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Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies pres.

The Business of Becoming Citizens: Chinese Immigrants, Cuisine, and Restaurants from Exclusion to Inclusion in the United States, 1870-1919

Heather Lee | 李芸芸 (Assistant Professor of History, NYU Shanghai | 历史学助理教授, 上海纽约大学)

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Today there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than the combined total of McDonald’s, Burger King’s, Wendy’s, and KFC chains. This talk tells the history of Chinese restaurants against the backdrop of intense racial discrimination and civic exclusion. Chinese immigrants held the unfortunate distinction of being the first—and for many years only—population of voluntary migrants restricted from entering the country and denied a pathway to citizenship. Between the end of Radical Reconstruction and World War II, Chinese immigrants seized political power and shifted their economic, legal, and cultural positions through food. The talks centers on a handful of Chinese immigrants who strategically and purposefully built bridges of understanding with the wider U.S. population, and leveraged this acceptance to negotiate an immense legal apparatus. This is a story of the resilience of racialized immigrants who managed to become tastemakers, despite the weight of state-sanctioned oppression.

Refreshments will be provided. Please RSVP for food: https://forms.gle/jMh25aUFXCLbjUyc9

Heather Ruth Lee is an Assistant Professor of History at NYU Shanghai. As a scholar and educator, she wrestles with the importance of legal immigration status—the bright line separating citizens from both documented and undocumented migrants—to the history of race and ethnicity in the United States. Her first book, The Business of Becoming Citizens: Chinese Immigrants, Cuisine, and Restaurants from Exclusion to Inclusion in the United States, 1870-1943 tells the history of Chinese restaurants against the backdrop of intense racial discrimination and civic exclusion. Alongside the book, Professor Lee has been working on the “Chinese Restaurant Database Project” (www.eatingglobally.com), an original data source on historical Chinese business operations, migration strategies and demographic information. Her research has been featured in NPR’s All Things Considered, The Salt, The Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, and Gastropod, a podcast on food science and history. Professor Lee has advised and curated exhibitions at the New York Historical Society, the National Museum of American History, the Museum of Chinese in America, and elsewhere.
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