Prejudice and pride
My first encounter with prejudice occurred when I was in high school and a girls’ organization I belonged to blackballed an applicant - not because she was Japanese, but because she was Catholic!
I attended an ethnically-mixed California public high school; the student body was a combination of Japanese (some Chinese), Mexican, and Caucasian kids, all of us Americans. What prejudice was I aware of? (1) Jealousy of the Asian kids because they tended to get superlative grades; (2) In-fighting among the Caucasian kids over status and who wore Lanz dresses and circle skirts; and (3) Envy of the manly Mexican “pachukos,” whose jeans hung around their hip bones and whose t-shirts sported cigarette packs rolled up in one sleeve.
Which brings me to the subject of my current work in progress: Chinese immigration in the 19th century and the extreme reaction of the indigenous (which included a large number of Mexicans) population. Yes, the Chinese “looked” different ; but so did the dark-skinned Mexicans; the Negroes, who found their way west following the Civil War; and the occasional off-the-reservation Indian. Americans were (are?) a woefully rascist people.
The Chinese laborers who flocked to the west on ships that were allowed to debark passengers only at the “mail docks” endured considerable discrimination in the “land of the free.” Chinese had been reported in the sleepy Mexican trading village of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) in 1838. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the U.S. government simply took over tracts of land from Mexico’s northern territories, and Chinese miners flocked to the diggings.
Most original pioneer Chinese were merchants and traders, but in the mid-1800s the fabric of Chinese society was unraveling and thousands of starving Chinese men flocked to America. Not many women, however; wives were left at home, were sent money, and were occasionally visited by their husbands, who were shortly off to America again to earn a livelihood.
These men were desperately poor and formed crews of laborers which the resident Americans called “coolies.” Most came on a “credit ticket” and served under bond for years to pay back their fare. They lost no time scraping a living any way they could and soon earned a reputation for being hardworking miners, canny merchants, and extraordinarily industrious, efficient, and courageous railroad crews who blasted through the Sierra Nevada mountains laying tracks to connect to eastern lines.
Other Chinese immigrants became fishermen, but they were resented by hostile Italian immigrants who dominated the California markets. Some Chinese became farmers, and a network of peddlers sold vegetables from house to house; some cultivated fields of strawberries as sharecroppers, tended orchards, and managed farm properties. They picked grapes, made wine, picked cotton and hops, tended livestock, and harvested wheat. In so doing they incurred the resentment of their American farm bosses because in some cases the Chinese knew more about farming than they did!
Conflicts were inevitable; white bosses tended to exploit Chinese workers; businesses resented the fact that their employees sent wages back to China instead of spending money here and boosting the economy. Discipline was extremely harsh and included whippings. Miners were driven off their sites. Attacks against the Chinese became common, and they had no recourse.
The 1854 law which said, “No Indian or Negro shall be allowed to testify as a witness in any action in which a white person is a party,” was extended to include “Chinese and all other people not white.”
Women were another problem. The earliest Chinese immigrants were well-to-do merchants who brought their wives with them. The poorer laborers, who came later, could not. Consequently, immigration of Chinese females was limited primarily to women who walked the streets and sold their bodies. Proper merchants’ wives were rarely seen in public. As a result, a “Chinese woman” was most often thought of as a whore. Brothels flourished, and resentment against the Chinese increased. Their children were denied access to public schools; adults could not become naturalized citizens. Chinese businesses were taxed and harassed.
Pro-Chinese forces supported Chinese rights; anti-Chinese political groups proliferated. In the 1870s, one organization went on the rampage, committing random murders, setting fires, fighting with police. It was not a peaceful time. And the cause? Partly plain old rascist discrimination, coupled with resentment of the Chinese originated in simple economic competition. Add to this dislike and disapproval and...
Looks as if I’ve got the background conflict for my work in progress!
Source: Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown, by John Kuo Wei Tchen.