In this sense, it worked very much like a tabletop Lazy Susan.
But Wang's table certainly wasn't used in the dining room. If you turn to historical accounts of Chinese furniture, you'll find that dining tables tended to be rectangular, and didn't rotate. Many Chinese people do remember rotating tables built decades ago—but their origin story is hazy. “Historically, I can't recall any example earlier than the 20th century,” says Lark Mason, an American expert on Chinese antiques, via email. “The origin probably lies in the transmission of the innovation from European forms, likely in Hong Kong, Canton, or Shanghai.”
Mason's hunch echoes the first-known revolving dinner table in China—found, rather oddly, at a 1917 public health conference in Canton. Wu Lien-Teh, a doctor of Chinese descent who was born in Malaysia and educated at Cambridge, helped to reshape theories of disease in China. He spent much of his career studying outbreaks of pneumonia and tuberculosis, and grew critical of Chinese hygienic practices—including in the way people ate. In 1915, one of his articles portrayed communal Chinese meals as a potential hotbed of contagion.
“The chopsticks are used for picking up solid food from dishes placed on the table, thrust deep into the mouth and then withdrawn. This process is repeated indefinitely...one often has to sit among total strangers, who may be suffering from syphilis of the mouth, foul teeth, tuberculosis, pyorrhea, ulcers and other diseases of the mouth.”
Dr. Wu proposed a remedy: special serving chopsticks and spoons, along with a “hygienic dining tray.” His design—which Wu presented to numerous medical colleagues in China—was recently rediscovered by Sean Hsiang-lin Lei, a medical historian at Taiwan's Academica Sinica. Though the device, Lei points out, wouldn't have prevented the spread of all those diseases—tuberculosis, for instance, is spread by air and not by saliva—Wu's 1915 description seems identical to the modern-day Lazy Susan.
“Each person at his table has his own set of chopsticks…each dish on the revolving tray is fitted with a special spoon. In this way every one of those sitting at the table can help himself to the food without dipping his own spoon or chopsticks into the common bowl.”
Here we're stuck with an unfortunate gap in the record. There was one company that expressed interest in manufacturing Wu's table—Shanghai's Commercial Press, a printing company that just might have recognized its similarity to Wang Zhen's movable type table. But that's hard to substantiate. What we do know is that Wu traveled all across China—and saw all sorts of dining tables—before he proposed his “dining tray” as something completely new. This means that in Wu's day, revolving tables couldn't have been an existing Chinese tradition.
The trail of the Chinese Lazy Susan finally picks up in the 1950s, which is when Chinese food got its makeover. The hub of Chinese-American cuisine was San Francisco's Chinatown, where a new generation of entrepreneurial restaurant owners was trying to better adapt Chinese cooking to American tastes. One of them was Johnny Kan, who opened a Cantonese-style restaurant in 1953. He worked with two Chinese-American friends—brothers-in-law who started a booming soy sauce company—to try and make his restaurant both respectable and modern.
George Hall was one of the two friends, a man who'd trained as an engineer and liked to tinker in the basement. His niece and daughter remembered those days in a book about Hall's soy sauce company. In the mid-1950s, Hall started toying with ball bearings and round pieces of wood, and he put together a revolving tabletop that became the pivotal element of Kan's new banquet room.
Hall's niece, Connie Young Yu, is now a historian of Chinese-American culture. “As a kid, I remember we really loved the novelty of it,” she said. “I can remember how much fun it was to spin it around. The pressed duck is right in front of me—and no one's gonna stop me from getting as many pieces as I want!”
Before designing the table, Hall had traveled in both England and China. But Young says that her uncle would have mentioned it if the design had been inspired by tables he'd seen. She's pretty sure that his Lazy Susan was an independent invention, built to address that universal challenge of passing out food, which then managed to catch on.
And catch on it did. Kan's restaurant exploded in popularity within a few years. It was constantly visited by celebrities and copied by competitors across the U.S., right down to its jasmine-scented napkins and—of course—its revolving tables. There were pathways across the Pacific, too: the restaurant's cooks came from Hong Kong, and Kan did business with importer-exporters throughout Asia.
So it seems that the Chinese Lazy Susan, designed for dinnertime sharing, went global with a healthy serving of cross-cultural sharing. Good inventions reinvent tradition, and this one was literally revolutionary.