How is it possible that there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than all McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC locations combined? Even more surprising, Chinese food became popular in the late nineteenth century, when anti-Chinese racism was rampant and U.S. imimgration laws barred most Chinese from immigrating.
This visual narrative unravels the paradoxical rise of Chinese restaurants. Led by Professor Heather Ruth Lee at NYU Shanghai, dozens of student researchers have culled information from government records about Chinese restaurants. A team of student animators have created this interactive representation based on this data.
The story begins at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment. During the 1870s, the U.S. economy slid into a long depression, causing businesses to let go of employees and lower wages. On July 23, 1877, thousands of frustrated white workingmen gathered in front of San Francisco’s City hall. They resented that manufacturing and railroad companies employed large numbers of Chinese laborers, when thousands of them struggled to make ends meet. For two nights, demonstrators rampaged through Chinatown and attacked corporations associated with Chinese immigrants.
A political movement for protecting the economic interests of white men had taken shape. In California, the Workingmen's Party drove changes to the state constitution that banned Chinese workers. At the national level, the Greenback Party pushed Congress to prevent more Chinese wage workers from coming to the United States. The Republican and Democratic Parties also incorporated anti-Chinese policy into their national agendas.
On May 6, 1882, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first race-based immigration law in the United States. It prevented all Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens and prohibited Chinese laborers from coming to the United States.
Those already here were not allowed back if they left, which created a problem for Chinese immigrants. They were overwhelmingly working-aged men, who used their earnings in the United States to support family members in China. The Chinese Exclusion Act forced them to make an impossible decision: choose between being with their families or providing for them.
U.S. policymakers wanted to encourage Chinese business owners to immigrate, so they added a special clause in the Chinese Exclusion Act called “merchant status.” For Chinese wage workers, having merchant status would solve their dilemma. They could visit their families in China or bring them to the United States.
After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became law, the Chinese began opening restaurants in New York. New Yorkers fell in love with “chop suey,” a dish of stir-fried meat, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and mung bean sprouts in a thick soy sauce gravy. Couples went on “chop suey” dates. Tourists went to Chinatown for authentic Chinese food experiences. American restaurants added popular Chinese dishes to their menus. A sign that Chinese food had become an integral part of American culture, Chinese restaurants served as settings in film, fiction, and plays.
Soon hundreds of Chinese restaurants were serving chop suey. While Americans believed that Chinese immigrants in the United States had invented chop suey, the dish actually originated in China. In Chinese, “chop suey” means different pieces and was a common phrase for entrails and giblets. The majority of Chinese immigrants came from poor agricultural communities, where every part of butchered animals was consumed.
Immigration officials denied merchant status to Chinese restaurant owners, because of a legal decision from 1893. A district judge in Seattle had ruled that Chinese restaurants were not proper businesses, as defined under the Chinese Exclusion Act. New York’s Chinese restaurant owners objected to this ruling. Their businesses sold tens of millions of dollars in food and purchased goods and services from American companies. They pressed their case in court until a New York judge overturned the earlier precedent, making it possible for restaurant owners to apply for merchant status.
Chinese laborers devised creative ways of qualifying for merchant status. A new Chinese restaurant required at least $20,000 in startup capital, about $250,000 today. Since banks refused them loans and very few Chinese had that much saved, Chinese immigrants worked out a strategy of pooling assets. On average, four individuals would contribute equal amounts of money and sell shares to friends and relatives to pay for rent, furnishings, equipment, and supplies. The four partners shared responsibilities: one cooked, another waited on tables, someone else worked the register, and the other person purchased supplies.
With so many Chinese restaurants opening, New York immigration officials became concerned that Chinese Exclusion would become meaningless. To make merchant status more difficult to obtain, they arbitrarily decided that the partner making purchases was the “real owner” and that only he could apply for merchant status. In the immigration interview, applicants answered detailed questions about the restaurant’s finances, which had to be corroborated by two white witnesses. Oftentimes, vendors, like grocers or butchers, helped their Chinese clients. The application process took about a month, although it was drawn out should officials require additional proof.
Those who passed took extended trips to China. They departed from New York by rail or sea for the West Coast, where they would travel by steamship to Hong Kong. From there, they continued by boat, rail, and foot to rural villages in southern China. While steamship travel was quick, the complicated itinerary—especially the final leg—meant that these men spent months in transit.
Chinese families had adapted to being separated for years. While in the United States, restaurant owners sent earnings to support daily expenses and, when possible, to invest in property. Their wives, meanwhile, managed the household by raising children, caring for his parents, and tending to crops and livestock.
During the much anticipated reunions, families not only celebrated but also made plans for being apart again for long periods of time. For the Chinese, the spiritual and economic future rested on having children to carry on their name. Couples hoped for more children. Men who were single got married and immediately tried for children.
Restaurant owners often returned to the United States with teenage sons, since they could contribute financially. Leaving other family members behind in China, where expenses were low, made practical sense. Chinese restaurants were intergenerational and transnational projects, because teenage sons could share the financial burden that their fathers carried.
In the early twentieth century, Chinese restaurants served exotic foods at low costs to urban consumers in the United States. The experience captivated a generation of Americans, who had been raised on meat and potatoes, and propelled the flavors of the Chinese—a numerically, economically and politically marginalized group of immigrants—into the mainstream. At the same time, Chinese immigrants dared to assert themselves through food, carving out a place for themselves not only in the culinary landscape of American cities, but also in the economic and social tapestry of American society. This was a remarkable feat, given the racism they faced. While Chinese Exclusion prevented them from integrating, they made Chinese restaurants into a vehicle of mobility.
Cite this Digital Story: Heather R. Lee, Hong Deng Gao, and Sarah Tahir. “The Chinese Restaurant Boom: A Data-Driven History of America’s First Ethnic Restaurant Industry.” March 1, 2022. https://www.eatingglobally.com/the-story/
Heather Ruth Lee, Principle Investigator and Creator
Hong Deng Gao, Project Manager
Lucy Boltz, Lead Research Assistant
Yuchen Ye, Research Assistant Coordinator
Sarah Tahir, Lead Animator
Marina Pascual-Izquierdo, Animator
Masha Goltsova-Lanoue, Animation Consultant
Roger Lanoue, Jr., Animation Consultant
Trevor Fraley, Illustrator
Chrissie Bonner, Visual Consultant
Daniel (Zhebin) Huang
Fiona (Tianjin) Zhang
Liam Han Shaw
Sharon (Shaoyu) Zhang
Victoria (Wanning) Fu
Tian Tian Wedgewood