“A Statue for Our Harbor” 1881

Cartoon of Chinese man as a mockery of the statue of liberty
“A Statue for Our Harbor” 11 November 1881 by George Frederick Keller for the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp
San Francisco artist George F. Keller struck again, aided by The Wasp’s increased investment in color lithography, with A Statue For Our Harbor, November 11, 1881. Although the Statue of Liberty and its base had yet to make a physical appearance in New York’s harbor, discussions about the statue and controversies in fundraising and artists’renditions, were broadly covered in East Coast media and beyond. Keller’s image serves as a reminder that he and or The Wasp kept their attention on their eastern counterparts and applied regional topics to switch focus on West Coast concerns. The image is a cry for attention to examine West Coast immigration issues.

The image was preceded by a popular book, The Last Days of the Republic (1880) written by newspaper editor Pierton Dooner who “described immigration as a “vicious conspiracy” against the U.S. by the Chinese, and illustrated his point with Keller’s drawings” (Tchen/Yeats, 231).

No warm welcome from a copper French Lady Liberty here, immigrants to San Francisco’s harbor are welcomed by a menacing Chinese effigy. His clothes in tatters, this slimy figure, with his long queue wafting with the breeze, illuminates the American way for Asian immigrants. A few steam boats rest in the harbor, but a larger number arrive via antiquated Asian sail boats or “junks.”

The implication is clear. Modern European immigration has acquiesced in deference to an infiltration of backward, invading forces from Asia.  A full moon with a Chinese likeness sneeringly supervises the scene. His celestial light bathes the night sky. Six beams of light emanate from the statue’s unseen torch or lamp.They illuminate the harbor with “Filth,” “Immorality,” “Diseases,” and requiring three beams,“Ruin to White Labor.”  In the statue’s other hand is an opium pipe. The Chinese man‘s foot is triumphantly perched upon a human skull, presumably that of a white human, and behind the skull is a rat’s tail. The rat has picked the skull clean.

The Wasp’s readers knew all too well that the Chinese ate rodents. Western press delighted in repeating the disgusting stereotype. In Keller’s illustration, the Chinese have ascended to the top of the food chain. A position that is complicit with the cannibalism of white humanity.  Rodents thriving along the embankment collect at the base of the star-shaped pedestal, which is also strewn with trash.  

While labor issues were one of the six categories that predominated The Wasp’s view of the Chinese, the overarching theme in this image is one of disease and immorality. The Wasp suggests there can be no question that the Chinese are to blame for dark and dismal polluted condition of San Francisco’s harbor.

Light and dark divides the image. As a “celestial” the Chinese figure is awash in light as he extends his arm and face toward the source of his “otherness” the celestial sky.  The clouds part in his presence.  The colors darken as the figure connects with the earth and his roots and foundation into his new San Francisco home.

2 thoughts on ““A Statue for Our Harbor” 1881”

  1. AH our glorious history of racial bigotry and hate is about to repeat itself in this election year 2016

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