“The First Blow at the Chinese Question” 1877

Cartoon showing white worker punching a Chinese man
“The First Blow at the Chinese Question” – 5 December 1877 by George Frederick Keller for The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp

Readers of the San Francisco satire magazine The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp did not receive a balanced view of the Chinese in their cartoons or accompanying articles. The readership of the magazine lived with and believed in the terror of white unemployment caused by cheap Chinese labor. They expected and received a press that was sympathetic to their concerns.

“No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Despite laws and treaties promising federal protection, “lynchings, boycotts and mass expulsions still harassed the Chinese after the federal government yielded to the clamor for their exclusion in 1882” (Higham 25).

Steadily, the Democratic Party, fueled by an infusion of “southern exports” and white “Workingmen’s Party” members merged into a powerful force to treat the Chinese and other minorities in the West with “similar brutality in legislation, in land policy, and in labor practices” (Pfaelzer 58-60).

It was easier to justify the violence, the driving out, the boycotts and mistreatment of the Chinese when they could be turned into something less than human. The labor issue, one of the six categories Richard S. West showcases in his book, was the focus of The Wasp’s first anti-Chinese, pro-white labor cover, The First Blow at the Chinese Question.  West prefaces the image by acknowledging that 15,000 men out of work in San Francisco alone, added to the white labor agitation. The Chinese immigrant was made to be the scapegoat (West 156).

A sturdy-looking white man wearing a trade apron, and two other laborers behind him have entered Chinatown. They encounter a Chinse man on the sidewalk. In one hand, the lead worker carries a sign, “Working Men’s Procession.”  With his right arm, the lead workingman lands a punch directly into the face of the Chinese immigrant. The blow knocks his victim off balance. The Chinese man’s long queue spirals outward from the impact.  His oversized tunic extends past his arms, covering his hands. The Chinese man does not curl his fists in to strike back. Keller has neutralized this victim.

Another Chinese immigrant stands behind a storefront door or window and reacts in horror. He is distorted and ethereal. His whole body is aquiver, as if he is being vaporized, like a genie returning to a lamp. His fluid contours suggest he is fading away. This second Chinese figure is startled and his queue reacts in the same manner as the man under attack. He holds a gun by his side, but he makes no attempt to raise the weapon in defense. He is unable to protect his territory, his placement inside the rectangular border limits his power.  The frame suggests he is reduced to one dimension, a poster or piece of wall art.

As Lenore Metrick-Chen suggests, it was fashionable for Americans to collect  Chinese art, but acceptable to exclude the Chinese people.  The Wasp suggests that the Chinese belong on walls, but not in the streets.

Unlike Nast’s portrayals of the Workingmen’s Party, Keller’s representation of Causacian labor are generic and do not possess brutish features. Their behavior says otherwise.

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