In 1849, gold was discovered in California and a ridiculously large number of people collectively lost their shit. Dreaming of future riches , tens of thousands of these people packed their bags and headed west in hopes of just scooping a fortune out of the water. Unfortunately, as is often the case with such things, few of them actually got rich. The easily claimed gold was quickly snatched up, leaving the majority of the gold to be mined via industrial methods that cost a lot of money to set up. These industrial mining methods were fairly labor intensive, but the majority of American emigrants were not really into doing back breaking labor for shit wages. They much preferred staking land claims. This left the mine owners with one of two options, either they could raise wages, or they could find other sources of labor. You can probably guess which one they picked.
The 1850’s in China was not really that great of a time to be alive, the nation was embroiled in a civil war called the Taiping Rebellion, which thanks to both sides using the strategy of just killing every poor fucker they could, was one of the bloodiest wars in world history. Even areas not directly affected by the war faced economic collapse due to the chaos. This is probably why so many Chinese jumped at the sudden chance of going to America, because after all, shitty wages for doing a shitty job was still better than no wages at all. Most of the Chinese who came to America were men, who planned on working for awhile before returning home. Though initially working in the mines, they quickly spread to many other shitty low paying jobs, such as building railroads. Of course this being nineteenth century America, they faced a shit ton of racism for the horrible crime of looking slightly different. This wasn’t helped by the fact that all Chinese men at the time were required by Chinese law to keep their hair in a super long braid called a queue. If a Chinese man cut off his queue he would be beheaded upon returning home to China, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why the country was in the middle of a civil war.
Things pretty much went along this way until the 1870’s when the economies of the United States and Europe entered a severe recession that lasted most of the decade. People who had once thought many shitty jobs to be beneath them, suddenly started getting all riled up about a bunch of foreigners stealing jobs from hardworking Americans. To their way of thinking, the jobs wouldn’t be so shitty if they paid better, but the owners had no reason to raise wages as long as they had access to cheap Chinese labor. As a result, emerging labor unions and random folks who just get off on being racist fucks doubled down on treating the Chinese like shit, up to and including random murders. Eventually a bunch of super racist laws were passed making it more difficult for the Chinese to find work, culminating in the Exclusion Act of 1882 which just straight up made Chinese immigration illegal. The Chinese already in the U.S. were caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, even though they were treated like shit there were still greater opportunities for them in America, on the other, under the new law if they went home to visit China they would be unable to return to the U.S. Though thousands chose to return to China over the next several decades, many decided to remain. Since labor union violence and racist laws barred them from many jobs, they formed closed knit communities in many large cities on the west and east coast, running low margin businesses such as laundries
This is pretty much how things remained until a decision by a federal court created a loophole in the Exclusion Act. Under the act, Chinese merchants were allowed to return to China and bring back workers if they owned certain businesses, though few Chinese owned the businesses included on the list. That changed in 1915, when a federal court order added restaurants to the list, though they had to be high end restaurants, which was defined as the owner not doing menial labor. To take advantage, groups of Chinese pooled their money to open restaurants, which allowed them to get visas to bring their family and friends to the U.S. To get around the owner not doing menial work rule, the Chinese would take turns being the boss, each fulfilling the year long requirement needed to get their merchant visa. Those brought to America would save their money to open their own restaurants, which would then give them the opportunity to bring in even more people. A second obstacle was the requirement that the visas be signed by a white witness who was willing to vouch that no shenanigans were going on. To get around this, the Chinese restaurateurs made deals with shady food vendors who were willing to give signatures in exchange for exclusive contracts. This raised the prices the restaurants had to pay for ingredients, which forced the Chinese to change their recipes to use cheaper alternatives, thus creating many of the so-called Chinese dishes so many Americans enjoy today.
The so called Chop Suey houses spread quickly across the country. Originally centered in the Chinatowns of large cities, they began to spread as Americans embraced the new food option. The combination of cheap prices and classy decor proved irresistible to a growing middle class looking to experience the exotic. Eventually almost every city of any size in the country had a Chinese restaurant and most of the Chinese in the country worked in the industry. The Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943, but even then the number of Asian immigrants was limited to a quota of 105 per year. This quota was later raised to 2,000 in 1952. The quota system for immigration wasn’t abolished until 1965. Today, over 5.0 million people consider themselves Chinese-American.