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Inside the world's largest collection of Chinese menus

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A selection of Chinese menus from the collection
Harley Spiller collected Chinese menus from all across the country -- and the world. These are some of the 10,000 menus acquired by the University of Toronto.
Courtesy of the University of Toronto

Fifty-seven banker boxes.

One thousand one hundred pounds.

Ten thousand Chinese menus.

That's what Harley Spiller delivered to the University of Toronto when the school purchased his decades-in-the-making collection. It's the largest assortment of Chinese menus on the planet. The menus go back more than 100 years and come from all over the world, from 1920s California to 1940s India to Spiller's favorite place, just down the street from his New York apartment.

"Anybody who's working in food studies knows about this collection," said professor Daniel Bender, director of the university's food studies center. "It's the Rosetta Stone of understanding the history of Chinese foods."

One of 10,000 Chinese menus in the collection
This Chinese menu comes from Portland, Ore., in the 1950s. It is one of the 10,000 menus from Harley Spiller's collection, which was acquired by the University of Toronto.
Courtesy of the University of Toronto

For the last year, librarians and archivists at the school have been sorting through the menus, studying how best to make the information available to the public. The menus don't just document the rising price of chow mein or the world's changing palates, Bender said. They speak to the history of Chinese immigration around the world.

"The oldest one that we found in the collection is from 1896, which is a really interesting time. That's around the time, or shortly after, the United States and Canada and many other places passed very restrictive Chinese exclusion acts," Bender said.

When countries closed their borders to Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th  centuries, immigrants already in the U.S. found a loophole: Chinese restaurant owners were allowed to bring in workers for their kitchens. Thousands of people entered the country that way.

"The Chinese restaurant boom and Chinese exclusion happened really at the same time," Bender said. "Chinese restaurants became popular at the same moment that Chinese immigrants were looked at with suspicion."

One of 10,000 Chinese menus in the collection
This menu comes from Phoenix in the 1980s. It is one of the 10,000 menus from Harley Spiller's collection, which was acquired by the University of Toronto.
Courtesy of the University of Toronto

None of this history was on Harley Spiller's mind when he started his collection.

It began in the summer of 1981, when he moved to New York City. He was in his early 20s, and unfamiliar with city life.

"I'm renting a room in a friend's apartment, and they were out and I was all alone," Spiller said. "I heard a scuffle at the door, and I thought to myself: 'Oh great, I didn't even make it a week and I'm getting robbed.' So I hid in the bedroom.

"About five to ten minutes later, I poked my head out and went to see what was going on. It was a Chinese menu, shoved under the door.

"It was interesting to me because I was an English major, and there were typos, and there were foods I didn't know were foods. I thought squid were in the science lab, fermented. I didn't know you could eat it. I was a meat-and-potato kind of guy.

"Now I eat squid like peas," Spiller said.

One of 10,000 Chinese menus in the collection
This menu comes from Empire Taipei in New York City. Moving to New York is what triggered Harley Spiller's menu collection. His 10,000 menus were acquired by the University of Toronto.
Courtesy of the University of Toronto

That first menu shoved underneath the door sparked his fascination.

"I couldn't afford to subscribe to The New York Times. I couldn't get magazines. So I read menus. They were up and down the avenues in my new town for the taking. I would take walks after dinner, check out the new neighborhood and grab those. They were spare-time reading material."

For those who think the ubiquitous paper menus are worthless, Spiller disagrees: "A menu is a book. It has covers and it has pictures and it has sections like chapters. It's a container for ideas. That's a book!"

Spiller went from casually collecting menus on the street to seeking out historical menus and menus from far-off locales. Older acquaintances ripped Chinese food menus out of their wedding scrapbooks for him. Friends brought them back from vacation.

He dreamed of driving across the country, stopping at flea markets and buying up every old Chinese menu he could found. But instead, the flea markets came to him: eBay was invented.

"In 1997, I was off: I bid on every single Chinese menu that came up on eBay the first year. I bought most of them, and then I looked at my bank account and I went cold turkey."

One of 10,000 Chinese menus in the collection
The University of Toronto's Food Studies program acquired Harley Spiller's collection of 10,000 Chinese menus. The collection will allow researchers to track the rise and fall of certain dishes across time and location.
Courtesy of the University of Toronto

That didn't stop the collection from growing, though.

One weekend in 2004 or 2005, a team of nine people gathered to count the menus for the Guinness Book of World Records. They stopped counting at 5,006, which handily beat the previous world record of 4,001. They were still only halfway through the collection.

As three decades of collecting came and went, though, Spiller decided it was time to find the menus a new home. He was delighted to hear about the University of Toronto's interest. Other potential buyers wanted to cherry-pick menus from the collection, choosing the most exotic or rare among them,  but the university wanted the whole thing — and it wanted to make the collection available to the public.

"It started as a lark but it's going to end up helping people writing histories and working on immigration studies," Spiller said. "It helps normalize the immigrant experience."

Professor Bender agrees. "I like to think of that person who finds their own grandparents in that collection, finds the restaurant they worked at ... It's a bit like finding out your parents painted a great painting and now it's hung in a museum."

Spiller's collecting days aren't over, though. He still has a collection of rare coins. And wishbones. And yellow pencils. And blue bottle caps. And plastic spoons.

Matchbooks from Harvey Spiller's collection
Harley Spiller collected matchbooks from Chinese restaurants, too. They are included in the archive purchased by the University of Toronto.
Courtesy of the University of Toronto

"That's a collection that I started to see if anything could arise from a dumb collection," he said.

Did moving the 1,100 pounds of Chinese menus out of his apartment free up any space?

"You know how if you squeeze a bowl of Jell-O, it just squirts everywhere?" Spiller laughed. "It's like that. The shelves that were emptied were immediately filled."