Jane Jacobs and Chinese Restaurants

Why did Chinese immigrants to America start so many restaurants? Because Chinese cuisine is glorious, right? Well, no. Chinese immigrants started a lot of laundries, too, and there is nothing wonderful about Chinese ways of washing clothes. As Jennifer Lee explains in this excellent talk, the first Chinese immigrants were laborers. They were taking jobs away from American men, and this caused problems. Restaurants and laundries were much safer immigrant jobs because cooking and cleaning were women’s work.

A character in Jane Jacobs’s The Nature of Economies says this:

This is why societies that are oppressive to women and contemptuous of their work are so backward economically. Half of their population, doing economically important kinds of work, such cooking and food processing, cleaning and laundering, making garments, and concocting home remedies, are excluded from taking initiatives to develop all that work [that is, start businesses] — and nobody else does it, either.

My grandparents, Jewish immigrants, were in the garment industry. Now I can guess why.

8 Replies to “Jane Jacobs and Chinese Restaurants”

  1. Tilly’s marvalous book Durable Inequality has more subtle things to say about this. For example why in Boston we know that Brazilians make good housekeepers, while in Chicago they know that’s the Polish. Why Italians are good at lawncare, or stone. Why most the motels in the country are run by one Indian caste. Why the Koreans dominate the small grocery stores in NYC. While I’d not take issue with the model you outline above, Tilly lays the majority of the blame at what these days one might label preferencial attachment. I.e. that one a community puts down roots in a given trade it’s common for that community to specialize. Jacobs talks about that as well, why certain cities end up specialized. The just so stories aren’t, to my mind, as important as the preferencial attachement – or if you like the positive feed back loops. Sociologists are particulary good at teasing out which of these feedback loops is or isn’t responsible, but it is certainly tough in the face of peoples desire for simple stories.

  2. This sounds like one of those, “I think it therefore it’s true” moments. What’s the evidence? And what about other ethnic groups? Irishmen became cops. Was that women’s work? Bohunks became coal miners. Women’s work? Italians became haulers. Women’s work?

    If you look at the history of the laundries, you find that they were owned by Chinese owners, who hired and exploited the hell out of Chinese workers. You could open a laundry with a small amount of capital, gained not from a bank (which wouldn’t lend to you) but from an informal community association. You could hire workers of your own ethnicity, who couldn’t work elsewhere because of discrimination and the language barrier. This pattern is repeated over and over again in American history: Jews: the needle trades. Greeks: diners. Koreans: greengrocers and dry cleaners. Indians: motels. Irish: bars and pubs. Germans: butchers and bakers. Italians: fruit and vegetable wholesalers. It’s the fact that these small businesses can be started by members of the ethnic community without the support of the majority business community that leads to their existence. Whether the work is women’s work or men’s work is irrelevant.

    The Chinese found themselves the target of discrimination even in the supposed “women’s work” of laundry – see, e.g., Yick Wo v. Hopkins 118 U.S. 356 (1886), in which the US Supreme Court struck down a San Francisco ordinance designed to drive the Chinese out of the laundry business. In New York, they organized to oppose municipal efforts to destroy the Chinese laundries by forming the Chinese Hand Laundry Association. See the book, To Save China, to Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York.

    PS -about your grandparents- At the time your grandparents were garment workers in New York, Italian immigrants were working down at the docks and Irish immigrants were filling the ranks of the police force. Now, unless you think that there was some two-tiered prejudice going on so that non-immigrant men didn’t mind losing their jobs to Italians and Irishmen but didn’t like losing them to Jews, I don’t see the explanatory power of this analysis.

    PPS- I love Jane Jacobs. The quote doesn’t support Lee’s argument.

  3. Hi Seth–
    I think one reason many immigrant groups open inexpensive restaurants is that the barriers to entry are low–and were even lower a century or more ago when there was far less regulation. The initial capital investment is relatively low, family members can be employed, there’s a built-in market among fellow ethnics looking for familar and inexpensive food, good command of English and high educational attainment aren’t necessary, etc. The Chinese restaurant story has parallels among every ethnic group throughout American history: Italian pizzerias and restaurants, Jewish delis and dairy restaurants, Polish pierogi restaurants, German beer gardens, barbeque joints in the South, Greek diners. And I wouldn’t suggest to a French chef that he was doing a feminine job–cooking for the public is men’s work in many societies–as in fact it tends to be in America today, where most of the chefs and most of the kitchen staff are men. And in China, being a chef was not only a man’s job but also one that was fairly prestigious, attained only after a long and arduous apprenticeship.

  4. While I like JJ, I too am skeptic. I think she overreaches and projects herself on many topics she does not know much about. My guess is that so many Chinese restaurants sprouted up was:

    a) low barriers to entry
    b) cheap, novel and unique cuisine (which is part of their staying power)

    Looking at European immigrants that came to the States such as the Poles, Hungarians etc etc — you see that many started restaurants but, I think, weren’t sufficiently unique to the States and ended up serving mostly the very same immigrant community. Nowadays, one is hard-pressed to find a Hungarian restaurant outside of NY/NJ, Cleveland or Toronto.

    Chinese food, by definition, is not of European extraction — and therefore sufficiently novel. I remember the very first time I tasted it — it blew me away.

    Also, most importantly perhaps, cooking, especially fine cuisine, has long been a !man’s! occupation in Europe, and yet Chinese restaurants have sprouted up all over Europe such as in (very recently) Hungary, where I am from.

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