The glut of Chinese restaurants in the US proves just how popular the cuisine is with Americans.
But once upon a time, these eateries were the target of a “war” from the white mainstream, one that represented a continuation of the horrifying yellow peril that first emerged in the late 19th century. Americans used racist and xenophobic narratives that tapped into white fears, including those surrounding interracial mingling.
… there was the pervasive idea that Chinese men were lecherous threats to white women. Chinese restaurants were considered “dens of vice,” Chin says, where white women were at risk of moral corruption by way of sex, opium and alcohol.
At the American Federation of Labor’s 1913 convention, organizers proposed that all states should pass laws that barred white women from working or patronizing Chinese or Japanese restaurants for both moral and economic reasons, Chin says.
While the proposed white women’s labor law was never officially enacted, some police officers began patrolling the restaurants of their own volition, Chin says.
For example, he adds, “when there were concerns about white women patronizing Chinese restaurants and when the police thought this was prejudicial to the safety of white women, they would simply order white women out.”
The NPR story also mentions that a case in 1909, where a Chinese restaurant worker killed a white woman named Elsie Siegel working at a Chinese restaurant, further fueled the hostility against these establishments. “‘To be a Chinaman these days,’ one Connecticut newspaper wrote, ‘is to be at least a suspect in the murder of Elsie Sigel.'”
On Sampan, a bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England, a post on this ugly phenomenon in history comes with an example of the kind of racist propaganda that circulated at the time, even in the northern US. Led with an image from the era bearing the title “State Law Being Sought to Save Girls from Lure of Celestial Wiles”, the post notes a number of local media outlets that pushed this narrative, including a newspaper “claiming it was dangerous for young girls to go sightseeing in Chinatown” and another paper that actually stated in an article “‘The picture of a girl’s ruination through the medium of the Chinese restaurant is too horrible to depict'”. A representative in Massachusetts attempted to pass a bill to “prohibit women from entering Chinese restaurants unless they were over 21 years old and accompanied by a non-Chinese man” — which was later never enacted.
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Photo: A Chinese restaurant on Dupont Street in Chinatown in California in 1895.