By Minnie Roh
Reporter for Asian American Life
In any corner of any town in America, you can always find at least one Chinese restaurant. But have you ever wondered why there are so many Chinese restaurants in the United States? Ironically, the very law that was formed to curtail Chinese immigration to the U.S. may have actually contributed to the proliferation – due to a key “loophole.”
During the 1880’s the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed as a result of anti-Chinese sentiment following a depression in this country. Immigration was banned for Chinese laborers, restaurant owners fell under this category. Only non laborers were allowed into the country, which included merchants, teachers, students and tourists. In 1915, a New York court case ruled that Chinese restaurants could be classified as merchants and suddenly, the Chinese had a way to enter the country.
“They formed restaurants as partnerships and they would take different duties,” said Heather Lee, an MIT historian. “One would be the accountant, cook, manager. Family and friends would make up the rest. That would allow each person each year to go back home.”
The flamboyant culture of the roaring twenties and thirties when dining out was all the rage in big cities also fueled the fire. Couple that with the affordability of the so-called “chop suey palaces” and the Chinese restaurant boom was born.
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RE: Why there are so many Chinese restaurants in the U.S.: As a person who has researched, written and spoken extensively on the subject of the Chinese disaspora for over three decades now, I cringe when seeing the further myth-making of our historical experiences from misinformation, or more accurately, limitation of information.
It is misleading to attribute the growth of Chinese restaurants to the reasoning given in this story and subject, if not for the obvious fact that the Chinese in North America contributed to several industries (aside from the stereotypes of constructing our railroads and managing our restaurants). Those industries included mining, fisheries, laundries, among many others.
It is true that “merchants” were part of an exceptional class which the American government of the day established earlier on in legislation. In fact and in law, this was done by legislators in North America on the pretext (and presumption) that any undesirable immigrants such as the Chinese would eventually *return* to China since they held only “transitional” occupations (the other allowed-occupations in law were left for “diplomats, the clergy, and students”).
If entry to the U.S. were the primary issue, Chinese immigrants would sooner have had an easier time declaring themselves as ‘students’ than as merchants (as was the case in some instances here in Canada).
The growth of small entrepreneurial business in the Chinese communities (not just restaurants, but, for example, rural stores on the prairies) were largely influenced — as the subject in the story alludes herself — on economical survival given the exclusionary bars that prevented Chinese on both sides of the border from entering professions (and becoming lawyers, doctors, nurses, accountants, etc.).
Canada, a country which was continually pressured by the U.S. to bar Chinese immigration, outright, for fear of illegals entering across the border — but could not (since it was part of the Commonwealth and required by the opium trade treaties to allow a free flow of immigration between China and The British Empire) — eventually “borrowed” the U.S. laws, verbatim, re-enforcing its own regime of codified racism against Canada’s Chinese. However, rather than being barred outright from immigrating to Canada, those who did not fall in the special transitory class (“merchants, diplomats, clergy, students”) were forced to pay an extortionate sum, or “Chinese Head Tax”. The term was a misnomer since the monies went into a consolidated revenue fund which Chinese Canadians did not benefit from, since they were later disenfranchised (they had the right to vote, originally, but then had it taken away).
Would just suggest the the subject and journalist go back to the microfiche legislation and memoranda and they will see the broader picture rather than a segment of history before jumping to conclusions. Not much of a smoking gun.