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Heather Ruth Lee

Assistant Professor of History, NYU Shanghai


Heather R. Lee is an Assistant Professor of History at NYU Shanghai. She studies the transnational flows of people and capital between North America and Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She focuses on legal immigration status—the bright line separating citizens from both documented and undocumented migrants—to uncover the experiences of Asians, who faced severe forms of immigration control. Her work contributes to our knowledge of migration patterns and economic integration of migrant workers in host nations.

Professor Lee is developing a historical database of immigrant restaurants, which she will make publicly available through an interactive digital platform. Her research has been featured in NPR, Atlantic magazine, and Gastropod, a podcast on food science and history. She has advised and curated exhibitions, including shows at the New York Historical Society, the National Museum of American History, and the Museum of Chinese in America.

Book Project

Acquired Tastes

Heather Lee’s current book, entitled Acquired Tastes, tells the story of the Chinese restaurants through immigration and labor history. Today there are more Chinese restaurants than the combined total of McDonald’s, Burger King’s, Wendy’s, and KFC’s chains. How did Chinese restaurant owners, a marginal people selling a marginal commodity on the sidelines of the urban economy, come to play an outsized role beyond their narrow circles of friends and family?

This industry emerged directly from Chinese Exclusion, a body of US immigration laws barring new migrants and preventing existing residents from politics. As disenfranchised laborers, the Chinese opened restaurants to exploit loopholes in U.S. immigration policies, which granted restaurant owners the privilege of entering or sponsoring relatives into the United States. Through these loopholes, thousands of Chinese immigrants were able to defy bans on their entry into the United States.

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Based on close readings of archival material and quantitative data gathering, interviews conducted in the United States and China, Acquired Tastes explains how, in circumventing immigrations laws, the Chinese developed a system of orbiting capital and labor. On one hand, this is a story of the resilience of working-class racialized immigrants who managed to become taste makers despite the weight of state-sanctioned oppressing them. But an equally important, less rosy, side of the story is how the Chinese restaurant industry relied on the legal invisibility and, usually, illegality of the workforce. Underpaid and over worked, the lower echelons of the Chinatown food industry made it possible for Americans across the United States to enjoy Chinese food so cheaply. This research helps us understand the role of the law to economic mobility, offering a new avenue for understanding workplace trajectories of racialized workers.

In a moment of broad public interest in food cultures and industries, Acquired Tastes participates in a necessary reckoning with America’s modern food system. It guides public attention toward a critical examination of the food and entertainment industry in the United States, and its transnational constitution.


Manuscripts in Progress

“Acquired Tastes: Chinese Restaurants and the Business of Becoming Citizens, 1870-1949”

Published Works

“Hunting for Sailors: Restaurant Raids and the Conscription of Laborers during World War II,”

in A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: The U.S. in an Age of Restriction, 1924-1965, edited by Maria Cristina, Madeline Hsu (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2019).

"A Life Cooking for Others: The Work and Migration Experiences of a Chinese Restaurant Worker in New York City, 1920-1946,"

in Eating Asian America, edited by Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin Manalansan, and Anita Mannur (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

"What is Human Trafficking?"

(with Rhacel Salazar Parrenas and Maria Hwang). Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 37, no. 4 (2012): 1015-1059.

Reviews recent works on human trafficking and outlines a new research agenda based on systematic, empirical research and emphasizing on material inequalities that makes certain populations vulnerable trafficking.

“Ha Jin,”

in Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore, edited by Jonathan H X Lee and Kathleen Nadeau (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2010).

“Chinese-American Foodways,”

in Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore, edited by Jonathan H X Lee and Kathleen Nadeau (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2010).

“Selfish Consumers: Delmonico’s Restaurant and Satisfying Personal Desire,”

in Food for Thought: Essays on Eating and Culture, edited by Lawrence Rubin (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008).

In the News

Chinese, Taiwanese Restaurants Drop 'Golden' And 'Dragon' To Take On Mandarin Names

January 27, 2019

"Forget It, Jake: Exploring Cuisine, Immigration, and Chinatown’s Underworld"

Heather R. Lee, Interview with Joshua David Stein, The Village Voice, May 9, 2017.

Guest to discuss xenophobia and Chinese American food culture on Culture Trip

Heather R. Lee (with Mark Choi), February 17, 2017.

Lo Mein Loophole: How U.S. Immigration Law Fueled a Chinese Restaurant Boom

Heather R. Lee’s research on Chinese immigrants in America discussed in Maria Godoy. NPR, February 22, 2016.

"History of Chinese Restaurants in the United States"

Heather R. Lee, Process: A Blog for American History, March 3, 2015.

Explaining Chinese Restaurants, Korean Dry Cleaning, and Indian Motels

Heather R. Lee’s research on the untold story of Chinese restaurants in America discussed in Gillian B. White. The Atlantic, October 2, 2015.

Chinese Americans: Exclusions/ Inclusions

Heather R. Lee’s research on the Chinese-American experience discussed in “Chinese Americans: Exclusions/ Inclusions,” Museum Exhibition, New York Historical Society, New York, NY, 2014.

Sweet and Sour

Heather R. Lee’s research on Chinese-American history discussed in “Sweet and Sour,” Museum Exhibition, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, 2011.

Food On the Move: Eating in Trains, Ships, Cars, and Planes

Heather R. Lee’s research on Chinese culture discussed in “Food On the Move: Eating in Trains, Ships, Cars, and Planes,” Museum Exhibition, Culinary Museum at Johnson and Wales, Providence, RI, 2010.

Deporting Cambodians: How Immigration Policy Shapes our Communities

Heather R. Lee’s research on immigration policy discussed in “Deporting Cambodians: How Immigration Policy Shapes our Communities,” Museum Exhibition, Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle, WA, 2009.

Chow Mein, Chicken Wings, and Cheeseburgers: Chinese Restaurants of Providence, RI

Heather R. Lee’s research on the history of Chinese-American restaurants discussed in “Chow Mein, Chicken Wings, and Cheeseburgers: Chinese Restaurants of Providence, RI,” Museum Exhibition, Culinary Museum at Johnson and Wales, Providence, RI; Boston Storefront Library, Boston, MA, 2009; 2009.

Chinese on Fridays: Rhode Island’s Chow Mein Sandwich

Heather R. Lee’s research on Chinese culture discussed in “Chinese on Fridays: Rhode Island’s Chow Mein Sandwich,” Museum Exhibition, John N. Brown Center, Providence, RI, 2008.


Chinese, Taiwanese Restaurants Drop ‘Golden’ And ‘Dragon’ To Take On Mandarin Names


Professor Heather R. Lee discusses Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants in the U.S. embracing Mandarin to name their businesses. January 2019

Restaurant Loophole

Episode 64

Professor Heather R. Lee tells the story of how a loophole in the Chinese Exclusion Act led to the Chinese restaurant boom in America. Drawing parallels to today, she explains the unintended impacts of the law on the U.S. and China. December 2016

The Bitter Truth


Professor Heather R. Lee discuses bitter fruits and vegetables on Gastropod: The Bitter Truth. September 22, 2015.

The United States of Chinese Food


Professor Heather R. Lee discuses the history of Chinese restaurants in America on Gastropod. August 25, 2015.

Digital History

Professor Lee embraced the digital tools as the new frontier in historical pedagogy and research because of challenges in her own research. She studies migrant Asian workers and their businesses in the United States. Their cumulative efforts stand prominently in urban America landscapes, from South Asian-run Dunkin Donut shops to Vietnamese nail salons, but their personal histories and private worlds are far harder to access.

For her research, she reads limited and fragmentary records in unconventional ways, in the process developing methods in historical research and interpretation that she employs in the classroom.

Chinese Restaurant Database

Professor Lee is currently developing a portal for historical data on Chinese immigration to the United States. The centerpiece of this initiative is the Chinese Restaurant Database, which contains business data for Chinese restaurants (1882-1965) in the seven largest U.S. cities during major reforms to U.S. immigration laws in 1965. Visiting EatingGlobally for more information.

Digital Mapping

Professor Lee taught the lower-level seminar course Global Chinese Food and Diaspora at NYU Shanghai that combined research with an introduction to three centuries of Chinese migration history. For an assignment, students mined a scholarly article about seventeenth century trade in the South Pacific for primary sources. They mapped the commodities, trade routes, and volumes moving between present-day Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia in CartoDB, a web-based digital cartography software.

The course used food as a window into studying historical migration patterns, socio-economic stratification, as well as interactions across social and physical barriers.

Digital Storytelling

Beyond studying the social and cultural implications of these changes, students in Professor Lee’s courses gain experience in digital research and presentation. She is currently leading a guided research seminar at NYU entitled NY Immigrant City, where students work in small teams to produce digital stories about past and present immigrant groups.

In the past, her students at MIT have worked on research teams to create original podcasts. Students in her research seminars on New York City have made digital blogs using StoryMaps.

Student Podcasts

Curriculum Vitae

Academic Positions

2016- present

Assistant Professor of History, NYU Shanghai

On leave for a fellowship at the New-York Historical Society 2018-2019

2014- 2016

Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT, Department of Global Studies and Languages

2012 – 2014

Research Fellow, Brown University, Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences

2008 – 2012

Research Fellow, Brown University, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

2005 – 2007

Guest Lecturer, Freie Universität, JFK Institute for North American Studies



Ph.D., American Studies, Brown University
Dissertation, “Entrepreneurs in the Age of Chinese Exclusion: Transnational Capital, Migrant Labor, and Chinese Restaurants in New York City, 1850-1943”


M.A., Public Humanities, Brown University


M.A., History, Emory University


B.A., History and Anthropology, Emory University


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Heather Ruth Lee