Heather Ruth LeeAssistant 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.
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.
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”
“Hunting for Sailors: Restaurant Raids and the Conscription of Laborers during World War II,”
"A Life Cooking for Others: The Work and Migration Experiences of a Chinese Restaurant Worker in New York City, 1920-1946,"
"What is Human Trafficking?"
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.
“Selfish Consumers: Delmonico’s Restaurant and Satisfying Personal Desire,”
In the News
Chinese, Taiwanese Restaurants Drop 'Golden' And 'Dragon' To Take On Mandarin Names
Chinese Americans: Exclusions/ Inclusions
Sweet and Sour
Food On the Move: Eating in Trains, Ships, Cars, and Planes
Deporting Cambodians: How Immigration Policy Shapes our Communities
Chow Mein, Chicken Wings, and Cheeseburgers: Chinese Restaurants of Providence, RI
Chinese on Fridays: Rhode Island’s Chow Mein Sandwich
Professor Heather R. Lee discusses Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants in the U.S. embracing Mandarin to name their businesses. January 2019
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
Professor Heather R. Lee discuses bitter fruits and vegetables on Gastropod: The Bitter Truth. September 22, 2015.
Professor Heather R. Lee discuses the history of Chinese restaurants in America on Gastropod. August 25, 2015.
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.
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.
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.
Chicken Feet: US Trade with China
Assistant Professor of History, NYU Shanghai
On leave for a fellowship at the New-York Historical Society 2018-2019
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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