Today there are more Chinese restaurants than the combined total of McDonald’s, Burger King’s, Wendy’s and KFC chains. This talk tells the story of Chinese restaurants in the United States through immigration and labor history. The industry emerged directly from Chinese Exclusion (1882-1943), a body of U.S. immigration laws barring new migrants and preventing those already in the country from naturalizing. In circumventing immigration laws, the Chinese developed a system of orbiting capital and labor. This is a story of the resilience of racialized working-class immigrants who managed to become taste makers despite the weight of state-sanctioned oppression on them. But it also is one that shows how underpaid, overworked, workers made it possible for American across the United States to enjoy Chinese food cheaply.
Heather Ruth Lee is an Assistant Professor of History, NYU Shanghai; Global Network Assistant Professor, NYU.
Sponsored by the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.