Chinese Restaurant Database

There are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than the number of Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s chains. Historically speaking, the Chinese restaurant industry took off in the early twentieth century, at a time when U.S. immigration laws barred most Chinese from legally entering the country. If the Chinese were not legally allowed into the country, how were they opening so many restaurants?

It turns out that the Chinese established restaurant to enter the United States through a legal loophole. The Chinese Exclusion Acts, which were in effect between 1882 and 1943, prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating. It permitted, however, the legal entry of Chinese businessmen. In 1915, a New York federal appeals court ruled that Chinese restaurant owners were businessmen and entitled to special immigration privileges. Thereafter, the Chinese formed a flurry of restaurants that qualified its primary investors for this status. This a migration-oriented business model facilitate movement between China and the United States.

The Chinese Restaurant Database helps us understand responses of immigrants to legal adversity. Created from immigration files of Chinese immigrants, the original database contains granular data on the formation and operation of Chinese restaurant, in combination with the immigration patterns of people involved. Professor Heather R. Lee launched this historical data-gathering project in 2011 to provide a publicly assessible data source on immigrant business formation. This website a preview of the work and results to date.