Chinese cuisine has undoubtedly become one of the staples of modern American dining due to the number of Chinese restaurants that have sprouted across the country over the last century.
Serving customers their favorite dishes day in and day out, these diners can be found in almost every town in every state in America. But what is the cause of such proliferation?
While many would be quick to claim that this is because the food is actually delicious, convenient and cheap, MIT Historian and Scholar Heather Lee pointed out in an interview with Asian American Life that the reason these restaurants easily spread is far more complex.
Apparently, a certain loophole from the very law that was created to control (minimize) Chinese immigration to the U.S. may have opened the doors and allowed the number of Chinese restaurants to grow.
According to Lee, a law in the 1880’s called the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to appease a growing anti-Chinese sentiment brought about by a time of depression in the country. Chinese laborers, which included restaurant owners, were subsequently banned from entering the country. Immigration was only allowed for non-laborers, which included merchants, teachers, students, and tourists.
However, a New York court case ruling in 1915 would later uphold that a Chinese restaurant could be classified as a merchant, thus immediately giving the Chinese a new way to enter the country.
“They formed restaurants as partnerships and they would take different duties,” said Lee. “One would be the accountant, cook, manager. Family and friends would make up the rest. That would allow each person each year to go back home.”
America’s then rising economy during the 20’s and 30’s also contributed to the industry’s growth as citizens were willing to spend more when eating out.
The Chinese restaurant business started its boom at a challenging time in history and it has never looked back since.