Academic journal article Duke Law Journal

The War against Chinese Restaurants

Academic journal article Duke Law Journal

The War against Chinese Restaurants

Article excerpt


Chinese restaurants are a cultural fixture--as American as cherry pie. Startlingly, however, there was once a national movement to eliminate Chinese restaurants, using innovative legal methods to drive them out. Chinese restaurants were objectionable for two reasons. First, Chinese restaurants competed with "American" restaurants, thus threatening the livelihoods of white owners, cooks, and servers and motivating unions to fight them. Second, Chinese restaurants threatened white women, who were subject to seduction by Chinese men taking advantage of intrinsic female weakness and nefarious techniques such as opium addiction.

The efforts were creative. Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities denied Chinese restaurants licenses, and the New York Police Department simply ordered whites out of Chinatown. Perhaps the most interesting technique was a law, endorsed by the American Federation of Labor for adoption in all jurisdictions, prohibiting white women from working in Asian restaurants. Most measures failed or were struck down. The unions, of course, did not eliminate Chinese restaurants, but Asians still lost because unions achieved their more important goal by extending the federal immigration policy of excluding Chinese immigrants to all Asian immigrants. The campaign is of more than historical interest today. As current anti-immigration sentiments and efforts show, even now the idea that white Americans should have a privileged place in the economy, or that nonwhites are culturally incongruous, persists among some.



I.  Labor Unions and the Chinese Restaurant Threat
    A. Union Opposition to Chinese Restaurants
    B. Boycotts

II. Chinese Restaurants and the Law
    A. White Women's Morality and Chinese Restaurants
       1. The White Women's Labor Law
       2. Emergency Police Authority To Protect White Women
    B. Discrimination Against Chinese and Chinese
       1. Explicit Citizenship-Based Business and Employment
          License Discrimination
       2. Discriminatory Administrative Discretion To Deny
       3. Discriminatory Law Enforcement
       4. Prohibition of Private Booths

III. Victory and National Immigration Policy
     A. The End of the War
        B. Drawing Modern Parallels



This Article explores a lost chapter in the history of racial regulation in the United States. For roughly thirty years, in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, a national movement sought to use the law to eliminate Chinese restaurants from the United States. These efforts, described as a "war," (1) are largely unknown. (2)

Chinese restaurants were considered "a serious menace to society" for two reasons. (3) First, by employing Chinese workers and successfully competing with other restaurants, white union members claimed the restaurants denied "[their] own race a chance to live." (4) Second, Chinese restaurants were characterized as morally hazardous to white women. One observer noted that "[b]eer and noodles in Chinese joints have caused the downfall of countless American girls...." (5) Accordingly, Americans recognized "the necessity for stamping out" the "iniquitous Chinese Chop Suey joints...." (6)

The effort failed; "there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC restaurants combined." (7) But the campaign, unsuccessful in its nominal goal, helped propagate the idea that Chinese immigrants were morally and economically dangerous, and contributed to the passage of the Immigration Acts of 1917 (8) and 1924, (9) which almost completely eliminated Asian immigration to the United States.

The movement against Chinese restaurants was led by labor unions. Part I discusses the early important techniques of riot and boycott. …

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