U.S. Immigration & the History Behind Chinese Restaurants in America08 Mar 2016
Beginning in the 19th century, over 300,000 Chinese immigrants, most of them men, came to the United States in search of work to support their families back home. They toiled in mines, factories, and on farms, enduring backbreaking labor and dangerous conditions. Many of them helped construct the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, which revolutionized our economy and made coast-to-coast travel widely accessible for the first time in our nation’s history. But these immigrants fell victim to the fear and anti-immigration sentiment that was rampant during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Laws were passed that explicitly forbade most Chinese immigrants from entering the United States or attaining citizenship, and even legal Chinese residents encountered difficulty when they tried to reenter America after visiting their native country. Faced with a culture of fear that threatened their ability to build a life in this country, Chinese immigrants had to rely on hard work, ingenuity, and resourcefulness to achieve their dreams – and as a result they changed the very fabric of our nation in a surprising way.
In 1915, a federal court mandated that some Chinese business owners could bypass strict immigration laws by qualifying for merchant visas that would allow them to travel to China and bring employees back with them to the United States. Among the short list of businesses that qualified for these merchant visas were restaurants. Almost immediately, the number of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. skyrocketed. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) legal historian Heather Lee explained in an interview with NPR, “The number of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. doubles from 1910 to 1920, and doubles again from 1920 to 1930.” According to Lee, the rationale behind the exponential increase in Chinese restaurants during that time is simple – after decades of being relegated to grueling labor for low wages, Chinese immigrants jumped at the opportunity to own their own business, financially support themselves and their families, and build a bridge between their life in America and their loved ones back in China. “It was really important for [these men] to be able to move back and forth, to get married and retire someday,” said Lee. “That was the idea. These special visas were critically important.” [See Lo Mein Loophole – How U.S. Immigration Law Fueled a Chinese Restaurant Boom, by Maria Godoy, NPR, 22.Feb.2016.]
Obtaining the special merchant visas was a challenge unto itself. Restaurants had to be considered “high grade,” fine dining establishments to qualify for the visa, and investors had to commit to a year of full-time management. Only then would they be considered eligible for merchant status, and the coveted visa that came with it. But resourceful immigrants would often pool their money into a restaurant along with other investors, and each investor would take turns managing the restaurant for the mandatory one-year period. Once the investor’s managerial period was complete and they had attained merchant visa status, they would travel to China and bring back their relatives to work in the restaurant as waiters, cooks, or busboys. As Lee explained, “Your cousin, your uncle has helped you over and is giving you a job. He’s supposed to show you the ropes. Then you move up the hierarchy until you earn the money to be a partner in your own restaurant.” Chinese investors also took advantage of a stipulation that required two white witnesses to support their merchant visa applications. By hiring white vendors to supply their restaurants with food, equipment, and other supplies, the investors secured the sponsorship of the vendors when it came time to submit their visa applications. Lee discovered this to be a very effective strategy while she was researching old New York City immigration documents and “found the same six vendors names over and over again.”
Today, over 40,000 Chinese restaurants are operating in the United States, with hundreds of new restaurants opening every year. And while it’s easy to view the proliferation of Chinese restaurants over the past century as a testament to cultural fusion, the reality is far more complicated. Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century had to grapple for a place in our culture amidst racism, fear, and xenophobia, even after they toiled to help our nation reach greatness. Restaurant ownership finally gave them the chance to achieve the American dream after years of enduring anti-immigration legislation. This complex side of our nation’s history with immigrants may be easy to forget as we indulge our cravings at the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. But we owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to remember their struggle.
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