At the “What the History?! Deviant Female Dining” talk. Photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society
How Chinese restaurants historically provided New York women with spaces of freedom and self-expression
By Mihika Agarwal
Chinese restaurants, with their “Thank You” plastic bags and red and yellow storefronts, are so woven into the fabric of New York that we rarely stop and ponder the history of these spaces. How and when did they come about? Whom did they cater to? What did they mean for emerging conversations about gender, race and markets in the city?
On March 28, New-York Historical Society fellow Heather Lee offered a trip down memory lane in a talk about the social history of Chinese restaurants in New York and how they once provided a space of freedom and possibility for women.
This history dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when Chinese and white Americans kept separate, a time when the Chinese were powerless, not naturalized and could not vote. The trend became official in the spring of 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, providing a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration.
“So if you couldn’t directly affect politics, what alternatives do you have?” asked Lee. “How do you influence people indirectly? In order to make friends with policemen, judges and lawyers, in order to change the circumstances of their survival in New York City. This where Chinese restaurants came into the picture.”
The Chinese restaurants that sprang up on the Lower East Side in the 1890s initially served as a site for political banquet dinners for men. The gorgeously illuminated lanterns and decor added to the sense of novelty, and soon the Chinese restaurant was exoticized as a must-have experience of cultural exchange.
“Newspaper articles and photographers covered them,” said Lee. “These articles really drummed up interest in Chinese food. That’s how women first learned about them. [The articles] would talk about decor, the food, the customs. They would also be very didactic. How to drink tea — definitely not with sugar, definitely not with milk. How to hold chopsticks. White people in the city at the time had never seen them.”
What started for women as a fantasy about silk fans and dainty teacups soon became a channel for rebellion and self-expression. Women were often barred from other restaurants, and Chinese restaurant owners capitalized on this opportunity and created ladies’ dining rooms. The atmosphere was free and easy. The staff were non-interfering — their oblivion to American culture led to a “you-do-you” attitude. And so the women capitalized in return, using the freedom to experiment with accepted norms of social behavior. Could they kiss and snuggle with their suitors in public without raising eyebrows? They would soon find out.
Female luncheon parties were an opportunity for them to demonstrate to other women, not men, how worldly they were. Women would go in teams of two into a realm where they could rethink their sexuality. Some restaurants even had rules where men were not allowed to go up to women. Women had to go up to men and invite them over. It provided women with a break from male company, where they could evaluate their husbands and suitors.
The moderator of the talk, Dominique Jean Louis, a project historian at the New-York Historical Society asked, “Why do you think this culture of working out these social relationships happened in Chinese restaurants and not French cafes or German schnitzel parlors or any other kind of immigrant establishment?”
“Other immigrant establishments would cater to their own immigrant populations,” said Lee. “So Italians would be going to Italian restaurants in the same period in which Chinese are welcoming people who are not Chinese into the restaurant. And part of what that meant was, if an Italian woman was at an Italian restaurant, first of all why isn’t she cooking at home? Secondly, she would be very carefully watched. She would be responsible for how she’s representing Italian women so her morality would be much more carefully policed than would it be at a Chinese restaurant. Chinese men would be like, “We don’t understand American culture, we don’t know what you’re doing, so go ahead and do your thing.”
There were multiple narratives in Lee’s talk about the social history of Chinese restaurants: Chinese immigration patterns, racial discrimination in 19th-century New York, authenticity wars — is chop suey a Chinese or an American invention? But what stood out to me was how these sites provided a leveling ground and a connection between 19th-century women and today’s millennial feminists. More than a century has passed and there is still no better outlet than a lo mein date with our girlfriends for us to eat and discuss our feelings.