The “New” Perspective of the 1940’s

With the occurrence of World War II and its surrounding events, the White American perspective turned from a generally racist and ignorant viewpoint into a mildly accepting and interested approach.  As the second generation of Chinese Americans began to more fully embrace the American culture and pioneer the Americanized side of the Chinese American identity, white Americans began to explore the “mysterious Chinese” and give them a chance to see what they really had to offer as Americans.[1] As an overarching issue on the international scale, Sino-American relations were (at least at that time) at an all-time high as a result of the alliance involved in World War II against the Axis powers.

As such, the issue of U.S.-China relations weighed heavily on the White American perspective of Chinese Americans.  Although for the average Chinese American China’s politics had little practical impact on life, the white American perspective inherently tied them together.  The news of anything “from the East,” positive or negative, had everything to do with the average White American’s view of Chinese Americans, whether a neighbor or simply a far-off perception.[2] Because Japanese and Japanese American people were pushed into a negative light in the late 1930’s from increasing tensions with China and the U.S., Chinese and Chinese American people were increasingly accepted relatively speaking.[3] Additionally, Chiang Kai-Shek and other Chinese leaders continually made headlines in national newspapers over their groundbreaking political and economic policy changes.[4]

Loretta Young. Copyright Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.

As relations between the U.S. and Japan became increasingly unfriendly, Chinese Americans were surprisingly differentiated in the eye of the average American.[5] In addition, the 1940 Conscription Law drew thousands of Chinese Americans into the United States Armed Forces.  As China’s participation in the war was highlighted by Chinese Americans’ participation in the war, the American attitude toward what used to be the “Yellow Peril” changed drastically.[6] Now, Chinese Americans were an ally in the very least, and Americans began to cautiously explore the world of the Chinese Americans.  A series of articles that unpacked the “mystery” of China and openly changed perceptions like “Mysterious China” and “Fortunes in Chinese Rice Cakes Custom of Ancients”[7] typified the national American newspapers in the late 1930’s and throughout the 1940’s onward.

At the same time, Chinese Americans were breaking onto the Hollywood scene, and actors and actresses like Anna May Wong made way for Chinese Americans in the national spotlight.[8] Although these representations of Chinese and Chinese American people were still not the most accurate, these new Hollywood representations of Chinese and Chinese Americans were cast in a more positive light, embodied mainly in the attractive and exotic sense of the Chinese American woman.[9] However backwards this may seem, Hollywood’s portrayal of Chinese Americans mirrored the positive attitudes that stemmed from the war effort.

Although a complete reversal of the American perspective of Chinese Americans did not occur in the 1940’s, the culturally embedded prejudice that existed since the beginning of Chinese American history came to a crossroads with a refreshed viewpoint of Chinese Americans stemming from World War II, Hollywood, and the American newspapers.  Despite the chaos of the time, this collision of perspectives gave way to a shift in attitudes and the further development of a Chinese American identity.

[1] “Mysterious China, Article No. 3,” Los Angeles Times, February 9, 1930, pg. H8.

[2] Hannah  Pakula, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the Birth of Modern China, (Simon and Shuster, 2009), 345-346.

[3] “China Fights On,” The Washington Post, January 4, 1938, pg. 16.

[4] “Dr. Wu Justifies Policy on Aliens,” New York Times, January 7, 1930, pg. 6.

[5] “Construction and Destruction,” Asian Nation, (accessed December 1, 2010).

[6] “Chinese Force Routs Enemy,” Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1938, pg. 2.

[7] “Fortunes in Chinese Rice Cakes Custom of Ancients,” Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1938, pg. A3.

[8] Philip Liebfried, “Anna May Wong: First Asian American Star,” (accessed Nov 18, 2010).

[9] “In Hollywood with Jimmy Fiddler,” The Washington Post, January 17, 1938, pg.9.