Process Blog Home

Heather Lee on the History of Chinese Restaurants in America

Heather LeeHeather Lee is Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received a Ph.D. in American Studies in 2013 and an M.A. in Public Humanities in 2009 from Brown University. Her dissertation was entitled “Entrepreneurs in the Age of Chinese Exclusion: Transnational Capital, Migrant Labor, and Chinese Restaurants in New York City, 1850-1943.”

What drew your attention to this topic? What current issues inspired you to focus on this particular area of history?

Today, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than the combined total of Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s restaurants. My dissertation, “Entrepreneurs in the Age of Chinese Exclusion,” tells the story of Chinese restaurants transforming from an ethnic enclave business into one of the largest mass-consumer industries in the United States. I found this transformation both puzzling and intriguing because Chinese food became popular among Americans during an era of pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment. Not only did people deeply resent Chinese immigrants, many people also suspected them of eating exotic meats, like the flesh of cats, dogs, and rats. So why did anyone dare try Chinese food, let alone enjoy it? I stumbled upon this culinary conundrum while researching my master’s thesis, and it was a question that I couldn’t let go of. Their ubiquity today, in my eyes, demands an explanation, and so I returned to graduate school after a three-year hiatus to unravel the conundrum of Chinese food’s culinary ascent. I was also confident that this research would provide insight into Chinese businesses and labor market. For me, then, this topic allowed me to explain historically significant changes in U.S. consumption patterns and immigrant economic opportunities.

Through a case study of Chinese restaurant entrepreneurs and workers in New York City, my dissertation demonstrates that migration and business opportunities became interlocked historically after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. While it barred the entry of Chinese laborers, this Chinese Exclusion Act unintentionally incentivized the formation of ethnic businesses through a system of visa preferences. The Chinese stretched the meaning of visa categories to circumnavigate restrictive immigration laws, and shepherded transpacific capital past America’s gatekeepers. This dissertation demonstrates how immigration law offers a new prism for understanding capital accumulation amongst immigrants and its relationship to the development of a consumer republic.ChinLeeRestaurant Linen Harry Bauman

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic to begin to explore it?

I entered graduate school committed to writing a history of Chinese restaurants in the United States, and used my first few years in the doctoral program to explore potential sources available for this project. In the early stages of the project, I found those opportunities by organizing public programming, like lectures and exhibitions. I completed my degree in American Studies at Brown University, where I had the unique opportunity to complete a master’s degree in Public Humanities, a practical and theoretical training in how to make the humanities meaningful and accessible to the public.

I went into this experience committed to the importance of translating academic research for public audiences. What I didn’t anticipate was how this experience would shape the way I gathered sources for academic research. As part of the program, I worked on museum exhibitions that relied on community members for information and materials. I trained in this method at the Wing Luke Asian Museum (Seattle, WA), where I completed a summer internship, and applied this approach to several exhibits that I worked on in Boston, New York, Providence, and Washington, DC. In all these experiences, I was amazed by the extent of materials in private hands, and the generosity of private collectors in sharing their beloved collections. As I started the research process, I was attuned to the potential benefit of using exhibition methods in accessing materials of Chinese restaurant families, which I found through public records. For the most part, people were happy with my interest and eager to share what was, often times, collecting dust in their basements.

What particular sources proved most useful in your work?

As with any social history project, the major obstacle was finding sources to tell a textured and nuanced story of largely anonymous individuals—in my case, Chinese restaurant owners, workers, and patrons. In contrast to the abundance of Chinese restaurants in the United States, there is a dearth of records that would allow historians to describe Chinese restaurants’ inner workings. The most readily available records are popular writings (published in periodicals and city guides), and they focus primarily on the food and décor, and sometimes also provide light commentary on the customers and staff.

For my dissertation, I wanted to understand the social world of the restaurant, and for that I had to cull information from less obvious sources. In addition to popular writings, I also looked at anti-vice records, business incorporation files, the Chinese’s written correspondences, city directories, court cases, mayoral papers, and, most importantly, Chinese immigration files. The Chinese have the dubious distinction of being the first nationality barred from entry into the United States (by the Chinese Exclusion laws, 1882-1943). In attempting to stem Chinese immigration, the U.S. government inadvertently produced a detailed record of Chinese business activities, which were incredibly rich sources for understanding why the Chinese went into food service.

I designed a database from immigration files about how Chinese restaurants were run, and analyzed the data for patterns in Chinese business operations. In these same records, I also found people and stories that allowed me to narrate Chinese restaurants’ evolution. Immigration historians, such as Erika Lee and Mae Ngai, have previously used these sources to examine the enforcement of U.S. immigration law. My approach to these records leverages their insight into governmental surveillance of the Chinese to understand how Chinese restaurants were both sites of labor and immigration for this population.

Image is property of Tina Lee-Cronkhite.

Image is property of Tina Lee-Cronkhite.

What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

The dissertation was a case study of Chinese restaurants in New York, and my conclusions beg for a three-way comparison with 1) Chinese restaurants in other parts of the United States, 2) the Chinese diaspora (there are over 50 million Chinese outside of China and Taiwan), and 3) other ethnic restaurants.

For the book manuscript, I am conducting research that will widen the geographical scope of the project to include the West Coast and, in particular, the Pacific Northwest and Bay Area, where Chinese communities had easier access to and closer ties with China. This additional research will allow me to engage the rich historiography of transpacific Asian migration and, therefore, strengthen the conclusions I make regarding Chinese on the East Coast. I am also developing a chapter on commercial leisure in New York City, which will allow me to discuss the emergence of restaurant patronage in general and the importance of other ethnic restaurants in this transformation. I am unable to discuss the role of U.S.-based Chinese restaurants to the Chinese diaspora in the book project, though this is a question that deeply interests me and is the motivation behind the “Chinese Migrant Portal.” Currently under construction, the Chinese Migrant Portal will be a clearinghouse of data on Chinese sending communities, means of migration, and host societies around the world. I am building data-sharing collaborations with the University of California, Irvine (US), University of British Columbia (Canada), and New York University Shanghai (China). Data sharing of this scale will enable researchers to conduct systematic, big picture analysis of Chinese migration patterns. Moreover, this project contributes to the emerging open-access movement by using existing open-access applications and services in pursuit of truly public research.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

For me, the most important lesson from the dissertation research and writing process was the value of interdisciplinary exchange. My colleagues were my biggest assets during the research and writing process, especially my peers working in other disciplines. Economists, geographers, and sociologists taught me new methods for analyzing my historical sources, which changed the way I thought about historical research. For example, in my fourth year—so well into the research phase—I took a digital cartography course because I had the address book of a man I was studying and I wanted to understand his spatial relationships with the people in the book. The course on ArcGIS, a digital cartography software, allowed me to make maps that shaped my close-readings of this man’s letters.

After the course, I became a fellow at a spatial analysis research center, where I interacted with people working with quantitative data on a regular basis. My officemates, an economist and a sociologist, generously helped me turn some of my historical sources into quantitatively analyzable data. These dialogues transformed my research and launched me on the path of digital and quantitative history, which vastly improved my doctoral thesis.

In sum, I strongly urge doctoral candidates in history to seek out non-historical methods in the form of mini-courses and institutes. These opportunities will broaden your skill set as a researcher and make your mind more elastic when it comes to analyzing your sources. I started to see my archival records in a new light, and I am confident everyone exposed to interdisciplinary research methods will undergo a similar transformation.