Chinese (American History Through Literature)
By the middle of the nineteenth century the economy, sovereignty, and stability of China were in disarray. The defeat in the two Opium Wars, against the British (1839842) and the British and French (1856860), fought predominantly to stop the entry of opium into China, forced China to legalize the import of opium and sanction Christian missionary activity; it also led to the European and American control of major Chinese ports. Almost simultaneously, several internal rebellions to overthrow the ruling Ch'ing dynasty further impoverished the country, especially the southern provinces, as war repeatedly ravaged the countryside. The Taiping Rebellion (1851864) was especially devastating. In addition to the twenty to thirty million lives lost as a direct result of the armed conflict, millions of Chinese suffered through numerous famines and damaging floods as dams and fields were either raided or destroyed by full-fledged armies or small bands of rebels.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the opportunity to escape extreme povertyhrough the 1848 discovery of gold in California and the promise of work and superior wages in Gold Mountain, as America was known in Chinattracted a growing number of Chinese to the western shore of the United States, from 325 in 1849 to 20,026 in 1852 (Takaki, p. 79). Usually unable to pay for their own voyage, most of the Chinese came to America through the credit system, where the migrant had to reimburse a Chinese broker or merchant for the ticket for passage plus interest and expenses through his labor in California. Since Gold Mountain was early on seen as a place to earn money and not to reside, most of the workers did not or could not afford to bring their wives and families. As a result, early Chinese communities in America consisted overwhelmingly of men. Until the 1870s the majority of the few Chinese women who came to the United States were prostitutes who, tricked into false marriages or sold by their parents, found themselves "in a condition of debt peonage, under contracts" to repay food and passage to her "master/mistress" (Takaki, p. 121). By 1880, however, the percentage of prostitutes had greatly decreased as more women married and more wives were brought over to join their husbands. It is worth noting that Chinese emigration to Hawaii differed greatly than that to the mainland. The majority of Chinese who traveled to Hawaii were contract laborers who were made to repay their debt by working on sugar plantations. Whereas single men predominantly migrated to America, whole families were encouraged to travel to Hawaii not only to make life more comfortable for workers but also to expand at no great cost the number of possible workers on the plantations.
RECEPTION OF CHINESE IMMIGRANTS
On mainland America, the first contacts between Chinese and white Americans were usually amiable; the Chinese provided needed labor and were coming from an intriguing country at a time when anything Oriental was seen as novel, amusing, and desirable. As more Chinese emigrated, however, the reception quickly changed from one of curiosity and benevolence to one of ridicule and the view that they were a nuisance. On the rapidly developing West Coast, more Chinese laborers meant more competition for Irish and other poor white workers. In northeastern cities, the menial jobs and the squalor in which the Chinese were forced to live relegated them to a status as inferior creatures to be scorned. Across the country, racism and derogatory stereotypes would dictate how the Chinese were perceived and treated.
As early as 1852 the California state legislature catered to white miners' concerns about Chinese competition and instituted a foreign miners' license tax; although the law was not exclusively directed at them, only Chinese were consistently made to pay a mining license tax that increased repeatedly and arbitrarily. A year later the disenfranchised status of Chinese was confirmed when California's Supreme Court reversed a guilty verdict of a man who killed a Chinese, declaring that Chinese could not be trusted as witnesses in a court of law. Thus it came about that in California, cheating and assaulting a Chinese, from pulling his queue (a hair-style consisting of a shaved front and long ponytail in the back that became a symbol of pride and of Chinese
As the reception and consideration of Chinese workers deteriorated, so did opinions of them. On the West Coast, because of racist views of their appearance, the predominantly migrant Chinese were soon perceived to be sneaky and inscrutable bachelors responsible for the moral decline of white women and for the advent of prostitution. They could not be assimilated, were dishonest heathens, stole jobs from white workers, and drove down wages. The misconception that all Chinese were transient sojourners who did not contribute to the U.S. economy further worsened their image; in reality, only 47 percent of Chinese who entered the United States between 1850 and 1882 returned to China, a percentage quite comparable to that of European immigrants (Takaki, pp. 116, 11). By the mid-1850s in the eastern United States, where many Chinese sailors had settled, Chinese and beggary, heathenism, gambling, and opium addiction had become closely associated in people's minds. Chinese association with poor Irish immigrants (many Chinese men married Irish women) provided further proof to many of their inherent inferiority. China was seen as a fallen power that had refused to change for four thousand years; compared to the growing and energetic United States it was something to be pitied at best and exploited at worst. As John Kuo Wei Tchen has noted, "Race, physiognomy, phrenology, and character were becoming so intertwined that the views of Chinese as equals or as people to be admired and respected were becoming less and less possible" in the United States (p. 217).
If the perception of Chinese was decidedly negative, their labor was still in great demand. Between 1862 and 1869 nine to ten thousand Chinese worked on the western section of the transcontinental railroad; as a result of the insufferable working conditions, at least a thousand died. During the construction more and more Chinese were employed to replace Irish crews; compared to the Irish, the Chinese were seen as more industrious, soberer, and less demanding. After the completion of the railroad many Chinese established themselves near the new railroad towns and turned to farming, fishing, factory work (particularly cigar making and in woolen mills), or laundering, a non-threatening occupation normally reserved for women where Chinese were usually tolerated but still not free from abuse. Frustrated by the increasing demands of Irish and African American workers, American businessmen imported Chinese laborers specifically to toil in the fields of the South or break strikes in New England manufactures; due to the reputation they had gained doing railroad work as meek, docile, and beasts of burden, the Chinese were brought to the United States to displace malcontent workers and teach them their place: this is arguably one of the first instances of the model minority myth being applied to Asian Americans. Seen by the industrialists as cheap labor and by the predominantly poor white working class as strikebreakers and takers of jobs, the Chinese were further alienated and reviled. Both views of the Chinese were reinforced and facilitated by their isolation, forced in many cases by city ordinances, racism, continued threats of violence, and lack of judicial or political recourse.
The severe recession of the 1870s, along with incendiary speeches by anti-Chinese demagogues and racist representations (see, for example, Tchen, Matsukawa, and Moon for further discussions of Chinese in cartoons, advertising, and songs), pushed many Americans to protest more openly what they believed to be the cause of economic demise: cheap Chinese labor. Cartoons likening Chinese to rats, advertisements for starch that pictured unemployed Chinese launderers and happy white families, and songs like the anonymous "John Chinaman" (1855) helped to portray the Chinese as vermin who threatened to take the country away from hardworking Americans. "John Chinaman" sings about various stereotypes and how the Chinese, through their own volition, have failed to assimilate. To John Chinaman, Americahe presumed singeregrets being so welcoming because it had originally
thought you'd open wide your ports. . . .
I thought you'd cut your queue off, John, . . .
But I find you'll lie and steal too . .
For our gold is all you're after, John.
(Moon, pp. 367)
Indeed, (white) America is sad to attest that because of John Chinaman's dishonesty, cultural attachment, diet of "rats and puppies," thieving, and greed, he will never become a true American nor a welcomed guest. The Chinese, in this and similar popular songs, are sneaky opportunists who scheme and lie in order to claim America's resources. In addition to the fear that Chinese would break down the labor system and bring white Americans to starve, many worried about a massive emigration, possibly armed, of Chinese who would take over the land (referred to as "yellow peril") and about the possible miscegenation with an inferior race. This anti-Chinese sentiment lead to numerous lynchings and riots against the Chinese and their communities, brought about by the passage of the 1875 Page Law, which banned the immigration of Chinese contract laborers and the importation of Chinese women for immoral purposes and culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. The Exclusion Act was not an effective solution for the lack of jobs; at .002 percent of the nation's population, Chinese laborers did not pose a real threat to the white workforce. The immigration ban did, however, lessen the tensions between the working and governing classes and appeased the concerns of nativists who wanted to maintain a white America. The act was renewed in 1892, and in 1902 Chinese immigration was made permanently illegal; the act would not be repealed until 1943 as China became an American ally in World War II.
THE CHINESE IN AMERICAN LITERATURE
To help Chinese deal with white people and provide them with a voice and language Americans would understand, Wong Sam and assistants published An English-Chinese Phrase Book (1875), which was distributed for free at Wells Fargo offices in towns where Chinese Americans lived. The bilingual phrase book announces that it "contain[s] strategy and tactics for business and criminal law" and includes such phrases as "The price is too high," "He defrauded me out of my salary," "He tried to assassinate me," "I understand how to work. Have you any work for me to take home to do?" and "I will leave you when my month is up" (Wong, pp. 9410).
While the difficulties of the Chinese in being admitted into American society and overcoming the stereotypes of being submissive, inscrutable, and unassimilable may be hinted at in the phrase book, they are quite apparent in the earliest fiction featuring Chinese characters. Although anti-Chinese sentiment was widespread by the time Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, and Bret Harte published their first stories, the three western frontier colorists, as William F. Wu points out, refrained from "depict[ing] the Chinese immigrants as a threat, instead taking more tolerant or even sympathetic positions" (p. 13). The early stories show Chinese as individuals who participate in the everyday life of the West and who too often become victims of senseless violence and/or unveiled hostility "because they were foreigners, and of another race, religion, and color, and worked for what wages they could get" (Harte, "Wan Lee, the Pagan," p. 136). Even in stories depicting some Chinese as good and kind, however, stereotypes are often used to describe them or to contrast the exceptional protagonist with the base and most widely known type of Chinese.
The cynical journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842914?), in such early stories as "The Haunted Valley" (1871) and "The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'" (1877), makes no effort to portray Chinese characters in a positive light but instead emphatically criticizes and condemns the violence and hostility directed at them. Bierce's unsympathetic characterization of Chinese characters should not be read as an example of Sinophobia, or fear and intolerance of Chinese; Bierce was commonly known as being one of the worst misanthropes of his time and "frequently wrote pieces where none of the characters were very likeable" (Wu, p. 23). Rather, anti-Chinese violence and prejudice are used in Bierce's stories to illustrate how malicious and excessive people had become. Joaquin Miller (1837913) takes a different approach in presenting the sole Chinese protagonist in his first novel, First Fam'lies of the Sierras (1876). The "Byron of the Rockies," as Miller was known for his poetry of the West, portrays Washee-Washee as a laundryman who occasionally steals, is unambiguously amoral, and ends up as an opium addict; nevertheless, as Wu points out, Washee-Washee does not pose a real threat to white Americans as his "character is that of a playful rascal, annoying but less than an object of real hatred" (p. 24). Chinese launderers are as much a part of the western landscape as gold miners and mountains, and, Miller argues, should be left unharmed.
By comparison, the local colorist Bret Harte (1806902) represents Chinese protagonists who are not free from stereotypes but who are more complex and sympathetic than what was normally portrayed in the popular press. In "An Episode of Fiddletown" (1873), "Wan Lee, the Pagan" (1874), and Gabriel Conroy (1875876), Harte's Chinese characters "are all presented as loyal and skillful, yet sometimes uncooperative" (Wu, p. 14). In "Wan Lee, the Pagan" the narrator presents three distinct characters: Hop Sing is a refined old friend who has no equals among the "Christian traders of San Francisco"; Wang is a silent court juggler who can conjure up a baby among other "weird, mysterious, and astounding" feats; and Wan Lee is a ten-year-old mischievous trickster (pp. 12526). Following an evening at Hop Sing's where Wang conjures a one-year-old Wan Lee, the narrator becomes the infant's godfather. Nine years later, Hop Sing sends the boy away from San Francisco, asking the narrator to save him "from the hands of the younger members of your Christian and highly civilized race who attend the enlightened schools" (p. 128). Away from the city, the young Wan Lee becomes a loyal and trusted servant, albeit with a penchant for trickery. Upon his return to San Francisco, the narrator fails to remember Hop Sing's warning and regards Wan Lee's avoidance of "crowded public streets" as "superstitious premonition" rather than as a realistic fear of violence (p. 135). A few months later, riots and anti-Chinese violence erupt in the city, and Wan Lee is stoned to death by a "mob of half-grown boys and Christian school children" (p. 137). In this story Harte calls attention to the religious hypocrisy of some white Americans and decries violence toward the Chinese. Ironically, however, it was the stereotypical name "Hop Sing" that was picked up to name the Chinese cook in the popular American western television series Bonanza in the 1960s.
The most popular piece of the time, however, was Harte's short poem "Plain Language from Truthful James" (1870), also known as "The Heathen Chinee." The poem, which was the inspiration for numerous songs, presents two white men playing cards with a Chinese man who pretends not to understand the game. Despite the white men's constant cheating, the Chinese keeps winning until, frustrated, one of them "went for that heathen Chinee" exclaiming, "'We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor'" (p. 216). The white men's hypocrisy, the similarities between the white men and the Chinese, and the irony of the white men being out-cheated were unfortunately lost on many readers, and, much to the chagrin of Harte, the stereotype of the conniving and devious Chinese was perpetuated on account of his poem.
The American reading public would have to wait until 1887 to read a first-person narrative written by a Chinese. Yan Phou Lee's (b. 1861) autobiography When I Was a Boy in China not only depicts, as the title infers, the author's life in China but also offers many insights into the American experience from a hybrid Chinese American perspective.
See also California Gold Rush; Ethnology; Foreigners; Immigration; Labor; Orientalism; San Francisco
Harte, Bret. "Plain Language from Truthful James." 1870. In his The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings, pp. 21516. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Harte, Bret. "Wan Lee, the Pagan." 1874. In his The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings, pp. 12337. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Wong Sam and Assistants. An English-Chinese Phrase Book. 1875. In The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan et al., pp. 9410. New York: Meridian, 1991.
Matsukawa, Yuko. "Representing the Oriental in Nineteenth-Century Trade Cards." In Re/Collecting Early Asian America: Essays in Cultural History, edited by Josephine Lee, Imogene L. Lim, and Yuko Matsukawa, pp. 20017. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
Moon, Krystyn R. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s920s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Rev. ed. Boston: Back Bay, 1998.
Tchen, John Kuo Wei. New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776882. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Wu, William F. The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction 1850940. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1982.