Tuesday, September 22, 2020


Article Index

C. The Threat of Chinese Prostitution

While opponents to Chinese immigration emphasized the threat posed by Chinese prostitution, it is difficult for historians to say with certainty how many of the Chinese women who came to the United States actually engaged in prostitution. Early scholarship on Asian American women highlighted the large number of prostitutes in the initial waves of Chinese immigration. However, recent scholarly research has countered the idea that all early immigrant women were prostitutes. The discrepancy stems from the fact that data from the 1800s is scarce and unreliable. For example, census takers may have failed to distinguish that Chinese second wives and concubines were not prostitutes, and therefore incorrectly listed them as such.

Although there was a great focus on the evils of Chinese prostitution and slavery, the view that all Chinese women were prostitutes was not accurate. In the Chinese immigrant community, the distinction between wives and prostitutes was malleable; some Chinese women came to the United States as prostitutes and later married Chinese men, thereby changing their status. Furthermore, there existed a spectrum consisting of wives, second wives, concubines, and prostitutes; a woman's status depended on her sexual relationships with Chinese men. This differed from the clear-cut American distinction between wives and prostitutes. Other Chinese women lived together in groups, occasionally even adopting children together, but they, too, were sometimes wrongly categorized as prostitutes.

In 1852, only four Chinese women were recorded as being prostitutes. However, in 1870, 2,157 out of 3,536 Chinese women living in California were recorded as being prostitutes. By 1880, the total number of Chinese women had decreased to 3,171, and only 759 Chinese were listed as prostitutes.

Regardless of how many Chinese women actually worked as prostitutes, the majority of Chinese women were perceived as such; and therefore immigration laws aimed at targeting prostitutes affected all Chinese women. The widely held belief that all Chinese women were prostitutes was expressed in political debates and news articles.

Hostility toward Chinese women began in San Francisco, where a municipal committee reported in 1854 that most Chinese women in the city were prostitutes, and this then became the general conviction. In the same year, San Francisco passed Ordinance No. 546 To Suppress Houses of Ill-Fame Within the City Limits. The law was facially neutral, but the police enforced the Ordinance mostly against Chinese and Mexican brothels. However, prostitution itself remained a legal occupation. This proves that prostitution itself was not the problem, but there was a fear of non-white prostitutes, particularly working in houses of prostitution.

In 1866, California passed An Act for the Suppression of Chinese Houses of Ill-Fame. The Act specifically declared that Chinese prostitution was a public nuisance, invalidated leases of property to brothels, and made it a misdemeanor for landlords to let their properties be used as brothels.

In addition to the regulations and enforcement against Chinese prostitution, journalists and politicians expressed especially critical views of Chinese prostitution. In 1854, the New York Tribune accused the Chinese of being lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute, and of the basest order. In April 1869, Overland Monthly published an article describing San Francisco's Chinatown:

Vice of every form reigned unchecked; and there were not wanting those who were ready to traffic in anything which might bring grain to their pockets; and amongst such were a few shrewd, but unprincipled Chinamen . . . bringing with them the first of those women whose numbers have since increased from year to year, and whose presence is an offence to all respectable people, and a blot on the character of their own nation.

The article asserted that, nearly all Chinese prostitutes in San Francisco are a disgrace to their nation. It also mentioned that Chinese custom was to sequester women at home, which led to the conclusion that all Chinese women who appeared in public were prostitutes.

Political discussions through the 1860s and 1870s also critiqued prostitution. One Senator described the Chinese as a race with whom polygamy is a practice and female chastity is not a virtue. Another Congressman stated that [t] he father sells his son into servitude and his daughter for prostitution . . . . Polygamy and concubinage are national institutions. Yet another Senator from California remarked that, [i] n morals and in every other respect they are obnoxious to our people. The women are prostitutes, and the men are petty thieves. Even President Ulysses S. Grant said about the Chinese that, [h] ardly a perceptible percentage of them perform any honorable labor, but they are brought for shameful purposes, to the great demoralization of the youth of these localities. These statements show that even in the highest echelons of government, policymakers regarded prostitution an inherent Chinese characteristic and perceived all Chinese women as prostitutes.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law