A Public Choice theory of Chinese food

by on May 7, 2008 at 6:17 am in Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Seth Roberts, citing Jennifer 8 Lee, writes:

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.

By the way, here is some work on immigrant complementarity with native labor.  George Borjas rebuts.

1 Mo May 7, 2008 at 10:16 am

Except restaurants are usually run by men. Look at the list of executive chefs and it’s as male dominated as a list of Fortune 500 CEOs. Probably the better explanation is that Chinese immigrants brought their families over and restaurants, groceries and laundries are businesses that can easily employ every member of the family. Go into a Chinese laundry, grocery store or restaurant and you’ll usually see an older man, woman and teenage kid all working at various times. It’s about maximizing household income.

2 Taeyoung May 7, 2008 at 11:07 am

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.

Yes, “problems” . . . as in repeated violent anti-Asian riots in San Francisco and other parts of California, not to mention a few attempts by San Franciscans to impose Jim Crow against Japanese and Chinese populations. That kind of thing is a pretty big disincentive against stepping on the natives’ turf. I’m not sure there’s anything comparable that would drive immigrant/native complementarity today. Is there?

3 liberty May 7, 2008 at 11:21 am

Mo,

I think you missed the point about the male/female employment. It says “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.”

It is not about who is running the restaurants and laundries, but who they were competing for jobs with – American men don’t lose out, as American men didn’t run those things at that time. At that time, those jobs were done (at home) by women.

Although your point is also good – any job that could employ the whole family (i.e. most small businesses) are often better for immigrants than ones which only employ one member (like manual labor jobs). Manual labor jobs for immigrants are probably useful when only one member comes to the country.

4 jorod May 7, 2008 at 12:10 pm

If you don’t have any skills, cooking and cleaning are pretty natural. Look at all the Mexican restaurants now. We have Arab and Indian convenience stores. These things don’t require much in the way of skills and are easily taught. Aren’t chefs usually male? Where did this feminist stuff come from?

5 Anonymous May 7, 2008 at 1:59 pm

I’m with you 8. What a no-brainer.

6 Steve Sailer May 7, 2008 at 5:26 pm

Restaurants were very old Chinese institutions — they were one of the reasons the Mongols didn’t burn China down and convert it to horse pasture after they conquered it. The younger Mongols liked restaurants, among much else about Chinese culture, and persuaded their elders just to keep it the way it was. So, the Chinese had an ancient advantage in restaurant skills.

As for laundries, prospectors in 1849 were mailing their dirty longjohns to Honolulu to be washed (presumably by Chinese), so there was a clear unmet demand for laundries in San Francisco, which the Chinese, with their traditionally higher standards of cleanliness, could easily fulfill.

7 Mo May 7, 2008 at 7:08 pm

It is not about who is running the restaurants and laundries, but who they were competing for jobs with – American men don’t lose out, as American men didn’t run those things at that time. At that time, those jobs were done (at home) by women.

Yes, but men don’t get mad when handymen exist or someone opens up a new repair shop, even though repairing things at home is traditionally male. However, handymen and other repair shops and their proprietors get upset when new competition enters their market. Those proprietors are the ones that get upset and those proprietors, like the proprietors of most groceries and restaurants are male.

8 Mo May 7, 2008 at 10:12 pm

seriously, prospectors were sending their laundry to hawaii? that can’t possibly be true, can it?

I’ve read it in other places, but it wasn’t due to the Chinese having higher standards of cleanliness. (Have you ever been to Beijing or Shanghai? They’re not exactly clean cities.) It’s due to the high costs of services in the area. This was more true in the early gold rush years and less true as more people moved over and more services opened.

9 chinese food August 25, 2008 at 9:37 am

I strongly agree on Mo that it is all about “maximizing household income”. Everyone would prefer the job they specialise in and perfectly with sufficient income. At that time I have to say that most of the Chinese immigrants were only good at cooking, which also could make them good money. They just opened a new choice of food to the world. I’d rather appreciate them than blaim them.

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