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Lo Mein Loophole

Maria Godoy of NPR recently published an interesting piece called Lo Mein Loophole: How U.S. Immigration Law Fueled A Chinese Restaurant Boom.

The article starts by talking about how rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th century eventually lead to the U.S. passing new immigration laws. These laws explicitly restricted Chinese laborers from moving to the U.S. and even made it difficult for legal residents to return after a visit home to China.

However, embedded in these laws was a small loophole:

But, as MIT legal historian Heather Lee tells it, there was an important exception to these laws: Some Chinese business owners in the U.S. could get special merchant visas that allowed them to travel to China, and bring back employees. Only a few types of businesses qualified for this status. In 1915, a federal court added restaurants to that list. Voila! A restaurant boom was born.

“The number of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. doubles from 1910 to 1920, and doubles again from 1920 to 1930,” says Lee, referring to research done by economist Susan Carter. In New York City alone, Lee found that the number of Chinese eateries quadrupled between 1910 and 1920.

This is fascinating on so many levels. 

For one, it’s always interesting when small loopholes have unintended consequences. It is doubtful that anyone could have predicted a Chinese restaurant boom.

Secondly, despite the U.S. being a nation of immigrants, you see here a long history of trying to keep immigrants out. In the early 20th century, the fear was Chinese laborers who worked for low wages. Today, it’s Mexican laborers who work for low wages.

Finally, it’s amazing to look back at the foundation that these early Chinese entrepreneurs no doubt created. Today, Asian Americans are often considered a “model minority.” The Pew Research Center refers to them as “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” 

When it comes to Ivy League admissions, they’ve even been called the “New Jews” – referring to the fact that many believe that top tier schools have systematically biased admissions against both Jews and Asians because of their tendency to overachieve relative to “white Americans.”

And to think that this may have all started, at least partly, with a Chinese restaurant boom.

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