History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 June 2010

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.


Blogger Scorpio M. said...

This is a very interesting topic and rarely discussed. The Chinese have been in America for a very long time yet many people still look at the Chinese as 'immigrants.'

I'm curious, is your work in progress a romance? Wondering how this topic will tie in. Thanks for the very informative post.

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad but oh so true. I don't know how long ago you were in high school, but I was surprised to find out about the discrimination against Catholics back in the 1960's. I had grown up in an area about 75% Catholic, so it wasn't a problem. When I was in Peace Corps training on of the guys mentioned having to sneak out of school and run home so he wouldn't get beaten up because he was Catholic. He live in Ohio or someplace in the middle of the country. I have seen the ugly face of discrimination all over this country. First in NYC, I was refused service at a lunch counter because I was with 2 black girls. Then in California, we couldn't get waited on in a fabric store, I was with Filipinos. They said it happened all the time. In the Philippines I was discriminated for because I was a white American. I was also discriminated against for the same reason. Now I live in the South and even after 18 years am reminded constantly I don't belong here. A Catholic Yankee is not welcomed. When we first moved here, our priest (a sweet man in his 70's) was told by a store manager that his kind weren't welcomed and asked to leave. The racism and bigotry I see in the schools and society in general is only getting worse. Right now the Hispanic workers are a main focus. Locals complain about them, but if they weren't here the crops would never make it. Those same people who complain won't go out and work the fields. They call them "mater monkeys." A local politician has proposed a state law that would make it illegal to speak anything but english in a place of business. Dumb. That would mean the chinese waitresses at the chinese restaurant could be charged for talking to each other in chinese while at work. The law is aimed at the hispanics, but as usual they haven't thought how many others it will impact. If the waiter or waitress is talking to the customers in English, who cares if he speaks spanish to the cook in the kitchen?
Back to your research on the chinese. To extend the discrimination further, the internment of the Japanese-Americans and loss of their property during WWII is a glaring and shameful example. If your heritage was such a problem, why weren't the Italian-Americans and German-Americans treated in the same manner?
Our country's history of "Freedom" is littered with one group after another being denied that which we proudly proclaim is what we stand for. It seems to be a case of you can be accepted into the fold only if you are like "us" - the great WASP founders. Every group that came spent time as the unwanted, some groups longer than others.

Good luck with your book. You certainly have done good research for it.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating stuff, Lynna. Can't wait to read the book! My mother is half Creek and half Cherokee. She grew up in the Deep South in the 30's and 40's and her heritage meant she was in the same category as African Americans. She was raised on a sharecropping farm and started picking cotton, tobacco and peanuts at the age of six. She and her brothers were allowed to attend public school because in addition to running the farm her mother worked in the school cafeteria. She and her brothers were often called "prairie n*****s" which is why as they grew up and went out to get jobs my grandmother told them to present themselves as white. They lied about their heritage for years, as long as their mother was alive. It was only at her funeral when her 20 brothers and sisters showed up that I realized there were things I had not been told. It looked like a reunion of the winning team at Custer's Last Stand. This country does have a long history of prejudice and mistreatment of those deemed "different" by those in power. It is also known as a place where those at the bottom if they work hard enough, believe hard enough and educate themselves well enough can rise to the top.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I want to hear more about your work in progress, Lynna. Are you writing a Western romance which features Chinese characters? Do tell....!

8:14 PM  
Anonymous lynna banning said...

To Scorpio (and Kathryn): Yes, I'm writing a western romance with a Chinese (well, half-Chinese) character who is the heroine. The setting is an Oregon farming community; farmers were (are?) notoriously narrow-minded.

So... not only am I worried that my British editor does not understand the American West, I am worried that she (they?) won't want an inter-racial story.

To Library Pat: Thanks for sharing your thoughts--I am with you 100%!

To Louisa: What a powerful novel your mother's life (and your own) would make!

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Sharon said...

The closet of American history has its fare share of skeletons in various shapes and forms. It’s not enough that these skeletons are brought out into the open. It’s only when they grow flesh through a novelist’s imagination (and a biographer’s portrait) that we will feel the pain and sorrow (and the triumph, at times) and learn not to make the same mistakes. Best wishes on your WIP.

BTW, have you ever read Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain? Her family history is fascinating, and her writing is very engaging. Indeed, her grandmother could very well be your heroine: Chinese father and German (IIRC) mother.

8:35 PM  

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