Professor Heather Lee tells the story of how a loophole in the Chinese Exclusion Act led to the Chinese restaurant boom in America. Drawing parallels to today, she explains the unintended impacts of the law on the U.S. and China.

United States


00:00:07hi I'm a degree thanks for joining us scholars strategy networks no jacket each week interview someone about important social problem or policy issue talking with one of America's top scholars with no jacket happy holidays the dragon listeners today we're gonna talk about one of my family's Christmas holiday
00:00:26traditions Chinese restaurants well sort of growing up in a Jewish family I remember years of heading to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas day but of course Chinese restaurants a much larger story in American life than that and their origin in the US came as part of the story
00:00:44of Chinese families navigating Cena phobic immigration laws here to tell us more is heather ruefully heather Lea is an assistant professor of history at NYU Shanghai and she's the creator of the first digital database of Chinese restaurants in the United States professor Lee thanks for coming on a
00:01:03dragon thanks for inviting me happy to be here why did you choose to study Chinese restaurants well I think it's a really common experience that anybody can connect to what I like about %HESITATION the scholar strategy not working as well as research is when you do research that
00:01:22explain something about people's lives and I think it would be hard to find somebody who grew up in the US and has never entered a Chinese restaurant and despite the prevalence of them we know very little about that we don't know how really specifically they got started why
00:01:40they're in every American city and sell why Americans eat so much of it so it was my goal to seek and find a compelling explanation for why it is that Chinese restaurants are really everywhere and such a common part of our diet so how did the Chinese restaurant
00:02:00boom get started well I think there's a couple things to point out before I can explain the big boom in the nineteen nineteen eighteen to nineteen twenties of first of all for most people who aren't familiar with Chinese immigration it might be surprising to them to know that
00:02:18there were a set of laws passed in the late nineteenth century called the Chinese exclusion laws and the idea behind that was to prevent the Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States because they were perceived as economic threats to of the white working class population who saw
00:02:36them as undercutting them in the labor market so there's a lot of connections to the way of Latino immigrants are trade today as taking away jobs from other people some Chinese immigrants during this period were also seen as an economic threat so there were set of laws and
00:02:54aim to stop them from coming and as a result of these laws it was very difficult to come into the United States %HESITATION and they were also passed after there was a significant population of Chinese or be here so the lost in say we could deport them all
00:03:09but we kind of don't want anymore to come the Chinese who were already here %HESITATION were struggling to find a way to make a living and a one of the most common occupations for them in the late nineteenth century and all over the west coast as well as
00:03:25on the east coast was laundry work of most Chinese worked in or owned a small hand laundry of this was of course the day before times before there were washing machines and these people would live all over dispersed throughout the city and they would leave very difficult lives
00:03:45you know twelve to sixteen hours of work a day it sounds really backbreaking exactly absolutely backbreaking really lonely because you often work by yourself or maybe with one other partner and you had one day off Sunday and on those days they would enjoy having a meal with their
00:04:04friends and Chinese restaurants really started in the late nineteenth century as a way to provide community spaces for Chinese immigrants and %HESITATION and that is you know how Chinese restaurants started in the United States of course that is not why they became so popular among Americans of one
00:04:26of one of the things that was happening in big cities like New York or LA and San Francisco in the early twentieth century was that %HESITATION Americans were starting to be interested in %HESITATION I guess what you would call %HESITATION symbols of maternity there were many different kind
00:04:44of populations that were tracked into Chinatown a Chinese restaurant because they seem different so Chinese restaurants were one of those places where people went to really learn what it meant to be at Irvine American there there was a kind of like you internal culinary tourism sort of thing
00:05:04don't you mean oh absolutely yeah I know that's exactly what I mean so I'm there was something called slumming in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and it literally meant what the word sounds like which is to go into communities that were perceived as %HESITATION poorer and
00:05:21exotic so people would go to Little Italy Chinatown and the various other sort of immigrant enclaves to see what it was like %HESITATION see what %HESITATION how immigrants for a living and it was seen as a weighted toward the world without leaving the city and there were all
00:05:37kinds of guidebooks that offered people ideas for where to go what how do experience a miniature China as it was %HESITATION understood back then I was so it was it was a really %HESITATION a bad job of urbanism to say that you've gone to China town and had
00:05:57tops do we or gone to a little Italy and had a tongue in food in the Italian enclave and so on and so forth so you work shows the connection between the specific set of immigration laws and the spread of these Chinese restaurants before you explain that can
00:06:14you tell me a little bit about anti Chinese sentiment and how that led to these immigration laws yeah it's it's there's so many parallels with what's going on today which is why I think it's so important to look to history for some of these lessons for what could
00:06:32be ahead of us if we follow a certain path I'm so in starting after the eighteen sixty eight market crash %HESITATION there was a really of which and and a lot of people lost their jobs and %HESITATION and it's easy to blame the outsider or it's easy to
00:06:52blame the last person here or that it's easy to blame the person who you think of as being honest available in the United States and at that time the Chinese fit that bill and there were all working labor unions that up blamed a lot of their troubles on
00:07:11the Chinese and this population of games are political years and were really significant in up local and as well as federal elections and they were able to vote in representatives that were willing as well as you present that was willing to support federal legislation that introduce our our
00:07:34first race based and so on the most significance in this period immigration law which far Chinese of labor's denied stays so anti Chinese %HESITATION sentimental the form of violence out there were houses of businesses that were destroyed it also took the form of a local as well as
00:07:55federal laws they're really trying to disadvantage the Chinese so there was a very pervasive an old band hostility towards Chinese immigrants and really an attempt to exclude them from all avenues of %HESITATION mobility both social cultural and economic wow and national financial crisis and and depression followed by
00:08:17strong political %HESITATION and racialized divisions between white working and middle class citizens and an immigrant group it really does sound a lot like today yes and it's %HESITATION this is what I think is so important to looking back to history because I I think we can anticipate not
00:08:38only the dangers and the laws that we pass the imperfection of them we use them as a way to solve our own problems we see between groups but said the unanticipated consequences of some of them bad some of them good of in some ways the story I'm I'm
00:08:58telling us about the positive effects of discriminatory laws prohibitory laws so invented in these laws was a need to honor treaties that the United States had with China China was one of the first %HESITATION of countries the United States attempted to make diplomatic relations with and and one
00:09:19of the components of our trees which I know was to respect and honor the right of free travel so even though we had these laws that attempted to stop Chinese immigration there was also provisions in it that allow of Chinese migration of a certain class of what was
00:09:37called the merchant class to come in and out of the country as well as to allow American merchants to come back to move between China and United States so as part of these laws of there was the question of how you did that defined bar chance and there
00:09:52was a nineteen fifteen court case at this time Chinese restaurants for growing in popularity and were a pretty accepted although not widely available part of %HESITATION urban living so in nineteen fifteen those of court case that redefines of Chinese merchants to include Chinese restaurant owners so suddenly in
00:10:15nineteen fifteen you have the federal court recognizing Chinese restaurant owners as being entitled to the right of free migration between the United States and China for the Chinese as was a huge opportunity and a way for them to move back and forth to visit their families to bring
00:10:33people over yet at the same time %HESITATION really fulfill a lot of their economic motivations for coming into the United States and you see after nineteen fifteen the number of Chinese restaurants of double and triple in some places so there's a significant growth in the restaurant industry as
00:10:51a result of this nineteen fifteen court case how did these Chinese restaurants function and how do we deal with ownership because it strikes me that if you're limited to one owner per restaurant that's still not that many people yes so I think what fascinating about %HESITATION immigration law
00:11:13or is just prohibitory law in in general is that when you sort of your force as a policy maker or somebody talks with them forcing certain such a loss you have to really sort of the findings in a very specific and maybe he short sighted way so what
00:11:31they didn't anticipate for instance the immigration officials interpreted this nineteen fifteen court case as entitling the manager out of a restaurant to purchase status so while there is only one manager per restaurant the Chinese were very clever in that what they did was they pull together the resources
00:11:51and opened restaurants as partnerships because oftentimes a restaurant is a pretty expensive business for one person to run but if you divide the amount of money it takes to open one you then share the burden so even though only one manager or one individual is allowed to have
00:12:07this special status they rotated amongst one another so that everybody was partnered in a restaurant eventually got a chance to circulate through this special loopholes so you know while it was limiting in some ways it gave everybody an opportunity if they were willing to wait a few years
00:12:25a chance to go back and forth can you tell me about who the people were in China who decided to emigrate where did they come from what were their lives like before they came on and then what was it like for them you know being part of the
00:12:40Chinese restaurants in the states yeah there were so Chinese migration even though the Chinese really can be found in almost any country in the world today up the their pattern of migration is very special and I think what most people don't realize is that most Chinese in United
00:13:03States before World War two came from a set of counties in Quebec province so they were really from a very localized area %HESITATION for them it was part of our family survival it was an area that had been particularly disrupted by the opium wars and a set of
00:13:23other policies are as result of the opium wars that made it hard for them to make a living they were displaced off the land but also had a high taxes that they have to pay so one of the strategies that they did was to send mail labor's out
00:13:42into the world and this happens for this area particularly when gold was discovered in North America and shortly thereafter in Australia so this part of China became used to standing there man away while the women and the children and the elderly stayed behind to look after the ancestral
00:14:03home can you tell me about a specific historical maybe still open I don't know you know Chinese restaurant that played a really big role in and an immigrant community and like how it's specifically functioned and affected the community it's an oh absolutely there is a very interesting man
00:14:22named Philip goon key and he was a interpreter in the nineteen fifteen court case that I mentioned earlier so he was happened to be deeply involved with a court case that allow the Chinese to have this special opportunity and his family coincidently owned a restaurant in Harlem called
00:14:43celestial restaurant and as a result of his knowledge of how this case work to end knowledge of how immigration policies were enforced he was able to set up a very successful immigration brokerage he helped the Chinese set up their businesses in a way that would be recognizable to
00:15:02immigration officials as legitimate business says he taught them at what point they should be applying for of the special status so he was really critical %HESITATION in teaching the Chinese in New York how to navigate a very intricate and delicate that work for them and he himself ended
00:15:23up both wealthy from his brokerage and as well as wealthy as a restaurateur he was involved in many restaurants in both Brooklyn and as well as %HESITATION in Manhattan not only can we measure this monetarily but he was also very generous to his community he helped a lot
00:15:38of people out works through some very difficult immigration challenges and he's still well known and well regarded stay what was the role of whites character witnesses in the whole visa situation art yes %HESITATION so that there was there was a distrust of Chinese witnesses %HESITATION in the immigration
00:16:02official just didn't know if they could trust Chinese witnesses to tell the truth in these immigration stories all you know you never know if they're telling you they were actually born here or if they actually own this business so they had a policy in this was actually a
00:16:16part of the law as well to accept our weaknesses but immigration officials attempted as only white witnesses because they are the only ones who would write really tell the truth so the Chinese found a way to find white when it says amongst their vendors so there was a
00:16:32special set of vendors to Chinese restaurants that you would see oftentimes testifying in helping the Chinese navigate the system grocers in particular electric Shands as well a delivery man would also appear in immigration records testifying that a Chinese restaurant owner was in fact the legitimate owner that he
00:16:54held this position for at least a year which was the minimum time requirement and as well as he was really the boss of the whole place so why character witnesses were there to lend authority to the claims of the Chinese opera can't to a special immigration status because
00:17:11the immigration officers were just deeply suspicious of whether the Chinese were really telling the truth so they require all kinds of proof and a white witness was seen as more reliable how hard of restaurants that are owned by members of your own community with this rotating ownership rotating
00:17:29management I'm a fact kind of the broader development of the Chinese immigrant community and the Chinese American community in the United States the impact on the community cuts both ways of first of all is that you had been an extra opportunity an opportunity in excess before nineteen fifty
00:17:47four more Chinese immigrants to come and supported the status allowed you just sponsor relatives and this was especially true of men sponsoring their son a next generation to help them out of business so it allow more Chinese to come into the United States and also to go out
00:18:04of the country and return to China and it also provided Chinese restaurants with very cheap labor one of the complaints that you hear over and over again from a labor unions in the twenties and the thirties is that Chinese restaurants don't pay very well and as a result
00:18:21they're able to offer food cheaply and I think this is a pattern that you see today still that Chinese restaurant our our offer food a lot of food for very little money and one of the ways to do that is to rely on family labor cheap family labor
00:18:35that in return comes to the consumer in the form of cheap food and that was one of the attractions of Chinese food to a non Chinese audience it was quick it was exciting and novel and it was cheap and widely available so this is part of the formula
00:18:52of Chinese restaurants success so without the ability to bring in more labors for family members to help you in your business and as well as to provide food cheaply I'm not sure that Chinese food would have been asked for base of as it is today and that has
00:19:08an impact on the families too because while there is a job they can come over they can immigrate to have employment the pay is low oh absolutely and you know as we have talked about this earlier is that not everybody I mean there is such thing as market
00:19:24saturation for any industry and the Chinese restaurant %HESITATION hit market saturation by the nineteen twenties right and the market saturation is just when there's so many Chinese restaurant that opening a new one there's just not enough business basically %HESITATION exactly exactly it's %HESITATION it's it's like the phenomenon
00:19:44of seeing a Starbucks across from a Starbucks you know which Starbucks you choose for while the roughly the same so you have the same thing happening with Chinese restaurants one on the block and another on another blog I what's it to to the consumer they're roughly the same
00:19:58and the Chinese actually were very clever they turned to %HESITATION organizations that help them mediate distances between when and where a restaurant could be located so that you know that they could divide up the the sales rep videos from the people who are interested in teaching eating at
00:20:18Chinese restaurants by neighborhood %HESITATION but you were interested in asking about the consequences for the family which is %HESITATION or the people who were brought in as cheap labor is the consequence to market saturation is that not everybody can fulfill his or her but primarily history of being
00:20:35a restaurant owner or a successful business owner so people within a family were seen as not being business stopping you or not being good with money or being a responsible to his family members back home were often times just not given the economic opportunity to open up his
00:20:53are owned his own restaurant they wouldn't help provided with the labor they would provide him with the capital they would provide him with the knowledge or even at the right legal right to open up his own restaurant so a part of the downside to work in a family
00:21:07business is that if you know your family doesn't see you as a good investment you oftentimes can't go to them for help in being your own independent business owner tell me about what you as someone who's watched the history of a Chinese Americans in the United States see
00:21:25as the really important strands of the past in that relationship as well as the new the new things two things I think is important to learn from this particular example I'm and one of them is for anybody encountering my work probably has eaten at a Chinese restaurant if
00:21:47not us your sheep probably eat other kinds of restaurants and to realize that restaurants are a space of labor not just a consumption and that especially of ethnic restaurants that there is a history a deep an important history of immigration that is connected to the place in which
00:22:08we eat that of food is not merely about pleasure and satisfaction or abused men but that people's lives both serving you and at the other end of a very long and probably trans national chain of connects you to remote regions of the world that we could not possibly
00:22:26imagine what we want walk into a restaurant so do you think about restaurants as part of a long corridor %HESITATION with multiple branches to many spaces is something that I hope people recognize from this history of Chinese restaurant that is also applicable to many kinds of immigrant businesses
00:22:46that we encounter on an everyday basis the second thing I want to know and that is tied more to two days %HESITATION conversation about how do we then protect America for Americans which is that a lot of our policies how important international consequences I'll be that that immigrants
00:23:14and their immigrant families on the other end or their consequences for our foreign relations %HESITATION the nation state no matter how powerful it is especially the United States does not exist in a vacuum and were always working in balance with interest that are both powerful and as well
00:23:34as very disempowered or from our perspective and that these forces are are working in conjunction with our every action so if we were to build a wall or if we were to deport people or if we were to %HESITATION said a new sort of standard that allows states
00:23:56to decide which immigrants they want to come in from various countries that there are real human lives on the other side of that and there are you real human political consequences with the nation state that we're engaging in that has real a fax to how we live our
00:24:14everyday lives we can't make decisions and pretend like there's no consequences for us and you know it's really hard for me to anticipate what of the specific consequences for maybe %HESITATION a more isolationist American position on these issues would be but I can imagine that for one your
00:24:34food is going to get more expensive to take out food you may not be able to afford your take out food and and many things that we are used to living used to making our lives more comfortable will simply be not possible and I think it's important to
00:24:48take those global and trans national connections into deep consideration not only what we eat Chinese restaurants but when we make policy implications that affect whether or not Chinese restaurants or to the various other kinds of trans national businesses can access going back what was the impact on China
00:25:08itself of all this immigration from China to the United States and what was the impact of the proliferation of Chinese restaurants on mainland China thank you for that question and I think it's surprising and will surprise most people don't know this how much how much the restaurant industry
00:25:37in the United States affected the small rule populations in southern China %HESITATION people working in the industry didn't just returned back to China to see their families every few years or %HESITATION of but they also brought back and sent back regularly significant amounts of money that was used
00:25:57to support the building of schools hospitals roads and as well as %HESITATION infrastructure other kinds of infrastructure development and but most importantly I think in terms of what is stunning visually is that a lot of people were very invested in the idea of building strong bater home so
00:26:20all over this area in southern China used CD is call four to five story concrete iron reinforced modern buildings that just looks so bizarre in a rule landscape that has generally much lower buildings made out of materials that are sourced domestically so these chop suey shape Chinese food
00:26:51help bring in different kinds of materials ideas about housing housing arrangement and architecture into out will parts of China and made very dramatic changes to how people live on as a result so this is one of I think the ways in which this cycle of people moving back
00:27:14and forth has unanticipated consequences for everybody professor Hatherley thanks for coming under jargon thank you so much it's been a wonderful experience and thank you all for listening no jargon is the podcast of the scholars strategy network you can find out more about us at scholars dot work
00:27:32and you can read more about professor heather Lees work on Chinese restaurants and a fascinating read she's got up at scholars that'll work slash no jargon the producer of a show sheer Rasco please let's hear and I know what we can do to make the show better up
00:27:50by sending us feedback at no jargon at scholars dot org by email or on Twitter at no drug beyond break for the holidays and we'll be back in the first week of twenty seventy either

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