‘Deviant Female Dining’ in Chinese Restaurants

View of Chinatown from 1925 (Photo from the Robert Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views at the NYPL)

The Chinese restaurants that started appearing on the Lower East Side in the 1890s would eventually become a safe space for women to freely express themselves, said New-York Historical Society fellow Heather Lee at the “What the History?! Deviant Female Dining” event on March 28.

Mihika Agarwal reports for West Side Spirit:

Women were often barred from other restaurants, and Chinese restaurant owners capitalized on this opportunity and created ladies’ dining rooms. The atmosphere was free and easy. The staff were non-interfering — their oblivion to American culture led to a “you-do-you” attitude. And so the women capitalized in return, using the freedom to experiment with accepted norms of social behavior. Could they kiss and snuggle with their suitors in public without raising eyebrows? They would soon find out.

Female luncheon parties were an opportunity for them to demonstrate to other women, not men, how worldly they were. Women would go in teams of two into a realm where they could rethink their sexuality. Some restaurants even had rules where men were not allowed to go up to women. Women had to go up to men and invite them over. It provided women with a break from male company, where they could evaluate their husbands and suitors.

Moderator Dominique Jean Louis asked: “Why do you think this culture of working out these social relationships happened in Chinese restaurants” and not other immigrant businesses?

How did Lee respond? Find out at West Side Spirit.

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