The Little-Known History of Chinese Restaurants

When my family immigrated to the U.S., almost all of my uncles’ and aunts’ first jobs were in the restaurant industry. I never thought about why. As a kid growing up in New York City’s Chinatown, all of my friends’ parents also worked in a restaurant, and it seemed to make sense. It’s not like there were a lot of jobs available when you didn’t know English.

However, now that I’m older, I’ve started questioning my surroundings, like, why are there so many Chinese restaurants? As of 2007, the magazine Chinese Restaurant News estimates that there are nearly 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States— three times the number of McDonald’s franchise units.

However, little did I realize that the reason why there are so many Chinese restaurants is rooted in America’s racist history. In the mid-19th century, anti-Chinese sentiment, referred to as the “Yellow Peril,” was really strong. The racist ideology of the Yellow Peril is a “core imagery of apes, lesser men, primitives, children, madmen, and beings who possessed special powers.”

Little did I realize that the reason why there are so many Chinese restaurants is rooted in America’s racist history.

In 1882 this fear was codified into law with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which explicitly barred laborers from immigrating or becoming U.S. citizens. At the time, most Chinese people in the U.S. were considered laborers, working in mines, on railroads or as cooks or waiters in restaurants. With this Act, only merchants—such as business owners—were allowed to immigrate. So in order to be classified as merchants, Chinese immigrants would pool their money so that one person could become a restaurant owner. Then they would rotate status every year in order to bring their families to the U.S. Between 1910 and 1920 the number of Chinese restaurants in New York City nearly quadrupled, and then more than doubled again over the next 10 years.

As I look back and reflect on my people’s history in the United States, I see that Chinese restaurants represent more than food. It’s a complex industry created out of necessity to support the Chinese community in the face of America’s racist policies. So for Asian Pacific American Heritage month, I wanted to share a portion of my culture’s history. We need to be able to support each other to lift up our voices and share how our struggles are rooted in white supremacy culture.

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