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In Pursuit of Merchant Status: The Migration Strategy of Early Twentieth Chinese Restaurant Owners under Chinese Exclusion

This post originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of The American Historian.


In 1921, dozens of investors celebrated the grand opening of Chin Lee’s Restaurant in New York. Located on the northern edge of the Times Square theatre district, their restaurant nourished youthful desires for frivolous fun.[1] Vaudeville line-ups, cabaret performers, and dance orchestras entertained diners, while they devoured chop suey and chow mein. “Eat, drink, and be merry!” proclaimed its menus, postcards, and matchbooks, which the owners had printed as souvenirs.[2] To the Chinese immigrants behind Chin Lee’s, their business venture was to be more than the average Chinese restaurant serving popular Chinese dishes, and more than the typical cabaret featuring crowd-pleasing acts, but a novel institution altogether. Their restaurant sought to defy expectations of either, by blurring the line between Chinese and American, as well as those between frugality and fashion, the domestic and foreign, the modern and traditional.

While the financiers must have believed in the vision, they could not have foreseen the unprecedented success of Chin Lee’s Restaurant. It not only became a household name, but also a place where patrons learned about Chinese culture. More importantly, it became a touchstone for the times. Movie directors would later include shots of the Broadway entrance, which featured an electrified marquee over a red arched doorway, in their films.[3] Chin Lee’s Restaurant would not only break the unspoken racial barrier that had kept Chinese immigrants out of the lucrative entertainment industry, but also change the template for doing business in Times Square. By eliminating the cover fee, it lured customers from Broadway venues with discounted entertainment, which competitors tried to attract back by adding chop suey to their menus.[4]

The investors in Chin Lee’s Restaurant also achieved something that Chinese immigrants had thought impossible not too long ago: the recognition of Chinese restaurant owners’ right to free and open travel. While it has been told before, it must be told here again—the Chinese had the dubious distinction of being the only group of people who were categorically denied this privilege because of their race. Chinese Exclusion, a series of federal immigration laws, worked in conjunction with treaties with China and agreements with international transportation companies to prevent Chinese laborers from immigrating. In practice, Chinese restaurant owners suffered the same indignities and difficulties as their less affluent countrymen.[5] However, the stewards of Chin Lee’s Restaurant were able to leverage the fame of their business to secure “merchant status,” a protected legal category under Chinese Exclusion.

“Merchant” was not a profession, or a class, or an industry to which restaurant owners naturally belonged, but an invention of American policymakers. Diplomats and legislators wanted China to be more open to the United States and the United States to be more open to China. They guaranteed the unencumbered movement of China’s business elite in the Angell Treaty of 1880, out of the belief that they served as handmaidens for friendly relations.[6] Thanks to this provision, Chinese businessmen who qualified for merchant status could make a living in the United States and have families, whom they could visit periodically, in China. During Chinese Exclusion, a sixty year period where immigration officials admitted a select subset of Chinese applicants, merchant status provided a vital means of re-entry to Chinese immigrants who were already in the United States.

In the twenty-eight years that Chin Lee’s Restaurant was in business, nearly two dozen investors procured merchant status. That meant that a key member of the management team went to China every year.[7] This surprisingly high statistic illuminates a little known facet about the history of early Chinese restaurants in the United States—that Chinese immigrants’ commercial activities were inseparable from their efforts to circumnavigate Chinese Exclusion. Chinese immigrants were not driven by financial gains alone, but also their plans to return to China at least every few years. Merchant status enabled them to leave with the peace of mind that they would almost certainly be allowed back in. Investing and working in the Chinese restaurant industry, which would become the largest employer of Chinese immigrants by mid-century, provided a strategy for confronting legal barriers to their physical mobility.[8]

When looking back in time at how immigrant kitchens, such as Chinese food, became part and parcel of American urban life, historians have emphasized the pleasures to consumers, what they gained from eating foods that were unorthodox in ingredients, cooking techniques, and flavor from what they ate at home.[9] However, there is still much to learn about what motivated immigrants to operate restaurants, cafés, delicatessens, and food carts that shifted incrementally from serving their own to mainly Americans. In the Chinese case, they took the prevailing immigration policy into consideration. Those with financial assets found Chinese restaurants to be an even more attractive investment, after an unexpected policy change made Chinese restaurant owners eligible for merchant status. The number of Chinese restaurants in New York grew quite dramatically as a result.[10] In 1898, the year a journalist surveyed Chinatown, there were only eleven eating establishments, while in 1918, when Police Commissioner Richard Enright reported on the number of licensed restaurants in Manhattan, there were 230—a twenty-fold increase.[11]

As hundreds of customers cycled through Chin Lee’s Restaurant, the partners were in their own cyclical process of leaving and returning. Among them was Chan Wah, a childless widower who moved from Providence, Rhode Island, to help run Chin Lee’s Restaurant. He had wanted to go back to China to remarry and, with luck, start a family. However, he delayed his trip when his cousin, the serial restaurateur Chin Lee, proposed opening a restaurant together. The cousins worked side-by-side. Chan Wah managed the large Chinese staff, while Chin Lee liaised with booking agents, performers, musicians, and suppliers. The division of labor worked well for the duo, who had profitably run a restaurant, also named Chin Lee’s, in downtown Providence. Chin Lee’s Restaurant in New York grossed over a hundred thousand dollars in monthly sales within five years of opening. Around this time, they decided to open a sister restaurant a block south of Times Square, called Chin’s.[12]

With Chin Lee’s Restaurant thriving, Chan Wah deemed it an opportune moment to leave others in charge, so that he could take his long belated trip home. Because he intended to return to New York with his new wife, Au Shee, he filed for a reentry permit. With hired help from Philip G. Kee, a former interpreter for the immigration service, Chan Wah completed the paperwork, paid the fee, submitted documentation, and appeared for two interviews with inspectors. He also provided the names of two witnesses, a produce dealer and a bank clerk who had been in business with Chin Lee’s Restaurant for many years. One by one, they met with members of the immigration bureau to vouch for Chan Wah. His cousin Chin Lee testified on his behalf too.[13]

This process, known as “pre-investigation,” gave Chan Wah an official decision on his merchant status application ahead of his departure.[14] The McCreary Act of 1893, the most important piece of legislation on merchant status, made it more difficult for Chinese business owners to qualify by raising the burden of proof and broadening the grounds for exclusion.[15] Thanks to pre-investigation, Chan Wah not only knew whether he would be admitted, but was only detained briefly at the border, comparatively speaking. Most applicants waited two to three weeks on Angel Island, the immigration station through which most Chinese immigrants entered the United States, for a decision. Chew Hoy Quong, the wife of a merchant, held the record for the longest detention at 600 nights.[16] In contrast, Chan Wah and his wife received approval a week after landing.[17]

There are many reasons why Chan Wah qualified. In addition to hiring professional help, he skillfully navigated the technicalities of a merchant status application, because he had already gone through pre-investigation in 1921, when he originally planned on returning to China.[18] Even more important was the local stature of Chin Lee’s Restaurant, as Inspector Timothy J. Molloy would later note on Chan Wah’s 1940 application, “The restaurant … is one of the largest and best known in the Times Square section of New York City.”[19] Normally immigration officers refrained from making personal endorsements. By appending this sentence at the end of his report, Molloy hoped to sway the final decision in Chan Wah’s favor. To him, the exceptional success of Chin Lee’s Restaurant made a difference in how immigration officials should judge Chan Wah’s application. His superior officer agreed, approving Chan Wah for merchant status for the second time in 1940.[20]

Chan Wah’s working relationships with vendors and suppliers were crucial as well. Since the McCreary Act required two “credible witnesses other than Chinese,” restaurant owners had to ask trusted individuals to do them special favors.[21] For both his 1926 and 1940 applications, Chan Wah chose William McCarren, a produce dealer who had been supplying Chin Lee’s Restaurant ever since it opened. Their companies worked together for over two decades, despite serious disagreements. Like a resilient friendship, the two sides stuck together through bad times.[22] Perhaps this aspect of their business dealings—the knowledge that McCarren would not abandon him lightly—convinced Chan Wah that he could count on McCarren for help with his merchant status application, an especially sensitive matter.

We will never know for certain why Chan Wah asked McCarren and why McCarren agreed to testify, though there are plenty of other clues for how Chinese Exclusion affected both their lives. Because the McCreary Act called upon witnesses to swear that applicants refrained from physical acts of labor, as that would make them excluded laborers under Chinese Exclusion, immigration officers insisted that witnesses have good reason to have observed applicants at the restaurant. McCarren gave date nights “with the Mrs.” as the occasions for having seen Chan Wah “acting as manager.” Another witness, a handyman, claimed he got orders for odd jobs at least twice a week, rather often for a piece of expensive rental property.[23] Clearly, the witnesses were exaggerating or had contrived reasons to visit Chin Lee’s Restaurant.

The explicit and implicit expectations of the McCreary Act affected who Chinese restaurant owners asked to testify. Well-prepared applicants knew that inspectors would ask their witnesses where they were stationed, how they dressed, and their duties at the restaurant for the past year. Food provisioners made up a third of the witnesses, because they had opportunities to observe the internal workings of Chinese restaurants and the applicants’ role within them.[24] Butchers, grocers, and produce dealers took weekly orders and delivered those items. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, printers, landlords, and insurance agents who came to the restaurant regularly also testified in merchant status applications. The broad spectrum of professions show that Chinese restaurants were far more integrated in the economic fabric of New York than most types of Chinese businesses.

However, Chinese restaurant owners considered their relationship to witnesses’ businesses to be categorically different from their general business relationships. The McCreary Act required that applicants know their witnesses for a minimum of one year. Chinese restaurant owners could have approached their relationships with suppliers opportunistically, by promising one year of business in exchange for professional testimonials, as immigration officials often accused.[25] Yet the longer Chinese restaurant owners had been purchasing from specific vendors, the more likely they were to ask employees of that firm to appear as witnesses. Nearly all witnesses met the minimum legal requirement of having known applicants for one year. More impressively, their professional histories traced back five years on average. Twelve percent had even known their suppliers for over a decade.[26] Striving for merchant status entangled the American friends of Chinese restaurant owners in the knotted web of Exclusion.

These statistics come from the Chinese Restaurant Database, an original database constructed from the Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files at the National Archives and Records Administration in New York. I designed the database to connect two halves of Chinese American history: the multitude of Chinese restaurants and their owners’ experiences with Chinese Exclusion. It captures through data what it was like to invest, operate, and work in Chinese restaurants, as well as the dealings that business partners had with one another and their suppliers. It also describes through data how restaurant owners and employees coped with Chinese Exclusion, how they immigrated, and the ways they maximized opportunities in U.S. immigration policies to stay connected with the people and places in China that were most dear to them. Neither Chinese business nor immigration data has been compiled so comprehensively before.[27]

I take the space here to dwell on the possibilities and opportunities in telling Chinese American history through data. Because the largest archives are administrative documents relating to Chinese Exclusion, the strivings of Chinese immigrant men lie buried, as experiences filtered through the perspectives of white professional men. By distilling, collecting, and aggregating individual acts of survival through data, the Chinese Restaurant Database reveals a causal relationship between businesses and immigration that would have been invisible when looking at one or even a few dozen files.[28] From these patterns, it is possible to see how Chinese immigrants’ aspirations were channeled into spaces of legalism, where they had to justify themselves according to legal categories like “merchant status.” Since the Chinese appear in the archive as problems for white America, historians must peel away the anti-Chinese racism that obscures our view of their motivations. The Chinese perspective, in other words, can be recovered from a government record keeping system that was designed to track and control them.

Historians have documented the many ways Chinese immigrants challenged Chinese Exclusion through evasion. They made false claims, purchased papers, used coaching books, or snuck across the loosely guarded land border with the help of paid guides.[29] In addition to these illicit entries were the ones that happened in broad daylight with authentic documents, as Chan Wah was able to do. After he returned to New York, he and his wife started a family. In 1936, Au Shee decided to relocate to China with their four American-born children, though she still filed for a reentry permit as the wife of a merchant. The couple probably determined it would be better to raise their children in China, where they could receive a Chinese education, Au Shee would have the support of relatives, and the cost of living would be lower—a major reason for leaving New York during the Great Depression. Four years later, Chan Wah followed her back to China, taking the same precautions of getting merchant status before leaving.[30]

The immigration files of Chan Wah illuminate the knotted relationship between Chinese immigration and business practices. By following the procedural checklist outlined in the McCreary Act of 1893, he laid claim to merchant status for himself and family members (Chan Wah could have also passed on merchant status to Chinese-born children, if he had had any). What lies behind the accepted understanding of Chinese restaurants’ ascent as a story of culinary innovation is a lesser-known pattern of the Chinese confronting Anti-Chinese immigration laws. Chan Wah’s method for gaining merchant status was a constrained but important expression of immigrant power. As men on the legal margins of American society, prevented from integrating yet compelled by Chinese Exclusion to remain, they invested in Chinese restaurants for merchant reentry permits. This sophisticated method for traveling across the Pacific accounts for, among other things, the Chinese restaurant industry’s rapid growth in the early twentieth century.

Heather Ruth Lee is an assistant professor of history at NYU Shanghai, where she teaches and researches on the movement of people and capital from Asia to North America. She founded the “Humanities Research Lab,” an interdisciplinary research team leveraging the computational sciences to aggregate data on Asian immigration and economic mobility in urban America. Her forthcoming book, “Gastrodiplomacy: Chinese Exclusion and the Ascent of Chinese Restaurants in New York” (under contract at University of Chicago Press), uses the history of race making to explain the prevalence of Chinese restaurants. For a discussion of her dissertation research that informed this book, see Heather Ruth Lee’s interview with Process.


[1] Chan Wah interview, April 23, 1940, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, RG 85 (National Archives, Northeast Region, New York, N.Y.). Chin Lee’s Restaurant was opened as a business partnership with approximately 50 investors. For information on partnership, see Chan Wah interview, Oct. 7, Oct. 14, 1926, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.)

[2] “Vaudeville Notes,” Billboard, Jan. 13, 1923; “Chinese Opposition,” Variety, April 7, 1926; Chin Lee’s Restaurant menu, ca. 1930, 13-11-4, Menus from the United States, Harley J. Spiller Collection (University of Toronto Scarborough Library, Archives & Special Collections); Chin Lee’s Restaurant postcards and matchbook, private collection of author.

[3] Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (1998), 8–9; Chin Lee’s postcard, private collection of author.

[4] “Chinks May Take over Nite Life,” Variety, Oct. 3, 1928. For an example of cabarets serving Chinese dishes, see Cotton Club Menu, ca. 1932, folder 1, box S156, Dining Menu Collection, (New York Historical Society); Cotton Club Menu, 1936, 43-2-5, Menus from the United States, Harley J. Spiller Collection.

[5] On exclusion of Chinese business owners, see Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943 (2003), 87–92. For restaurant owners specifically, see ibid., 91.

[6] Article II of the Angell Treaty of 1880, also known as the Treaty Regulating Immigration from China, identified four specific groups that would permanently enjoy immigration rights: merchant, teacher, student, and tourist. These people could “go and come of their own free will and accord” and with all the “rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions” afforded subjects of a “favored nation.” “Angell Treaty of 1880,” in William M. Malloy, comp., Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols, and Agreements between the United States of America and Other Powers (2 vols., 1910), I, 237–39. For scholarship that places Chinese Exclusion in the context of U.S. foreign relations, see Gordon H. Chang, “China and the Pursuit of America’s Destiny: Nineteenth-Century Imagining and Why Immigration Restriction Took So Long,” Journal of Asian American Studies,15 (2012), 145–69; and Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (2018), 169–93.

[7] The Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files for many partners of Chin Lee’s Restaurant have been lost. I, therefore, used a method known as “imputation” to cross-apply data from Chin’s Restaurant, also operated by Chin Lee Company, Incorporated, to estimate the frequency of returns for the partners of Chin Lee’s Restaurant. Chin Lee’s and Chin’s Restaurants were nearly identical on the business side, like capitalization, number of investors, and manager-to-employee ratio. My estimate tracks with what is known about Chin Lee’s Restaurant. Chan Wah’s immigration records, for example, mentions five former partners that I cannot locate using the Chinese Exclusion Act Case File Index for New York.

[8] Susan B. Carter, “Embracing Isolation: Discrimination, Entrepreneurship, and Chinese Geographic Distribution, 1882–1943” (2013), 47, https://eml.berkeley.edu/~webfac/eichengreen/Carter.pdf.

[9] Donna R. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (1998); Andrew P. Haley, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880–1920 (2011); Cindy R. Lobel, Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (2014).

[10] Heather R. Lee, “The Untold Story of Chinese Restaurants in America,” Scholars Strategy Network (2015), https://scholars.org/brief/untold-story-chinese-restaurants-america.

[11] Louis Joseph Beck, New York’s Chinatown: An Historical Presentation of its People and Places (1898), 49, 52; Report of Police Commissioner Enright, Feb. 25, 1918, file 9, box 81, U.S. Food Administration Records (Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, Calif).

[12] Chan Wah interview, April 23, 1940; Chin Lee interview, Oct. 14, 1926, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.); Chan Wah and Chin Lee interview, May 21, 1921, Case File 2500/3696, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, RG 85 (National Archives, Northeast Region, Boston, Mass.); “New Broadway Eatery,” Billboard, April 10, 1926.

[13] Chan Wah interview, Oct. 7, 14, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.); Chin Lee interview, Oct. 14, ibid.; Howard A. Frost interview, Oct. 29, ibid.; William McCarren interview, Nov. 1, ibid.; Albert A. Collins to Inspector in Charge, New York, N.Y., Nov. 4, 1926, ibid.; Report by Herbert H. Grant on Philip Goon and Moy Shee Kee, June 20, 1961, Case File 56/994, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.).

[14] For a detailed explanation of pre-investigation for different legal statuses, see Wen-hsien Chen, “Chinese Under Both Exclusion and Immigration Laws” (Ph.D. diss., 1940), 98, 110–15.

[15] Lee, At America’s Gates, 52–53, 90–91.

[16] Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (2010), 70, 81.

[17] Assistant Commissioner John L. Zurbrick to Commissioner of Immigration, Ellis Island, N.Y., July 27, 1927, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.); Albert A. Collins to Inspector in Charge, Ellis Island, N.Y., July 15, 1927, ibid.

[18] Chan Wah interview, Oct. 7, 1926, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.).

[19] Timothy J. Molloy to Inspector in Charge, Ellis Island, N.Y., April 25, 1940, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.).

[20] Byron H. Uhl to Harry R. Sisson, May 3, 1940, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.).

[21] Section 2 of “Act of Nov. 3, 1893 (McCreary Act),” 28 Stat. 7 § Ch. 14 (1893).

[22] McCarren interview, Nov. 1, 1926, April 23, 1940, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.).

[23] McCarren interview, Nov. 1, 1926, Case File 110/288, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.); Samuel F. Mead interview, April 23, 1940, ibid.

[24] 114 of 312 witnesses with 2 witnesses MRC cases (=36.5%) or 193 out of 526 total witnesses broadly defined (=36.9%). Figures will be recalculated at different stages of data cleaning. Chinese Restaurant Database: Long Version, cleaned April 12, 2022.

[25] Lee, At America’s Gates, 137.

[26] 313 witnesses volunteered information on how long they knew witnesses. 307 (=98.0%) of them stated they knew applicants for at least a year, among whom 38 (=12.1%) for ten or more years. Calculations based on witness 1 and witness 2 response only. Chinese Restaurant Database: Long Version.

[27] There are two versions of the Chinese Restaurant Database, one long and one short. The “long version” covers three types of information: demographic details about applicants (32 data points); business statistics about Chinese restaurants (36 data points); and the migration history of applicants (56 data points). The “short version” captures 27 data points on Chinese restaurant owners seeking merchant status. The databases will be made publicly accessible in tandem with the publication of my forthcoming book manuscript, Heather R. Lee, Gastrodiplomacy: Chinese Exclusion and the Ascent of Chinese Restaurants in New York City, 1870-1943. For additional information and updates on the Chinese Restaurant Database, visit www.eatingglobally.com.

[28] For a visual story based on the Chinese Restaurant Database, see Heather R. Lee, Hong Deng Gao, and Sarah Tahir, “The Chinese Restaurant Boom: A Data Driven Story of America’s First Ethnic Restaurant Industry,” https://www.eatingglobally.com/story/.

[29] Lee, At America’s Gates, ch. 5 and 6; Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go, 53–88; Brianna Nofil, “Policing, Profits, and the Rise of Immigration Detention in New York’s ‘Chinese Jails,’” Law and History Review, 39 (2021), 649–77.

[30] Marks Rosen to Inspector in Charge, New York, June 5, 1936, Case File 169/138, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files (N.Y.); Timothy J. Molloy to Inspector in Charge, Ellis Island, N.Y., April 25, 1940, Case File 110/288, ibid. For Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans returning to China during the Great Depression, see Charlotte Brooks, American Exodus: Second-Generation Chinese Americans in China, 1901–1949 (2019), 115–17, 121–24.

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