The “Old” Perspective Through the 1930’s

On one hand, Americans began to see Chinese Americans in a more positive light for several reasons.  Largely because of China’s stance in World War II, Americans began to be convinced that Chinese people might be somehow catching on to the West’s superior social, political, and economic thinking.  As Americans perceived China, so they perceived Chinese Americans as well.  On the other hand, white Americans held onto the foundation of racial prejudice that existed since the beginning of Chinese American history—a thinking that heavily influenced the Chinese Americans’ view of themselves.  The clash of perspectives gave birth to an American perspective that was very slowly beginning to warm up to the idea of Chinese Americans as a part of American society, but that in reality was often still holding on tightly to the prejudices and stereotypes of the past.

To white Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans represented a demographic of people that could be easily lumped together and generalized.  Testament to that fact is the terminology used to refer to both groups extensively: “Orientals,”[1] “Coolies,”[2] “Reds,” and “Chinamen.”[3] This generalization of those of Chinese descent even went as far as confusion with those of Japanese descent, which entailed the attitude involved in many laws and court cases of the time.  The Chinese Exclusion Act continued all the way until its repeal in 1943, and court cases like Takao Ozawa v. U.S. declared all Japanese people ineligible for naturalized citizenship.[4] Such national matters became the ultimate manifestation of the American response to their generalized construction of the “Yellow Peril.”

Rita Hayworth and Patricia Morison. Copyright Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This perception extended extensively into the Hollywood scene.[5] The Boxer rebellion, anti-foreign, and anti-Christian movements in China at the turn of the twentieth century became emblematic issues of what China was to the average American.  Depictions of the dark and serious Chinese man, the cunning and mystifying Dragon Lady, and other such representations were planted in the minds of Americans through the early American film industry.[6] Such inaccuracies were proliferated through the grandiose Hollywood scene, but arguably even more so through an everyday influence in the lives of Americans at the time: the newspaper.

Specific examples of this condescending and stand-offish attitude can be seen quite overtly in a Los Angeles Times article about younger Chinese Americans choosing to celebrate the American New Year instead of the Chinese New Year.  “Chinese New Year Changes; Orientals Go Modern. Their Observance of Holiday Being Same as Ours” the headline reads.[7] An account of a memorial service for the founder of “On Loeng Tong” (an exclusive Chinese merchants’ association[8]) describes the Chinese participants as “drab” and “conservative” and their manner of acting as “faithful, if indifferently.”[9] Another report in the Los Angeles Times went as far as to incriminate the Chinese American in a pompous manner: “‘Fi! Fi!’ as Chinaman Says Means ‘Fight.’”[10] American newspapers vilified the Chinese presence in direct and indirect ways to the point of outright ridicule, and because the average American had little personal experience with a Chinese or Chinese American person, the inaccurate picture was painted through Hollywood and the newspapers.

The overall white American perspective in the early twentieth century was based on the classic stereotype of a Chinese person: mysterious, backwards, and a step behind the American way of life.  This basis of anti-Chinese sentiment, though, would soon change drastically in the 1940’s, as the international drama of World War II began and Americans scrambled to divide allies from foes.

[1] “Li Hung Chang’s Manifesto,” New York Times, September 3, 1896, pg. 4.

[2] “Dockweiler Urged Coolie Labor, Unions Charge,” Los Angeles Sentinel, October 24, 1940, pg. 5.

[3] “Life on a Chinese Street,” New York Times, January 5, 1930, pg. 4.

[5] Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction, (University of California Press, February 14, 1994), 96-100.

[6] “A Hollywood Idea of Society,” New York Times, April 17, 1923, pg. 26.

[7] “Chinese New Year Changes; Orientals Go Modern. Their Observance of Holiday Being Same as Ours,”
Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1930,  pg. 6.

[8] “The On Leong Tong,” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, (accessed November 18, 2010).

[9] “East Meets West at Rites; Christian Burial Service Read in English Over Body of Charlie Boston, Founder of Tong,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1930, pg. 6.

[10] “’Fi! Fi!’ as Chinaman Says Means ‘Fight’,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1931,  pg. 9.