The War Against Chinese Restaurants

by Gabriel J. Chin & John Ormonde

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Abstract

Chinese restaurants are a cultural fixture—as American as cherry pie. Startlingly, however, there was once a national movement to eliminate Chinese restaurants, using innovative legal methods to drive them out. Chinese restaurants were objectionable for two reasons. First, Chinese restaurants competed with “American” restaurants, thus threatening the livelihoods of white owners, cooks, and servers and motivating unions to fight them. Second, Chinese restaurants threatened white women, who were subject to seduction by Chinese men taking advantage of intrinsic female weakness and nefarious techniques such as opium addiction.

The efforts were creative. Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities denied Chinese restaurants licenses, and the New York Police Department simply ordered whites out of Chinatown. Perhaps the most interesting technique was a law, endorsed by the American Federation of Labor for adoption in all jurisdictions, prohibiting white women from working in Asian restaurants. Most measures failed or were struck down. The unions, of course, did not eliminate Chinese restaurants, but Asians still lost because unions achieved their more important goal by extending the federal immigration policy of excluding Chinese immigrants to all Asian immigrants. The campaign is of more than historical interest today. As current anti-immigration sentiments and efforts show, even now the idea that white Americans should have a privileged place in the economy, or that nonwhites are culturally incongruous, persists among some.

The War Against Chinese Restaurants

by Gabriel J. Chin & John Ormonde

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

Chinese restaurants are a cultural fixture—as American as cherry pie. Startlingly, however, there was once a national movement to eliminate Chinese restaurants, using innovative legal methods to drive them out. Chinese restaurants were objectionable for two reasons. First, Chinese restaurants competed with “American” restaurants, thus threatening the livelihoods of white owners, cooks, and servers and motivating unions to fight them. Second, Chinese restaurants threatened white women, who were subject to seduction by Chinese men taking advantage of intrinsic female weakness and nefarious techniques such as opium addiction.

The efforts were creative. Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities denied Chinese restaurants licenses, and the New York Police Department simply ordered whites out of Chinatown. Perhaps the most interesting technique was a law, endorsed by the American Federation of Labor for adoption in all jurisdictions, prohibiting white women from working in Asian restaurants. Most measures failed or were struck down. The unions, of course, did not eliminate Chinese restaurants, but Asians still lost because unions achieved their more important goal by extending the federal immigration policy of excluding Chinese immigrants to all Asian immigrants. The campaign is of more than historical interest today. As current anti-immigration sentiments and efforts show, even now the idea that white Americans should have a privileged place in the economy, or that nonwhites are culturally incongruous, persists among some.