Current Project

I am completing a historical dissertation on twentieth century Chinese restaurant workers in the U.S. In my work, I argue that twentieth-century Chinese restaurant workers created and maintained transnational infrastructures that made possible the mass consumption of Chinese food in North America.

Examining the Chinese restaurant industry between 1894-1949, I study advertisements, government documents, letters, and literature in both Chinese and English media to understand the global impact of Chinese migration patterns. In the United States, Chinese food consistently ranks among the most commonly eaten cuisines. But this popularity alone cannot explain why there are more Chinese restaurants today in the United States than the combined total of Burger King’s, KFCs, McDonalds, and Wendy’s outlets. I seek to explain this conundrum in my dissertation, Consuming Labor: Transpacific Mobility of Chinese Restaurant Workers in New York City, 1894-1949. I argue that the Chinese food became a major American industry due to strategies of Chinese laborers to circumvent the late 19th century Chinese Exclusion Laws, which sought to deny Chinese laborers entry into the United States. The Chinese responded to the legal and cultural conditions under Chinese Exclusion by designing a business model for restaurants that exploited the legal exemption for Chinese businessmen. This strategy provided the labor and capital necessary for the Chinese food industry to flourish into the multibillion-dollar industry that is today.

I am completing this research with support from U.S. Department of Education’s Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and the Institute of Asian American Studies at University of Massachusetts, Boston. Chapter three of my dissertation is being published in Eating Asian America, an anthology from New York University press.


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  1. Pingback: Bio & CV « Heather Ruth Lee

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