White Writer Finds 1909 NY Chinatown Not As Bad As Its Reputation

       An adventuresome white writer ventured into New York City Chinatown in 1909 to report on life in this enclave. He noted that, "Mention Chinatown and Chinaman and what picture comes before your mental vision? A laundry __ an opium joint __ a chop suey restaurant or a mission where Chinamen become Christians through the efforts of zealous American females and __occasionally some happening that stirs up all the newspapers and public to a passing interest.  Rather a gloomy picture if taken as a complete view of the Chinese."
        He braced himself before making his visit, writing in the third person,  "It was quite natural that one should feel some trepidation in visiting Chinatown for the first time so the writer went there equipped with a letter from the police department but there was no need of any precaution for he was met everywhere with courtesy and hospitality."
        He focused on what types of clothing the Chinese men wore and concluded that clothing and menswear in general is not as important to Chinese as it is to Americans. There are very few changes of style, with the most radical changes occurring with the change of dynasties.
          The writer concluded after his visit to Chinatown that: “If you go to Chinatown looking for bad things you will find them—so you will on Fifth avenue or any other locality. If you expect to find some things uniquely bad you will be disappointed but if you go there to learn something of interest of a strange people , of a great empire in the far East, you will do so.”


Podcasting Asian America

A wealth of information about important topics ranging from historical to psychological to cultural aspects of Chinese- and other Asian Americans is available through interviews and discussions on many podcasts, freely downloadable, from itunes.

One podcast New Books in Asian American Studies features interviews of academic authors of important recent books on Asian Americans.

Another podcast, They Call Us Bruce, by Jeff Yang and Phil Yu features discussions and interviews of the work of contemporary artists, politicians, writers, and performers.  

Another podcast resource is the Potluck Podcast Collective


The Chinese Are Coming, The Chinese Are Coming (1870)

In 1870, there were few Chinese in the midsections of the United States, but with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, the Chinese who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad portion were suddenly out of work.  However, their reputation as cheap, and diligent, workers led labor contractors to recruit them tto work on building regional railroads such as the Houston Central Railroad in Texas. The newspaper account on January 5, 1870 reported that 230 "Chinamen" had arrived at St. Louis en route to Calvert,Texas.  The account noted that if they worked out well, more Chinese would be recruited. It was optimistic that they would hasten the railroad construction after which they would be sent to Kansas, presumably for other railroad work.

After only a few months, the Times-Picayune reported on April 10, 1870 that the experiment with Chinese railroad workers was a "decided success,"  concluding "Steady at their work, industrious when the contract hours of labor have expired, sober, frugal, willing, and mindful of the stipulations of their agreement, but exacting in the fulfillment of those in their favor, is the sum of the evidence..."


Did Pearl Harbor Speed Up the 1943 Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act?

One of the greatest injustices in American history involved people of Chinese descent. In 1882, motivated by fear of loss of jobs for whites and by anti-Chinese racism, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only law that singled out a specific ethic group, prohibiting the entry of Chinese laborers for 10 years, but it was extended several times until it was finally repealed after 61 years on Dec. 17, 1943 by President Roosevelt. In signing the bill, Roosevelt proclaimed in a letter to Congress that the  Chinese Exclusion Act had been "an historic mistake" and that repeal was "important in the cause of winning the war and establishing a secure peace."  However, there was no explanation provided about why after 61 years, the mistake was finally recognized and corrected.

What factors led to the long overdue repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act? In the 1940s, negative public attitudes toward Chinese still existed.  Chinese were still seen in terms of outdated negative stereotypes and treated as second class residents.  Why would the U. S.government after 61 years choose to repeal this law?  Did it finally recognize its gross unfairness? That reason seems unlikely as other injustices by the U. S. government continued such as the February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that authorized the relocation and internment of U. S. citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry to areas remote from the West coast and major cities on unfounded fears that Japanese Americans would sympathize with Japan and be a security risk.

Was it a response to active campaigns by Chinese Americans for repeal? Although Chinese American organizations fought for repeal, and in 1905 helped fund the efforts in China to boycott American goods and products in protest against how Chinese were mistreated in the United States, they failed to overturn the exclusion law. They lacked a powerful leader such as a Martin Luther King who led the fight for civil rights for black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1940s, Chinese Americans had insufficient influence and political power, given the small size of the Chinese population and failure of the general public to oppose Chinese exclusion, to demand its repeal.

It seems more plausible that the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was motivated primarily by the World War II conflict between Japan and the United States. Japan wanted to dissuade China from joining the United States against it. Japan continually reminded China that the U. S. had unfairly excluded Chinese from entering the U. S. since 1882 in the hope that China would not join the U. S. against Japan in WWII. Recognition of this situation gave the U. S. Congress a strong incentive to repeal Chinese Exclusion to eliminate this powerful argument of Japan.

Arguments in the House of Representatives deliberations on H. R. 3070 in 1943 show this pragmatic reason was a major justification for repeal. It was recognized that China was a needed ally against Japan and that it was embarrassing to continue the exclusion law against Chinese. Some Congressmen who reluctantly voted for repeal still defended the original 1882 basis for exclusion, namely to prevent 'hordes of Chinese' coming and taking jobs from whites, but recognized that this threat no longer existed in the 1940s so that exclusion was no longer needed. One of the opponents of repeal, Compton White (Dem-IA), defended the 1882 law and argued against repeal because Chinese "coolies" would spread the opium habit among American boys and girls.

Congress set a quota of Chinese allowed to enter using formulas created by the 1924 Immigration Act based on country of origin. The result was that the total annual quota for Chinese immigrants to the United States (calculated as a percentage of the total population of people of Chinese origin living in the United States in 1920) would be only 105. Not only was this number pitifully small, Congress counted Chinese coming from any country, not just China, in the 105 due to fear that much larger numbers of Chinese could enter the U. S. because immigration within the Western Hemisphere was not regulated by the quota system. Thus, if Chinese in Hong Kong, for example, were to apply under the huge, largely unused British quota, thousands more Chinese than 105 could be eligible to enter each year.

Repeal of exclusion had a positive impact on Chinese in America that can not be overestimated. It enabled family reunification, the formation of new families, and gave them the right to become citizens and obtain the right to vote.

But for non-Chinese, repeal of exclusion must have been a relatively insignificant event judging by the low interest shown by newspaper coverage in the days immediately following the repeal on Dec. 17, 1943. Newspaper coverage in the days just after passage of repeal was brief, and usually buried among want ads, movie ads, and comic strips rather than on the front page as shown below.


A White Aristocrat's Negative View of Delta Chinese in 1941

The Chinese were a small but vital community spread across the Mississippi Delta for over a century operating family-run grocery stores that primarily served the black plantation workers who were not usually welcome at large white grocery stores.  Overcoming many obstacles, including racial prejudices, they succeeded and made valuable contributions to their community. Recognition of the Chinese role was demonstrated in an earlier post on this blog in 2011 that presented Mississippi Public Radio interviews with three Delta Chinese with a grocery store background.

However, even as late as 1941, the Chinese "got no respect" from white gentry as illustrated by the demeaning comment about the lack of useful contributions to the community by the Chinese. This observation was made by a prominent white writer and plantation owner, William Alexander Percy, in his nostalgic memoir, "Lanterns on the Levee", which was a romanticized lamentation for "the good old days." However, Percy was not a "redneck" racist; in fact he led the fight against the rising power of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

The following paragraph excerpted from Percy's memoir provides a clearer context for understanding how even educated and influential white community leaders had a narrow view of Chinese, portraying them as lawless illegal immigrants who often fought among themselves in tong wars.

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