Transpacific Currents: Chinese Restaurants and the Movement of Labour and Capital during Chinese Exclusion, 1915-1943
Heather Lee, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, tells the ironic story of how anti-Chinese laws helped foster the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants in the United States. While it barred the entry of Chinese labourers, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its various amendments unintentionally stimulated the formation of ethnic businesses through a system of visa preferences. Focusing on New York, which houses the oldest, continuously inhabited Chinatown in the United States, it explains how a 1915 legal precedent granted merchant status to restaurant owners and, therefore, motivated Chinese immigrants to become restaurateurs. Based on archival research and interviews conducted in China, Hong Kong, and New York, the talk explores how, in circumnavigating immigration laws, the Chinese developed a sophisticated system for shuttling labor and capital across the Pacific that accounts for, among other things, the Chinese restaurant industry’s rapid growth in the early twentieth century.
Merchant status enabled Chinese immigrants to enter the United States legally and to sponsor relatives to do so as well. On the basis of that loophole, Chinese immigrants built what Lee calls a “migration oriented business strategy” through which thousands were able to defy restrictions on their entry. The Chinese creatively stretched the meaning of visa categories to bypass restrictive immigration laws and shepherded transpacific capital past America’s gatekeepers. This research uncovers the formative role U.S. immigration law had on ethnic business like Chinese restaurants, and suggests how further study of ethnic capitalism should consider the dynamic interaction between exclusionary legal policy and the adaptive strategies of immigrant entrepreneurs.
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