To Have Your Chop Suey and Eat It Too: Chinese Restaurant Owners’ Battle for Immigration Privileges, 1897–1919

Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:50 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York)
Heather R. Lee, NYU Shanghai
In 1915, the U.S. Court of Appeals exonerated Lee Chee, a man facing deportation, and inadvertently created legal opportunities for Chinese immigrants in the restaurant industry. The case hinged on whether restaurant owners were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), which barred laborers but permitted the emigration of certain types of entrepreneurs. The judges ruled in favor of restaurant owners, incentivizing individuals who were constrained by Exclusion to entered food service. Chinese immigrants with small amounts of capital pooled resources, opening restaurants with as few as three and sometimes as many as a hundred co-investors. By investing aggressively in a once marginal segment of the ethnic economy, they made the restaurant industry the largest repository of Chinese financial and human resources in the United States. They used the legal privileges gained through restaurant ownership to travel internationally and to sponsor relatives’ emigration. Based on archival research and quantitative analysis of an original database, this paper underscores the opportunities that the Chinese fashioned in discriminatory laws—what I call “innovation at the margins.” Starting in 1897, they defended the privileges of restaurant owners in the face of shrinking immigration opportunities, challenging the decision of INS officials and organizing test cases of its policies in the courts. It was a long and frustrating battle that involved dozens of little-known immigrant actors, who made the law more accommodating for themselves and changed the way Americans ate in the twentieth century.