Magazine article Regulation

The 'War' against Chinese Restaurants: A Century Ago, Laws and Regulation Were Mustered to Ward off a Different Immigrant "Threat."

Magazine article Regulation

The 'War' against Chinese Restaurants: A Century Ago, Laws and Regulation Were Mustered to Ward off a Different Immigrant "Threat."

Article excerpt

For roughly 30 years, in the last decade of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, a national movement sought to use the law to eliminate Chinese restaurants from the United States. This "war," as it was then described, is a lost chapter in the history of U.S. racial regulation, with relevance to immigration policy today.

A century ago, Chinese restaurants were deemed "a serious menace to society" for two reasons. First, the restaurants employed Chinese workers and successfully competed with other restaurants, which prompted white unionists to claim the Chinese restaurants denied "our own race a chance to live." Second, Chinese restaurants supposedly were morally hazardous to white women; one observer noted that "beer and noodles in Chinese joints have caused the downfall of countless American girls." Accordingly, many Americans recognized "the necessity for stamping out" the "iniquitous Chinese Chop Suey joints."

Fortunately, the effort failed. Today there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC restaurants combined. But the "war," unsuccessful in its nominal goal, helped propagate the idea of Chinese as morally and economically dangerous people, and contributed to the passage of the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924, which almost completely eliminated Asian immigration to the United States.


For most of U.S. history, the nation's borders were open.

Although criminal conviction, disease, and certain other characteristics disqualified a prospective immigrant, until 1921 there were no numerical limitations on immigration.

However, this open-border policy did not apply to Asians. Political, moral, and economic considerations led to perception of a "Yellow Peril," the danger that untold numbers of racially dangerous Asians could immigrate and undermine America's basic character.

Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, suspending all immigration of skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers for 10 years. In 1892 the suspension was extended another 10 years by the Geary Act, and then was made permanent in 1902. That was not the end of discrimination against Asians. By 1902, Japanese and other Asian immigrants were migrating to the United States, and their racial assimilability and therefore their right to immigrate became public policy questions.

Chinese in the United States had limited opportunities for employment. Some jobs required licenses that were limited to U.S. citizens, a status immigrant Chinese could never achieve because of racial restrictions on naturalization. Even without law, social discrimination restricted employment opportunities. Accordingly, many Chinese were employed in services and small businesses such as restaurants and laundries.

Because many Americans liked Chinese food, the restaurant business seemed promising. The popularity of "chop suey" and other Americanized or American-Chinese dishes resulted in a boom in Chinese restaurants. Their numbers grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th century

Unions opposed Asian immigration in general and Chinese restaurants in particular. The Cooks' and Waiters' Union is an ancestor of the modern-day UNITE-HERE. Its members competed directly with Chinese restaurants and the union was a powerful force; by 1903, its membership exceeded 50,000. The union was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, which by 1914 claimed nearly two million members.

The unions strongly supported Chinese exclusion and expansion of the exclusion policy to all Asian races. A report in the Mixer and Server, the union publication, explained:

   View this matter from every angle, without heat or racial
   prejudice, and the fact stares us in the face that there is a
   conflict between the American wage-earner and the workers or
   employers from the Orient. … 
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