About Me

After a career of over 40 years as an academic psychologist, I started a new career as a public historian of Chinese American history that led to five Yin & Yang Press books and over 100 book talks about the lives of early Chinese immigrants and their families operating laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores. This blog contains more research of interest to supplement my books.


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 Banned Entry of, But Did Not Define, Chinese Laborers

Below is the introductory section and closing section of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It is directed entirely to the exclusion of laborers as opposed to merchants, students, and diplomats but the text mentions only "laborers" which is not clearly defined.  It was not until the Surgeon General's Report on Leprosy 20 years later in 1902 that it is explicitly stated that Chinese laundrymen and restaurant workers are laborers and ineligible for entry after 1882.  In 1915, it was recognized the while some restaurant workers such as waiters, cooks, dishwashers were laborers, some owners of large restaurants could have a merchant status. As far as I could determine, Chinese laundrymen never received merchant status.

The law did not apply to Chinese laborers who had been in the U.S. by Nov. 17, 1880.

Transcript of Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)

An Act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese.

Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore,

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.

Only in the last section is any attempt made to "define" laborers.

SEC.15. That the words "Chinese laborers", wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.

Complete text of Chinese Exclusion Act


Report on San Francisco Chinatown Bubonic Plague, 1900-1904 and Rules for Chinese Laborers

    San Francisco Chinatown, from its beginnings in the early to mid-19th century, was a small area with unhealthy, filthy, and crowded conditions which received few sanitation services from the city government. Not surprisingly, it was at high risk for contagious and other diseases. 
    In 1900, a Chinese died of bubonic plague and in the next years, two more Chinese suffered the same fate. Chinese, already targets of racial antagonism became "medical scapegoats by the last quarter of the century. Chinatown was quarantined and there was talk of razing all the buildings and moving the Chinese to a different part of the city.
    The federal government became involved over the possibility that the plague might spread beyond San Francisco.  The first annual report on the nation's health status, the Surgeon General's Report, published in 1902,  focused on contagious diseases such as leprosy and bubonic plague that were often viewed as associated with the Chinese.


The listing of topics related to Chinese was covered at length as the modified Table of Contents shows.

Considerable space focused on the distinction between merchants and laborers since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act allowed merchants, but not laborers, the right to enter the U.S. The document states in no uncertain terms that laundrymen were laborers, and not merchants.

Insofar as by 1902, the year of this report, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese who worked in laundries, several puzzles arise.  How did the Chinese become laundrymen if they were classified as laborers, ineligible for admission to the U.S.  Perhaps some were born here and could not be 'denied entry' for being laborers. Perhaps others were paper sons. As such, they were eligible to enter and work in laundries established before the 1882 law denying entry to laborers.


The document also devoted much detail to Certificates of Registration imposed by the Geary Act of 1892, describing the conditions for obtaining and presenting them when traveling out of the U.S.

Other topics included the prohibition of Chinese employed on ships to go on shore while their ships were docked in U.S. ports.

Laborers returning with documentation to reenter the U.S. could not bring their wives because of their laborer status.

The heights of laborers should be measured with their shoes removed.


Chinaman was the most used term in Newspaper Articles involving Chinese, 1870s-1940s


Newspaper articles from the mid-19th century until around 1940 that involved Chinese typically referred to them as "Chinaman" regardless of whether the topic was negative such as Chinese being robbed, attacked, or murdered or mocking such as descriptions of "strange" Chinese customs, attire, or food, or positive such as financial success, positive contributions to their communities. 

Examples of some of the headlines for these articles are presented here. After the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, there was a pronounced drop in the use of "Chinaman" which was viewed as derogatory.

A visual representation of this shift can be seen in the use of Chinaman in books using Google's Ngram.  Although the corpus of text for books is not the same as for newspapers, there is probably a positive correlation between the two sources.


How Images of the Chinese Laundryman Finally Improved

 Demeaning negative images of the Chinese laundryman existed by the 1850s when their numbers rapidly increased. Mocking images made fun of his queue, clothing, and work setting and method as in ads for laundry soap.

Other ads with hostile images conveyed aggressive actions toward them as in an ad for a wringer that urged the solution to the Chinese question as "the Chinese must go!".

It took several decades before ads that included Chinese laundrymen became less negative. A mid-20th century ad promoting a home washing machine used a group of Chinese laundrymen surrounding this object in a mixture of awe and puzzlement as well as a feeling of a threat to their livelihood.

In the 1960s, a leading maker of men's business shirts, Van Heusen, made a bold move in their advertisements in national magazines such as LIFE using handsome Chinese male models dressed in American style attire, Van Heusen shirts, of course, to promote their easy to clean shirts made with new material such as dacron. Suzanne Shapiro, the company historian contacted me for reaction to Van Heusen shirt ads from the late 1960s featuring Chinese men neatly attired in Van Heusen shirts, which pointed out that times had changed.  Whereas Chinese laundrymen once ironed Van Heusen shirts, now Van Heusen "presses his shirts," in the sense that new fabrics such as dacron did not require the labor of the Chinese laundryman.

The irony in the ads was more than a statement about Van Heusen's innovation displacing the need for the laundryman's services, but also a recognition that the Chinese laundry was a business in decline with technological changes, e.g., widespread home laundry equipment, aging laundrymen, and educated offspring able to enter white-collar and professional careers.


Chinese Surnames of Immigrants from Guangdong

 Chinese surnames pose problems for several reasons not the least of which is that the word order in Chinese is the opposite of that in English with the surname coming first so that Americans often assume that the surname is the person’s given name. 

Since the Chinese name is represented by an ideogram or Chinese character it is necessary to create a phonetic version based on how the Chinese name sounds when spoken. However, there are often slightly different spellings or anglicized versions. In practical terms, this may not be a major problem because the variations all sound more or less the same.  

However, when these variations of the same name are written with letters of the alphabet instead of spoken some major problems can arise. For example, if a Chinese wanted to leave the country for a visit, he must file for a Certificate of Registration before his departure so that he can return later.  However, if the spelling of his name on different documents is not identical, he risks not being readmitted even though he has proper documentation.

The authoritative guide to Chinese surnames published in 1904 in San Francisco was by David D. Jones, the official court interpreter in  San Francisco.

As 'bonuses', included are definitive explanations of major topics of relevance to Chinese immigrants and people who deal with them such as the difference between a merchant and a laborer, rules regarding the status of sons of merchants, rules governing partnerships, rules governing rights of Chinese employed on U.S. ships, and rules about right to reenter the U.S. after leaving.

One surprise was learning that in 1904 Chinese laundrymen as well as restaurant operators were classified as laborers, not as merchants, even if they had earned a large sum of money. 

This fact raises the question of why many laundrymen were not deported if they had not been born in the U.S. and protected by birthright citizenship. Many laundrymen who came as paper sons would have not been protected by this mechanism and probably deportable.  My father would have had that tenuous status but he did pay $500 to be a "paper merchant" and I have to wonder if that action protected him from possible deportation.  I will examine this further in a future post.

An archive has a free readable and downloadable version of the entire volume.


Li Hung Chang and Chop Suey

     Chinese statesman Li Hung-Chang (1823-1901) was a towering figure in late nineteenth-century Chinese political life, exerting a profound influence over Chinese foreign policy and relations and overseeing China's modernization and development of western-style industrialism. When news of his plans to visit America in 1896, newspapers published extensive information and praise of his achievements, creating crowds in New York wanting to catch a glimpse of this celebrity.

Li visited the U.S. in 1896 on a diplomatic mission but what his visit is most noted for is his connection with a rather pedestrian Chinese dish, chop suey. The legend goes that one night the Viceroy, tired of American banquet fare, wanted Chinese food late one night.  The restaurant was out of most ingredients by that hour but the chef cobbled all the leftover cuttings from vegetables and stir-fried a dish for his distinguished guest. Reporters who were present reported that he enjoyed the dish which was called "chop suey." When this news was reported in newspapers across the country, it generated high curiosity among the "foodies" of the era who ventured in groups to go 'slumming' in the dark and dangerous big city Chinatowns.

Many Chinese restaurants, such as long-running Yee Jun in San Francisco not only added various versions of chop suey to their menus but capitalized on the publicity about the Viceroy's approval of the concoction by including a Li Hung-Chang chop suey.

The publicity about this version of chop suey even encouraged newspapers to publish instructions for Americans to prepare it at home themselves including instructions for properly drinking tea, cooking rice, and information about famous Chinese dishes like bird's nest soup.

When he died in 1901, a San Francisco newspaper published a full-page tribute to him (only half is reproduced here for readability).


"Chinaman," Popular Newspaper Header 1870s-1940s

     Newspaper articles from about 1870 until the 1940s involving a Chinese typically used the term, Chinaman, rather than the person's name, occupation, or other descriptors.  Here is a small sample of the more than 800 articles over this period from the New York Times, many of which were reprinted in newspapers around the country.  Some were short one paragraph incidents while others were extensive articles.  Common topics included robbery, assault, and murders involving a Chinaman at his laundry, as well as smuggling, gambling, and other illegal activities.  

Other common topics were marriages to white women, fights, disputes, and crimes among the Chinese. Other articles were informational, derisive comments and descriptions of some curious customs and traditions of Chinamen.

 (To enlarge the video to full screen, click at bottom right)


Tank Kee (aka George Bailey), China "Expert" Lecture Tour of U.S. 1870s-1890s

    George Bailey1 claimed to have been orphaned and found off the coast of China and raised by the royal family. Bailey’s obituary by his friend, William Payne, in the Evening Times-Republican in 1902 in Marshalltown, Iowa, explaining that Bailey’s family moved to China for business when George was a child. The young couple died of cholera, and Bailey was taken in by a wealthy Chinese family and nicknamed “Tank Kee,” a seemingly Chinese name related to the characters for blue-green and remembrance or record.  


         By the early 1870s, George Bailey had started a traveling lecture career in the United States using the name, Tank Kee, as if he were part of the Chinese diaspora. For over twenty years, he would travel across western, midwestern, and southern states speaking to audiences about China.  Bailey’s performances as Tank Kee was different from that of other white performers at the time who claimed to showcase Asian culture. Unlike these other popular performers, Bailey did not perform in yellowface or pander to white audiences by trafficking in cheap stereotypes. Instead, he used his lectures to push back against rising anti-Chinese racism across the United States, believing that anti-immigrant sentiments stemmed from ignorance. His lectures aimed to educate his audiences on Chinese history and culture in order to change their minds about Chinese immigration, a political message Bailey made explicit both in his public lectures and frequent newspaper articles defending Chinese people against attacks on their morality and character. 

    Tank Kee lectured about China in a tour throughout the United States that featured many “curiosities”—including dresses, statues, coins, and books. He brought these goods to the South and Midwest, including Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul.  As a part of his lectures, Bailey wore these elaborate Chinese costumes to “illustrate” different roles; sometimes he would use objects, including fans, embroidery, statues, and ivory carvings, as a visual reference. Later, he would design more formal exhibits as curator of the American Archaeological and Asiatic Society, which he created in Wichita, Kansas.

       Under the byline Tank Kee, Bailey wrote many opinion pieces strongly criticizing America’s growing anti-Chinese sentiment, which put him in direct opposition with Dennis Kearney, the champion of  "The Chinese Must Go" campaigns. During his tour of the Southeast, he wrote what came to be known as the “Mississippi Letters,” which shared his critical thoughts on race and culture in the Jim Crow South that made him many enemies in the South.

   Eventually, as visitors to see his collections declined by1890, Bailey sought a permanent home for his extensive Chinese collections. In 1891 he offered to donate everything to the University of Texas if the following terms were met: the university would build a suitable building to preserve the books; the professors would be its trustees; Bailey’s mark would be stamped on all the books; the objects would be repaired; the library would be preserved intact; and, lastly, the building would be named the Tank Kee Library. 

    The Dallas Morning News estimated that the 33,000 volumes were valued at around $120,000 to $150,000, a massive sum for the time, and the university wanted the collection. A month later, none of the books had been delivered, however. A reporter asked Bailey why he was delaying, and Bailey said that the University of Texas would not build a fireproof building and wanted only to add his books to the general library, a proposition he would not accept.   But there was never any agreement about the building, and the deal collapsed.  

    Bailey contacted the renowned Newberry Library in Chicago. which was actively seeking to expand its holdings. Instead of trying to donate the entire collection and negotiating payments for transportation and other costs, Bailey offered to sell many of the English books on China, the Chinese encyclopedia, seventeenth-century Jesuit texts, Chinese paintings, and military maps. He told the Newberry that he had acquired most of his books during his thirty years living in China.  The Chicago Sunday Tribune reported that the most treasured “curiosity” was the 239-volume “imperial encyclopedia, used only by the mandarins, and held by them under the government, to which in the end it must be returned, and but one other copy exists outside the empire.” While his entire collection was valued at more than $100,000, he sold these volumes for $12,000 to the Newberry, more than recovering the costs incurred from his Masonic misadventure. He continued to travel throughout the Midwest and Southeast and lecture about China until his death in 1902.

1 Not to be confused with the George Bailey character made famous by James Stewart in the movie, "It's A Wonderful Life."





Mississippi Triangle: Relation of black, white and Chinese in the Delta

    Almost all discussions about problems in race relations historically have focused on a binary, black versus white, and give little or no attention to other groups. In the Mississippi Delta, such a focus misses the unique situation which has existed there for over a century. The Chinese, although small in number, played a significant role as a group situated physically and socially between the larger black and white communities.              

    There is no lack of information about the dominant relationship that whites held in the Delta with respect to blacks. Much less is known about how blacks and whites regard and treat the Chinese?  And how did the Chinese view and react to the black and the white communities?

    Whites had the most power and dominated the blacks in the Delta as throughout the racially segregated South.  The Chinese had less status than the whites but more than the blacks. They were in an in-between status, higher than blacks, but not as high as whites. The Chinese made their living for decades almost entirely operating small grocery stores in black neighborhoods of small rural towns in the Delta. They provided invaluable services to blacks, even extending goods to them on credit until payday, which was not possible in white grocery stores that were less welcoming to black customers. So, while the Chinese benefited financially from serving blacks, they wanted to have the social privileges of whites, not the least of which was access for their children to white schools which were better financed than schools for blacks. Some Chinese children attended mission schools provided by the Baptist church in Cleveland, MS. even though some had to board at the school because it was not within commuting distance.  The Chinese could not attend white schools until a few years after WWII, with one of the main reasons being white fears that some Chinese children were not "pure" Chinese but may have had a black mother.

      Blacks benefited from the better treatment from Chinese grocers than from white stores, but some blacks felt some Chinese overpriced merchandise. Chinese also had cause for tensions with some blacks, and over the years there were many assaults, robberies, thefts, and even homicides committed by blacks against Chinese. Although most black customers were innocent of such offenses, the Chinese had to be vigilant and wary of the dangers they faced from some black residents. Newspaper clippings of some of the many attacks on the Chinese over the decades document the dangers they faced constantly.

     Awareness and memories of these harmful actions by blacks on the Chinese is a sensitive topic that the Chinese do not like to discuss. They have been "sitting targets" for decades with incidents as far back as 1892. They have little control over the situation and prefer to brag about their success as grocers and the academic achievements of their children.

    One of the first attempt to film interviews and interactions with Chinese, whites, and blacks in the Delta, aptly named, Mississippi Triangle, was in 1982-3 by a trio of filmmakers led by Christine Choy, a Korean American from New York along with Worth Long, a black, and  Allan Siegel, a Jew.  Hoping to get more honest answers about racial attitudes, the filmmakers matched the race of the respondent with that of the interviewer. Although several Chinese were interviewed, one elderly woman, Arlee Hen, who was part Chinese and part black, clearly was interviewed more extensively and presented in short snippets throughout the film.

    The Chinese were very sensitive to any insinuation that they were racist and unhappy to have so much focus on an unrepresentative member of their community and felt the film sometimes depicted Chinese negatively.  The rumor, which was not confirmed, was that after the filmmakers ended their interviews and departed, they secretly returned to continue their interview with Arlee Hen. The Chinese were quite upset with the film and felt they had been deceived about the purpose of the film. Mississippi Triangle examined the attitudes of each of the three communities toward each other but some Delta Chinese assumed the film would call attention to the many successes of the Delta Chinese. At a Clarksdale screening of the film and discussion with the filmmakers attended by about 200 Chinese, the reaction was negative because they felt the film gave a negative view of the Delta Chinese, one that might have been valid decades ago but did not reflect the present.

Here is a  trailer for the film.

    I learned about the film and its controversy a decade or more ago but had never seen it until recently with I discovered it can be rented for online viewing on vimeo.com.

      I also unearthed a podcast on Soundcloud where two commentators discuss their reactions to Mississippi Triangle on a series that covers Asian American topics on Saturday School.  The above link I provided skips the opening chit chat of 8:45 before they get down to business discussing the film.

You will note the podcast audio screen below includes a photo of Arlee Hen.

    The podcast raises some worthwhile points illustrated with audio clips from the film.  Unfortunately, the two podcasters are a bit too jovial and "amused" in their discussion in my view, which detracts from their analysis.
A difficult to locate but a more detailed discussion of the film and its reception  by Renee Tajima and Adria Bernardi is in the July/August 1984 issue of Southern Exposure, pp 17-23, "The Chinese: 100 years in the South."


Rare 1930s Chinese American family home movies: A Story of Lost, Found, Restored, and Interpretation


    Silas Fung, a Chinese American artist from a family with two other artists, Paul and Timothy, was a successful commercial artist in Chicago. He was fascinated by the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and collected artifacts from the exhibition.  Fung’s “Miniature Fair House” was a subject of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!” on September 6, 1937.

His wife, Edythe Julius Shum, proved to a highly successful Sun Life Assurance of Canada sales agent who traveled all over Canada and much of the U.S. to sell life insurance to Chinese immigrants. (We were the only Chinese in Macon, Georgia during the 1930s-1950s and had Sun Life insurance and while I do not know if she sold it to my father, it would not surprise me if she was the one who sold it to him).

    In the 1930s home movie cameras were becoming increasingly affordable and Silas made many 16 mm. home movies of his family in often candid scenes in and out of their home. Eventually, the movie collection went missing for decades until one day they suddenly were listed for sale on eBay!

    An Indian-Canadian filmmaker, Ali Kazimi, was excited to learn of the availability although he did not know who made the home movies. He wanted non-portrait images of Asian Americans, but few, if any, home movies of Asian Americans probably existed. He had to bid for the films in an online auction and paid about $2,000 for the collection, sight unseen. It appears that he had been bidding against Fung's descendants for the films. In any event, the films were in terrible condition and appeared to be unsalvagable but he decided to run the risk of restoring the films at great expense, which would risk being destroyed or incinerated in the attempt. For film historians, this link goes to his interview about the entire ordeal of restoration.

Ali Kazari's restored home movies combined with his interpretive commentary and help from Fung's daughter, Irena Lum, in providing descriptions of the photographed activities, locations, dates, and identification of the family members created his documentary, Random Acts of Legacy, an award-winning best documentary at CAAMFEST, 2017. This link is to the trailer for the film.

"Intertwining a first-person narrative as an outside witness with family accounts and other commentators, Kazimi weaves a rich tapestry of the life of an unusually wealthy family of colour from the Depression era. The retrieved footage offers an intimate and radically different visual perspective on the Chinese American community in Chicago – with a surprising feminist twist. Visually rich and textured, unafraid to show the decaying patina of a family archive, Random Acts of Legacy revels in the making of home movies and memory.


"Extraordinary for its unvarnished representation of family life, at home, church, and play, Fung’s moving pictures offer a surprising counter-narrative to stereotypes of Chinese Americans in his day. His films captured birthday celebrations with cake and candles, gatherings and picnics in the park, as well as family fishing and boating outings. Silas Fung's images celebrate the everyday life of his first-generation, upwardly-mobile, Chinese American family; a portrait of lives otherwise omitted from moving-image history."     America Reframed