During the age of sail, it was common for Western ships to employ Chinese cooks. I don't have any numbers except that there are pages and pages of relevant results from search queries including "Chinese cook", "cocinero chino", and so on.

As of 1882, "there are many [Chinese men] in the coasting trade as cooks and stewards" (from "Chinese Sailors: America's Invisible Merchant Marine 1876-1905").

Insofar as all cultures produce professional cooks, what explains the shipboard prominence of Chinese ones? Chinese food is delicious, but surely other factors were in play as well: possibly lower wages, an ability to cook in more styles, etc.

Portrait of a Chinese cook with queue

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    Might your impression come from a sampling bias. As in a Chinese cook was odd enough to get a mentioned, whereas a European one did not, thereby creating the impression there were a lot of Chinese cooks when in fact there were not? Jul 30, 2019 at 4:12
  • Not only ships. Chinese cuisine is popular everywhere where it is available. For example, most foreign restaurants in the US are Chinese.
    – Alex
    Jul 30, 2019 at 5:33
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    Good question, related Wikipedia page about Coolies page (I assume). Also likely related to being Shanghaiied and other forms of slavery. Jul 30, 2019 at 6:10
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    I'd think for most of the Age of Sail it would be rare to find a ship (merchant or warship) that had a dedicated cook. In most cases, they would be just another hand. Cooking facilities would be primative and preparing meals on the rolling deck of a ship with limited kitchen stores would be far from the experience of a professional cook.
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 30, 2019 at 12:13
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    Here is an article that mentions the frequent employment of Chinese sailors as cooks. It seems the descriminatory exclusion of Chinese from higher paid / more desirable jobs may explain their prevelance in that role. tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0144039X.2010.504533
    – Brian Z
    Jul 30, 2019 at 18:12

1 Answer 1


Discrimination against the Chinese was clearly a key factor, excluding them from higher paid and more desirable jobs aboard ship. Here is a quote from the article "‘I Espied a Chinaman’: Chinese Sailors and the Fracturing of the Nineteenth Century Pacific Maritime Labour Force" by John T. Grider, published in the journal Slavery & Abolition (2010).

White sailors did not mind when Chinese worked in domestic jobs, such as cooks, stewards, cabin boys, mess boys, storekeepers, bakers, porters, pantrymen, and waiters. In domestic roles Chinese did not pose a threat to white concepts of labour-based masculinity, but when Chinese worked in the rigging or in the engine room of steamships, resentment grew. Anger towards Chinese sailors increased substantially when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company replaced white and black sailors with their Chinese counterparts in 1867 in order to save money on wages and food stores.

During the early nineteenth century, very few Chinese men shipped out aboard foreign vessels as seamen. Most Chinese men who did ship out did so as cooks and stewards, and they eventually became a common feature on Pacific vessels by midcentury.

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