New Report Shines Light on Early Campaigns Against Chinese Entrepreneurs

By Sameer Rao Jun 13, 2017

This country’s history of xenophobic attitudes and policies contrasts greatly with how readily Americans consume and commodify the foods of immigrant communities. A University of California, Davis (UC Davis) legal scholar’s new report shows just how far back this disconnect goes via an exploration of an organized labor campaign against Chinese restaurants. 

Professor Gabriel "Jack" Chin and lawyer John Ormonde explain throughout "The War Against Chinese Restaurants" —released to media outlets yesterday (June 12) ahead of its 2018 publication in Duke Law Journal—that Chinese-American restaurateurs’ success left White labor and municipal leaders feeling threatened. From the report:

Chinese restaurants were "a serious menace to society" for two reasons. First, by employing Chinese workers and successfully competing with other restaurants, White unionists claimed the restaurants denied "our own race a chance to live." Chinese restaurants were also morally hazardous to White women; one observer noted that "[b]eer and noodles in Chinese joints have caused the downfall of countless American girls." Accordingly, many Americans recognized "the necessity for stamping out" the "iniquitous Chinese Chop Suey joints."

These stereotypes accompanied moral panics about Chinatown businesses allowing White revelers to drink and use opium: 

Chinese restaurants were suspected of being locations for vice. Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns were often tourist attractions. Middle- and upper-class Whites visited Chinatown restaurants out of "morbid curiosity" for an evening of "slumming." Thus, the Chicago Tribune reported on an 1891 trip to New York’s Chinatown, where the English visitors admired the "cleanliness of the kitchen and cookery" of the restaurant; but, according to the article, they had only "seen the curious and clean side of Chinatown." The visitors were then taken to the "dives of Chinese immorality" where "sternness and pity mingled in their faces" at the sight of young White girls smoking opium "face-to-face" with Chinese men. So-called "lobbygows" escorted and promised protection to Chinatown tourists, even hiring residents to act out stereotypical vices.

This panic gave the era’s labor unions, fearful of competition, ammunition to demonize Chinese-American businesses. White working-class laborers in some areas attacked Chinese-owned businesses and immigrants in an effort to drive them out. Others organized boycotts against the establishments. The unions stepped up these actions by pushing municipal laws to restrict Chinese restaurants’ autonomy: 

The effort was creative; Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities decreed Chinese restaurants would be denied licenses, 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. 

These laws often didn’t stick or destroy restaurants’ prospects, but Chin and Ormonde say they had a much more grave intended consequence: influencing national laws barring Chinese and other Asian immigration, and fueling their deportation.

The political goal sought by the unions had been almost fully realized. Members of races native to continental Asia had been barred by the Immigration Act of 1917. …Unions had argued that Chinese should not be allowed to compete with Whites because they were not allowed to become citizens. Their precarious immigration and citizenship status made it easier for Whites to expect that they were no threat. Indeed, keeping Chinese restaurants facilitated discrimination. Those suspected of being undocumented could be targeted by law enforcement. The police raided New York’s Chinatown in 1925, resulting in the "largest seizure of Chinese under the Exclusion act ever made" in New York City. "More than 500 Chinese were gathered in by 100 detectives and half as many federal agents, in Chinatown and environs."

The paper concludes with a reflection on how these policies live on in the Trump presidency’s current agenda against percieved foreign threats:

The Trump Administration’s actions and ideology seem to reflect traditional suspicion of Asians. The Department of Homeland Security recently proposed to collect social media information solely from people from one country, China. Steve Bannon, now a senior White House official, hosted a radio show in 2015; during an interview, Donald Trump said, "You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country," but Bannon disagreed, saying "When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think…a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society." Bannon wildly overestimated the number of Asian CEOs; "A May 2015 study found that 27 percent of professionals working in Silicon Valley companies were Asian or Asian-American. They represented less than 19 percent of managers and under 14 percent of executives, according to the report." Of course, many American citizens are of Asian racial ancestry. It is unfortunate, but, as this article shows, nothing new, that some believe that only White citizens can be a part of this nation’s civic society.

 Read the full UC Davis report here.