5 thoughts on “Chinese Exclusion Act

  1. How complicated and nuanced is life as it is lived – for good or bad. On the anti-Chinese feeling prevalent after the Civil War, it appears the grievances were not always just about replacement cheap labor on the railroads. There was a groundswell akin to anti-Semitism of the 1930s and it was deeply felt across polite society and often voiced in the most abhorrent tones. In some ways you could argue that the Chinese Exclusion Act was defusing something much worse. Commentators did at the time. Take the Los Angeles Herald of May 1876: “The anti-Chinese sentiment is right, patriotic, and in every sense American; but it will not do to countenance or even wink at such proceedings as occurred at Antioch and a day or two since in San Francisco. Legal remedies can alone acquire permanent results.” The proceeding in Antioch? The small town of Antioch, that suburb of San Francisco where today nothing much happens had just had a riot. In 1876 the good people of Antioch took it upon themselves to drive out at least some of the Chinese colony and torch their homes and businesses. Doubtless the Chinese fled back to San Francisco, but even in the city there were anti-Coolie and Caucasian clubs formed by working people which were mulling obtaining guns from the East.
    And yet bad feeling had existed in Antioch since January, Chinese fishermen had been using two boats with a net strung between, emptying the San Joaquin of fish, not throwing back even the smallest but discarding them onshore to the consternation of the town. But there were degrees of cooliedom. According to the burghers of Antioch, “a large number of Chinamen pursue their avocations in our midst, unmolested”. (That’s considerate of them). And “some 15 have learned to read English”. The expulsion wasn’t racism, but merely the ridding from the town of “six diseased Chinese prostitutes”. Did the white prostitutes get a free pass, one wonders? As I said, how complex and nuanced is life as it is lived.

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    • We’re in agreement here. I even hesitated posting this video because I was afraid it reinforced the usual oversimplification of American race relations, but I liked how it hinted at things other than just labor relations–such as the very common human tendency to fear the unknown and to find scapegoats in times of economic turmoil.

      While some think it silly or insensitive there were many Christian missionaries who embraced the Chinese in the best way they knew how–by trying to push them towards assimilation and by converting them.

      Then there’s the influence of Darwin which was quite strong in the US. The well meaning people who tried to train the Indians and Asian immigrants to embrace their western ways did so because they believed that it was the only way a less fit group of people could survive. It’s also why the extinction of the buffalo seemed inevitable to so many with only the fittest creatures surviving.

      And then we must take into account that just like people today everyone had mixed motives, changes of heart and deep fears that they probably didn’t even realize.

      The intellectual elite of the east coast often let their hearts bleed for immigrants and Indians as long as none of these people bothered them. I vaguely recall a strong interest in Oriental art in the late nineteenth century as well.

      And lets not forget that people always find new ways to hate each other 🙂

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    • Jacqui,
      I am sure it was not an isolated case, so do not beat yourselves up Antiochers. You were no worse than the rest of America. I suppose the point I was groping towards was about encapsulation and categorisation to which history can so easily revert. Yes, historians draw together stuff and reach conclusions, but if you ignore the particularities — of bad fishermen and diseased prostitutes in this case — the whole picture can be subsumed in a convenient theory. In this case “Hardworking, abstemious Chinese workers were an economic threat by undercutting wages”. As ever, it was more than that…

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      • We’re all flawed but it’s so much easier to tell stories in black and white than in grey. “They are racist–they are hardworking.” We search for superior new programs for humanity foolishly thinking we’ll find them if we’re tolerant, or progressive or exclusive etc.

        If I think of my own life and all the different people I’ve been so far and then imagine the constantly fluctuating ideas and actions of all of the millions of others over time I realize there’s so little I can ever actually know.

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