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How Did A US Immigration Law Fuel the Boom of Chinese Restaurants in the States?

America’s history is riddled with racism and xenophobia. There are several accounts of discrimination towards different nationalities who migrate into the United States. Lawmakers tried their best to eliminate the influx of foreign immigrants in the country, but everyone still wanted the American Dream. But did you know that the Chinese found a loophole in one immigration law?

In the early 20th century, the Chinese were only limited to merchant visas. It was tough for the Chinese to enter the country. But they found a loophole. They opened up Chinese restaurants so that they could gain access to that particular visa.

The Chinese Immigration Laws

During the industrial revolution in the latter part of the 19th century, the US received an influx of Chinese workers who helped build the nation’s railway systems. It was reported that more than 300,000 Chinese flocked to the country to work in railroads, mines, fields, and factories.

The Chinese often worked for lower wages, causing many local workers to feel threatened with losing their jobs. This was when Anti-Chinese sentiment was widespread. In response to this, the government passed strict immigration laws. These laws explicitly barred Chinese laborers from immigrating or becoming US citizens.

The laws also made it difficult for Chinese residents to return to the US even though they only left the US for a short while. There were certain exceptions to the laws. Chinese business owners were able to acquire special merchant visas. This visa allowed them to travel to China and return with employees for their business.

Only a few types of businesses qualified for the merchant visa in its initial inception. But that changed in 1915 when the federal court added restaurants to the list of businesses that can obtain a merchant visa. (Source: NPR)

What was the Loophole?

According to MIT legal historian Heather Lee, the number of Chinese restaurants increased when the new law was passed. Her research showed that Chinese restaurants doubled from 1910 to 1920 and again from 1920 to 1930, and in New York alone, the number of restaurants quadrupled.

Lee’s research also uncovered that many Chinese applied for merchant visas to open restaurants after the 1915 update of the immigration laws. Most immigrants were men who went to the US to earn money and support their families in China. Most of whom did not seek to migrate permanently.

They wanted to be able to travel back and forth to visit their loved ones, but the laws before 1915 made it impossible for them to leave the country with the assurance of being able to return.

Securing a merchant visa meant not having difficulty traveling back home and returning to the US. However, there were still several challenges the Chinese had to go through to obtain this special visa. The law requires that the restaurants should be a high-grade fancy eatery.

Furthermore, the applicants should be managing the restaurant for at least a year straight. They also are not allowed to perform any menial tasks such as; cooking, waiting tables, and operating the cash registers.

They eventually found an ingenious way to bypass the law. Lee noted that many Chinese immigrants would pool their money to open a fancy chop suey restaurant. They would then take turns in managing the restaurant for a year up to eighteen months. Once they receive their merchant visa, they would travel back to China and return to the US with their relatives as workers for the restaurant.

After that, relatives would open their own shops and repeat the same process. This brought about the boom of Chinese restaurants in the country. (Source: NPR)

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