Americans love Chinese food. According to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, the U.S. is currently home to more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants. This number is greater than all the McDonald’s, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy’s in America combined.
The growth of Chinese restaurants can be traced back to the early 20th century, when a large number of Chinese men came to California during the Gold Rush. During this time, anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant. Non-Chinese workers felt threatened by the Chinese, who often worked for lower wages.
The U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which explicitly barred Chinese laborers from immigrating or becoming U.S. citizens. After this act was passed, one of the only ways for Chinese to enter California was obtain “merchant status” by opening a restaurant. This merchant status allowed Chinese business owners to travel to China and bring back employees.
This loophole resulted in the large amount of Chinese restaurants opened during that time. According to MIT legal historian Heather Lee, the number of Chinese restaurants doubled from 1910 to 1920 and then doubled again from 1920 to 1930.
However obtaining a merchant visa was difficult and only the major investors of “high-end” restaurants qualified. In order to subvert this rule, Chinese immigrants would pool their money to start luxury “chop-suey” restaurants, taking turns running the restaurant for a year or so. Once they obtained merchant status, they would use it to bring over family members to work in the restaurant.
Ironically, chop suey, a combination of meat, egg and vegetables that made these Chinese restaurants so popular in America wasn’t actually Chinese. According to an article published by TIME, Chop Suey means “Odds and Ends” or leftovers when translated from Chinese. Chop suey isn’t the only popular fake Chinese food either. There are an abundance of myths and misconceptions about Chinese food in America.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s or 1970’s that America experienced the full range of Chinese cuisine. Before then, most of the Chinese food available in America was largely derived from Cantonese cuisine. The liberalization of American immigration policy allowed for arrivals from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan who subsequently brought recipes from home with them.
While the cheap price and exotic nature of Chinese food is often credited for the growth of Chinese restaurants in the early 20th century, the motivation on the part of the Chinese immigrants is often overlooked. For many, opening a restaurant served as the only way to bypass laws designed to keep them out of the country.
Since then, Chinese restaurants have become a part of American culture. However many people have no idea about the xenophobia that led to the large number of Chinese restaurants in America. So the next time you decide to get Chinese takeout, remember the history that brought these Chinese restaurants to America.