Thursday, August 13, 2020


Article Index

B. Immigration of Chinese Women

Recorded Asian immigration to the United States began in the mid-nineteenth century with Chinese men who first came to Hawaii and California. They arrived in the United States partly as a result of the Gold Rush in 1849 and the subsequent need for cheap labor. At the time of their arrival, entry to the United States was fairly easy, as national policies encouraged and promoted immigration. An estimated 370,000 Chinese entered the United States from 1840 to 1880. In 1868 the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty, a bilateral agreement that forbade restrictions on immigration between the two countries. The treaty was signed after the Civil War, when the United States was expanding its markets through international trade and encouraging the immigration of cheap labor.

As early as 1852, with the depletion of gold and influx of immigrants, the Chinese became targets of racial hostility and resentment. In fact, by the 1860s, California state politicians ran elections and won votes based on a platform of harsh anti-Chinese policies.

Racism against the Chinese was based on an American Orientalist ideology that . . . positioned and defined West and the East in diametrically opposite terms. In the view of Americans, Chinese laborers endangered the American standard of living through a willingness to accept lower wages and worse working conditions than American workers. Additionally, Congressional debates focused on the Chinese immigrants' inability to assimilate. For example, during a Congressional session Senator Cowan stated that it is very well ascertained that those people [the Asiatic population] have no appreciation of that form of government [republican government] ; it seems to be obnoxious to their very nature; they seem to be incapable either of understanding or carrying it out. Such statements illustrate the concern that the Chinese endangered the American ideals of democracy and republican government due to their perceived inability to assimilate.

While at first Chinese men came alone, soon Chinese women and children immigrated to the United States as well. Around 1850, there were 4,018 Chinese men and seven Chinese women in San Francisco.

Through the 1850s, the representation of Chinese women in the press became increasingly negative, although there were only a small number of Chinese women in the United States. An article published in 1852 in the Daily Alta California described Chinese women in San Francisco as queer and diminutive specimens of the human family . . . walking through the streets with as much delicacy as a turkey treading on hot ashes. An 1858 article in Harper's Weekly described their supposedly grotesque hair styles, bound feet, and manner of dress. These early articles focused on the Chinese women's physical appearance, to differentiate them from white women. Such negative descriptions would soon reach a peak after all Chinese women in the United States were perceived as prostitutes and as such, a threat to the nation's physical and moral well-being. Soon, however, a shift occurred and the descriptions changed from the women's physical differences to their moral and cultural dissonance.

As the perceptions and descriptions of Chinese women became increasingly negative, a greater effort was made to prevent them from entering the United States. Anti-Chinese groups raised two arguments, based on gender and sexuality, to end the immigration of Chinese women. They contended that: (1) Chinese prostitutes were a threat to the institution of marriage and a danger to white males, and by association a threat to the nation; and (2) Chinese prostitutes were slaves and therefore antithetical to the post-Civil War nation, which was united by its condemnation of slavery. Since all Chinese women were assumed to be prostitutes, all Chinese women would eventually come to face tremendous challenges in immigration.