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CHOW: Making the Chinese American Restaurant

Picture of Mark Choi
Updated: 13 June 2017
As the new Trump presidency moves into the Capitol, a cloud of uncertainty and tension hangs over a large number of minorities in America who have felt offended, if not directly threatened, by the new leader of the Free World’s campaign and his supporters, which played an instrumental role in the success of his rise to power. The commonly held belief that minorities and foreigners have taken jobs away from “honest, hard-working” Americans has given way to a new wave of passionate xenophobia, similar to the mindsets that led to one of the most infamously discriminatory laws in American history – the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The law, enacted by the 47th United States Congress in May of 1882 was a direct response to thousands of Chinese immigrants, largely men, who had left their country and families to work as cheap (and often disposable) labor during the Gold Rush. Essentially, immigrants of Chinese or Mongolian descent were given two choices: stay in the United States and likely never see their families ever again, or leave with little to no hope of ever returning.

In 1902, the act was expanded to require all Chinese residents to enter a registry and obtain a certificate of residence, or face deportation. While they were barred from working as cheap labor in the gold mines, many Chinese immigrants found their new footing in the the food industry, serving variations of traditional Oriental dishes all over America. When the strict limits on Chinese immigrants were eventually done away with over 80 years later during the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Chinese restaurants had already become a staple in nearly every city, yet very few people know the story behind their emergence in American history. The Museum of Food and Drink (, located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, recently opened their CHOW exhibit which focuses on this often overlooked story. The exhibit runs until Fall of 2017.

To learn more about MOFAD, check out our video post here.