Nativism

Immigration historian John Highman suggests that American nativism “should be defined as intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e.,”un-American”) connections. He observed that feelings or intensities of nativism rose and fell as a barometer to overall nationalistic feelings (4). In America, Highman distills this down to three themes that ran through nativist sentiment in the early nineteenth century: Reformation and the hatred of Roman Catholicism, fear of foreign radicals and political revolutionaries, and racial nativism, which led to the belief America belonged to people of the Anglo-Saxon race. The United States was their domain. The Irish were viewed as a different race and this belief continued to permeate long after the initial Protestant-driven nativist sentiment had considerably weakened.

Harper's Weekly, 1899. Artist Unknown, Misusing Darwin's science theories as a basis, the idea of the Irish as less than fully white persisted. This 1899 cartoon showing the notion still persisting 17 years after the cartoon Nast published in 1882.
Harper’s Weekly, 1899. Artist Unknown, Misusing Darwin’s science theories as a basis, the idea of the Irish as less than fully white persisted. (Not drawn by Nast)

As immigration to America increased in the early 1820s and 1830s, nativist organizations sprouted all over the country and especially in locations with higher immigrant populations. Some met in secret. The Know Nothings are the most well-known of these secret societies, their name derived from their desire to remain secret. When asked about the organization, members would claim not to know anything about it. Nast would affix another meaning to their name, that of ignorance. At first, nativist xenophobia targeted all foreign immigrants, but their real concern quickly shifted to Irish Americans who practiced the Roman Catholic faith, particularly in the 1840s when the Irish began arriving in greater numbers due to increased oppression and the potato blight.

Protestant faith and culture shaped early America.  For the New York City Protestant ruling class, Irish Catholics were seen as a threat to the status quo. In the two decades before and after the Civil War, expressions of nativism in the United States focused almost exclusively toward the Irish Catholics.  The Irish were “nonetheless subject to prejudice, discrimination, and bitter hostility by many Americans for their Irish background or Catholic faith or, more often, both” (Meagher 221).

“American writers, cartoonists, and so-called scientific experts hammered away at Irish violence, emotional instability, and contentment in squalor” (Meagher 217). In the eyes of Protestants with ancestral ties to England, the Irish were no better than animals.  The Irish presented a triple threat. Their growing numbers, allegiance to strong, organized religion ruled by a foreign monarch, and political gains within Tweed’s Democratic Party, all posed a serious concern to the Protestant elite.

Protestant nativists fought for their survival and painted the Irish as “others.” They eagerly adopted and repeated the British trope of the Irish as unsophisticated, violent-prone animals, a lower being on the evolutionary scale. The Irish’s faith, and in particular their blind allegiance to a foreign pontiff, unsettled nativists.  Protestants Americans remembered the hard-fought revolutionary history of their young nation. During the peak years of the potato famine migration (1845-1855) nativists portrayed the Irish in invasion terminology. Nativists predicted the American way of life would end.

By 1880, by and large, the Irish successfully pulled themselves out of their “lowlife” status in a number of ways. They gained respect through their service in the Civil War on behalf of the Union, and in New York City, through political positions awarded by William M. “Boss” Tweed in return for their loyalty and vote.  With these gains in respectablility and power, the Irish emerged as a sought-after voting bloc. But politics alone was not enough to counter nativist prejudice. Most significantly, the Irish fought hard to define themselves as white. To do so meant practicing their own brand of nativism. and align with other xenophobes. The Chinese were a convenient target.

In assessing the work of several “whiteness” studies, historian Timothy Meagher asserts that self-identification as “white” went beyond skin color. “It was not clear that the Irish were white” (217). To be white required a sense of belonging to a community and culture (215). Being a part of anti-racial groups, or affiliation in a secret society was solidifying factor.

The Irish, Meagher writes, arrived in America with “lessons” learned from their British oppressors. Their past shaped the way they thought of race and they arrived in a new nation with revenge buried in their subconscious. Meagher quotes whiteness historian Theodore Allen who wrote of the Irish, “no immigrants ever came to the United States better prepared by tradition and experience to empathize” with other oppressed minorities. But to the contrary, the Irish developed an adversarial role with other races (216).

Meagher concludes that the Irish made a conscious decision to leave the classes of the oppressed and strategize that their best means of survival in a new homeland required a redefinition as members of a superior class. To identify oneself as superior  required a new inferior victim.. The Chinese in America fit the bill. Meagher believes Irish antipathy toward the Chinese went beyond labor competition.

Exemplified by individuals like Denis Kearney, groups of Irish Americans repackaged the same accusations nativists had leveled upon them onto the Chinese. The depictions  and accusations all too similar: practice of a strange form of worship (or lack thereof), unwillingness to assimilate to American culture, a desire to keep to themselves, preferences for living in squalor, and members of a invading force, intent to usrup and redefine the American way of life. For Irish Americans, being anti-Asian helped them become more white.

“Celestial” 1881

“Celestial” by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 2 February 1881. Source: UDel-Walfred

This small cartoon appeared on the back pages of Harper’s Weekly. Pre-Chinese Exclusion, the image reinforces stereotypes, both of the Chinese, here shown as “John Chinaman” and his nemesis, the white laborer, here a member of the Workingmen’s Party of California. This worker  resembles Nast’s generic representations of Irish white laborers pressing the California public and legislature to legally and socially drive the Chinese out.  The worker stands behind a sign that says “Sand Lots.” Sand Lots provided the stage where anti-Chinese agitator Denis Kearney popularized his anthem, “The Chinese Must Go” and rallied white laborers to organize themselves as the “Workingmen’s Party.”

The white laborer is scruffy and unkempt with an unflattering protruding jaw line.  On his hat a band reads “A Vote.” He looks directly at the Chinese man. The outline of a cloud in the sky resembles smoke emanating from the man, but he is not smoking. Off in the distance, Chinese workers are traveling to and from a laundry.

Between the two men, a sign “The New Chinese Treaty” has fallen on the ground. The original Burlingame Treaty, enacted in 1868 to protect Chinese immigrants in the United States, and which bestowed most favored nation status to China, had since gone through many revisions, each increasing limitations upon the Chinese.

The Chinese man attempts diplomacy. He approaches his adversary with deferential respect, his hand to his chest in a slight bow. His head dips to acknowledge the working man. The caption reads,

“The Yellow Dragon. “Of course, I did not hope to suit you, but this is for my friend, Uncle Sam, and it will even enable you to get better accustomed to this land of freedom, which you have adopted and which protects you.”

Many Irish-born, anti-Chinese agitators, like Denis Kearney and the working men who followed him, were naturalized citizens and earned the right to vote in elections.  The vote empowered the Caucasian laborers to lobby effectively against the Chinese. State and federal laws prohibited the Chinese from becoming citizens and voting.

Detail
Detail

In these smaller cartoons, Nast frequently shows Chinese figures carrying laundry tubs, washboards and engaging in laundry services. The Chinese did not come to America with any particular knowledge or skill of laundering, but they adopted the laundry industry as a practical matter when populations in western towns exploded. No one else wanted to do the work and it provided income to the Chinese while rendering a valuable service to the community.  The availability of well-priced,Chinese laundry service freed white women from the tedious household task.  A win-win situation for both white and Chinese families. The figure in the center is going about his business, with a smile upon his face.

Driven out of the mines and infrastructure jobs, Chinese moved into a wide variety of occupations that provided needed services. In addition to laundry, the Chinese were noted as shoe cobblers, cigar makers and tea merchants. Nast’s Chinese launderer may be seen as a stereotype, but by repeating this trope, Nast perpetuates another American perception about the Chinese – their docility.Whether intentional or not, Nast’s background images reinforces the Chinese as peaceful, non-threatening members of society.

Kearney and his his Sand Lot speeches were effective. Despite the Chinese’s limited presence in these service roles, Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party were nevertheless threatened by their existence. They demanded white households to boycott all services rendered by the Chinese.

In his cartoons, Nast alternated the placement of his signature. Here it is on the side of the Chinese diplomat. Plenty of room existed on the left to place the signature. There is evidence to suggest that Nast signed his name next to a person or cause to reaffirm an editorial position.

“At Last the Democratic Tiger has Something to Hang On” 1882

A lion hangs from the queue of a Chinese man
“At Last the Democratic Tiger has Something to Hang On” – 22 April, 1882 by Thomas Nast. Source: UDel-Walfred

 

This smaller cartoon is a commentary offered on the eve of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law on May 6, 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur.

The passage of the act was a victory for the Democratic Party, shown here, not as a donkey, which had become the favored symbol. Instead Nast returns to his past and revives his old nemesis, the Tammany Tiger.

The Tammany Tiger is clenching on the queue of a Chinese man who is desperately holding on for life by wrapping his arms and legs around a tree trunk named “A Veto.” The weight of the tiger is pulling down on the queue, stretching the Chinese man and causing him great discomfort.

The queue is the lifeline for the tiger. The Democrats are reinvigorated by raising “The Chinese Question” and their legislative triumph to drive the Chinese out. By referring to the Democrats as the Tammany Tiger, Nast makes an unmistakable comparison to the corrupt Tweed era. At last, this tiger has found something to hold onto. In a twist of irony, the Chinese, by their very existence, have empowered the Democrats.

Democrats had been on the wrong side of slavery, and the losing side in the Civil War. By exploiting racial fears, Democrats, with a strong Irish constituency, found a receptive audience by stoking Sinophobia in communities where a visible Chinese presence could be targeted.  Repeatedly and effectively, the Democrats offered Chinese “otherness” to swell their ranks and influence of political power. “The Chinese Must Go” soon became a roaring anthem.

Detail
Detail

The Tammany Tiger can hardly believe his luck. After Tweed’s arrest and fall from power, the tiger had been quiet. The tiger has only barely escaped doom. He holds the queue precariously by his teeth. His limbs are all askew, and he has an expression of surprise or puzzlement.

Thomas Nast signed the cartoon on the left side, or side of the Chinese trying to remain in the U.S.

 

 

 

 

“Civilization of Blaine” 1879

The Civilization of Blaine by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, 8 March, 1879. Source: UDel-Walfred

On March 8, 1979, Nast placed James G.Blaine front and center Harper’s cover with The Civilization of Blaine.  A distinguished Blaine is seen at ground level receiving the attention of a subordinate, subservient African American. The black man’s posture is weak. Attired in country clothes, he crouches and cowers with a defensive grin on his face. He has the demeanor of a beaten dog approaching his master. He does not look the white politician in the eye. In his right hand he clutches “A Vote” and offers this almost obediently to Blaine.

And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper's Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress
And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper’s Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress

His right leg is drawn up, nervously rubbing the front of his right foot against the back of his left trouser, as if to polish it in the presence of greatness. Blaine’s left shoe tramples on “Burlingame Treaty.”

As with most of Nast’s villains, Blaine’s face is not distorted or caricatured. Nast wanted him recognized and consistently depicted Blaine’s facial features realistically his cartoons.  Like Tweed, Nast rarely deviated from a famous face once it had been established as a character.  His victim’s bodies on the other hand felt the weapon of distortion,but the face never!

In the background and elevated by a storefront step, a Chinese merchant emerges from his store.  Nast assigns dignity to this merchant. Nast introduces him as a Chinese diplomat, often referred to as  “John Confucius” or “John Chinaman” (the terms are interchangeable) in Nast’s cartoons.  It is an important distinction to note, that in Nast’s catalog of images, he pulled from his personal supply of default or stock characters who served a specific purpose.

Some might argue that “John” perpetuates a stereotype. In almost every instance where John appears, he does so in the same manner as Columbia or Uncle Sam, figures in Nast cartoons who represent either a government or national virtues. They are figures, whom by their expression or stance, often provide admonition or displeasure to the scene of injustice they are witnessing.  Nast could and did draw Chinese in any number of ways, and some of these are not flattering.  “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius” never really changes. His inclusion is purposeful. He is Nast’s relied-upon figure of dignity and outrage toward injustice.

The merchant assumes the elevated position in the drawing.  He is on the right, figuratively and morally. The injustice is on the left. The merchant is not shabbily dressed.  Interestingly, his hair, though long, is not braided into the queue, which factors in most of Nast’s cartoons of the Chinese. It is a subtle change for Nast to utilize. John is wearing a hat, a crown if you will, a piece of clothing that imparts respect, formality and distinction. This further validates his dual role as a local merchant and as a representative of the Chinese. His people will be affected by adherence to the treaty that Blaine is obligated, as a U.S. Senator, to protect.  John’s arms are slightly outstretched, as if encountering a surprise and ready to protest.  At the right of his storefront is a sampling of the wares — the teas, silks, china and carvings that had been for years,  favored art pieces of in Caucasian homes, bought and placed in homes “as signs of American aesthetic acumen and refinement” (Lenore-Chen 2).

Blaine senses the approach of John Confucius and waves him back with an extended left hand.  Blaine’s face is slightly cocked, and his eyes avert to the left as the Chinese merchant approaches from behind. Blaine’s expression is clearly one that intends to discard the Chinese merchant completely, as if to say, “Stay where you are–do not interfere here.” Nast speaks for John Confucius (for his mouth is drawn shut) so the audience can ponder his question placed in the caption, “Am I not a Man and a Brother!”

The cartoon and caption echo an earlier post-Civil War illustration Nast had drawn to advocate on behalf of and provoke emotion for Negro suffrage. Nast’s 1865 illustration “And Not This Man? “shows Columbia resplendent in American symbolism, arguing for the admission of a wounded Negro Union soldier into the American family.

Nast’s experiences and other images drawn on behalf of civil rights had a cumulative and successful effect. “Nast’s sensitivity to the rights of minority Americans would extend to others besides the embattled freedmen” (Keller 107). Nast would never draw African Americans again with the same dignity as this early drawing.  However, by evoking the same sentiment, this time on behalf of the Chinese, Nast might have hoped that his pen would wield influential once more on the national consciousness.

These aspirations were misplaced.  With each election in the 1870’s, the Democratic Party gained inroads and influence, courting the votes and catering to the demands of a growing white, male labor force comprised of first and second- generation immigrants. “The loss of Republican purity was a loss of Republican power” (Keller 281). Politicians and public sentiment were drifting away from Nast. But Nast and Harper’s Weekly would not give up on minorities. “The Chinese and the Indians in particular came under his protective wing” (Keller 107).

 

“The Coming Man” 1881

The Coming Man 20 May 1881
The Coming Man, 20 May, 1881 by George Frederick Keller, The San Francisco Wasp

This commanding cartoon was published by The San Francisco Wasp approximately one year before the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted on May 6, 1882.

The image appealed to white workingmen’s fears of Chinese takeover of American society and enterprise. Despite the Chinese only occupying 0.002 percent of the population, visual depictions of the Chinese continued to reinforce imagery of infestation and sinister monopolization of industry.

The Coming Man colorfully illustrates the worst in negative stereotyping and Sinophobia. The Chinese man’s over-sized left hand stretches out to the foreground of the image. It is stamped “MONOPOLY” and his fingernails are represented as animal talons, the nails are curled and grow upward like an overhang of a pagoda.

Detail
Detail

The hand grasps control over trades and services for which the Chinese were most associated – cigar making and sales, laundry, underwear and shirt manufacturing, box factories, clothing and shoes.

Above his blue mandarin jacket (Chinese tunics werecommonly blue, purple or black) is the image of a Chinese nightmare for white Americans. The Chinese man’s face is grotesquely distorted and he greets the viewer head on with a sinister expression. As if to focus better on those looking upon him, he closes one eye with his index finger to sharpen his stare. His right eye and brow lurch up at an unnatural angle. His ears and nose are large. A devious smile reveals a single tooth, evidence of his bad health. His tongue dangles from the left side of his mouth.

On his shaven head is a skull cap. From the back of his head, the Chinese queue appears to have a life of its own, and whips out from behind the head. The very end of the hair queue looks like the end of a whip.

This Chinese man is not afraid of the white workingman clientele of The Wasp. Behind him and to the left, six factories smolder with industry, possibly a reference to the Chinese Six Companies, an organization which advocated for the Chinese in America. A Chinese pagoda is seen among the buildings. On the right, a few angry, white, Euro-centric workers appear, faintly drawn. They are disappearing. A bearded man wears an apron and a white hat and holds his fist up in the air. Only two factories are viable on this side of the image.

The dominant colors of the cartoon are red, white and blue. This Chinese Man, this “coming man” has taken over the American Dream. He has put American workers in the background.

The implicit message of the cartoon is to stoke fear and uncertainty. This man, and others like him must be stopped from coming.

The caption reads “Alee samee ‘Melican Man Monopoleeee”

 

“Protecting White Labor” 1879

Protecting White Labor. 22 March 19-879 by Thomas Nast. Source: UDel-Walfred

Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine visited California in a bid to swell support for his nomination for the 1880 presidential elections.

Blaine stands front and center along side an “intelligent workman” and Blaine is clearly affronted, if not shocked by the man’s reasonable and mild sentiment expressed in the caption which reads, “Intelligent Workman. “You need not plead my cause and my children’s. I am able, and always have been, to take care of myself and mine; and no large military force is necessary to keep the peace, for real working-men are not rioters, strikers, and blowers.””

The speaker is dressed as a butcher. He stands in front of an alley. On his side of the wall are declarations stating that he and his non-violent colleagues feel that their products, wares, foods and services speak for themselves. The quality of their goods and services stand up and can be matched in comparison. They are not threatened by competition.

Underneath these declarations, reads a statement from Wong A.R. Chong, expressing that merchants who are failing, have only themselves to blame.

Detail of trampled Burlingame Treaty

Blaine appears indignant at the butcher’s overtures. In Blaine’s hands and under his feet are torn pieces of the Burlingame Treaty, enacted in 1868 to protect Chinese immigrants in America. The butcher gently rests his hands as Blaine shreds the United States treaty,as if appealing to Blaine to reconsider.Blaine will have none of it. He will not listen to reason. To advance his political future, Blaine will repeat the ripe political vitriol stirred by the Sand Lot speaker and anti-Chinese agitator Denis Kearney and Workingmen’s Party that Kearney inspired.

Kearney’s and his Workingmen’s Party are represented on the right side of the wall to the alley entrance. Angry men are emerging from “Hoodlum Alley” and the Sand Lots located within and are visible in the center background.

No Chinese individuals are depicted in the cartoon. The emerging workingmen carry sticks and wear guns. The declarations on their side of the wall voice their platform,

In the interest of peace and good government, the president must sign the anti-Chinese bill as it is the only means that will prevent a terrible calamity and the utter annihilation of the Chinese, which is sure to follow the veto of the bill. But whatever happens the Chinese Must Go! Denis Kearney.

The cover image is a severe indictment against Blaine. Nast does not feel it is necessary to show victimization of the Chinese. Nast places a confident, equal intelligent man directly in Blaine’s path. The hands of this intelligent laborer gesture and request Blaine’s comprehension. Blaine’s body language  suggest he is surprised, and in a bit of a huff, as the butcher’s attitude was not expected.  Blaine’s surprise is evident.

“The New Comet – A Phenomenon Now Visible in All Parts of the US” 1870

the-new-comet-a-phenom-now-visiable-8-6-70 by Thomas Nast. Source: UDel-Walfred

This 1870 cartoon is atypical of Nast’s images and his images of the Chinese in America in general. It is uncharacteristically dark in tone and density, and it is the only Nast cartoon that pictures the Chinese as anything other than a human being.  China was known as the Celestial Empire. Playing up on the term “celestial” Nast captures the growing curiosity of New Yorkers about Chinese Americans who are arriving in New York City in greater numbers.

The majority of Chinese Americans resided on the West Coast, coming to America in order to escape extreme financial hardship and widespread famine in their native China.  “Thousands of Chinese, mostly Cantonese” responded to the 1848-49 California Gold Rush and were recruited to help build the Transcontinental Railroad and the “economic development of the West” (Choy 19).

Soon after they arrived on the West Coast, the Chinese experienced prejudice and legislative roadblocks which prevented them from assimilation, attaining citizenship and enjoyment of rights commonly extended to other immigrants. Most white labor interests in the U.S. considered the Chinese “sojourners” or temporary workers with no desire to earn citizenship or assimilate to American culture. Since existing laws prevented naturalization, the Chinese were forced and locked into this perception.

In 1873, the United States suffered a severe economic recession and the economic uncertainty permeated at state and local levels. The growing white population in the western states, particularly in California, increasingly viewed the Chinese as unfair economic competitors. Employers appreciated the Chinese. They were industrious, productive employees, often willing to work for less. However these Chinese were not “coolies,” or “slave labor” and would strike for better working conditions and wages when they felt unfair conditions existed. The recession fueled white angst regarding labor issues – the leading factor driving the “The Chinese Must Go” anthem.

Before the Civil War, a very small Chinese population (as low as 38 or as high as 60) resided in New York, in close proximity to “the impoverished, Irish-dominated Fourth Ward to the east of Five Points” (Anbinder 396). These New York Chinese lived quietly among the other immigrants and rendered services such as selling rock candy and cigars.  Due to a lack of Chinese women in America, and Irish women’s lack of suitable Irish partners, Chinese-Irish marriages, though rare, did exist and were tolerated. Many Chinese males were experienced sailors and settled in the port city. Some Chinese were escaped “coolie laborers” who had been forcibly or unfairly tricked to work on ships.New York provided an escape to deplorable working conditions that existed along the southern Atlantic (Anbinder 396).

Eighteen hundred and seventy was not the first time that crowds of New Yorkers had encountered the Chinese however.  In the eighteenth century, Americans were curious and respectful concerning the nation and people of China. In the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes about the Chinese began to change in the aftermath of the Opium Wars (1839-1842). As early as 1847 New Yorker’s attitudes about the Chinese had “shifted dramatically.” In the summer of 1847, New Yorkers “were treated to a spectacular sight: a 160 foot Chinese vessel called the Keying” (Tchen 63).

Tchen describes the arrival of the Keying into the Battery area of New York Harbor where thousands came to watch, and later pay twenty-five cents to tour the unusual looking trading ship. Newspapers offered daily coverage and an estimated four-thousand people a day came to see or tour the craft. In addition to the goods and surroundings of the Keying on display, New Yorkers were promised a spectacle of the strange religious practices by the Chinese crew – “a once in a lifetime chance of seeing something authentically Chinese.” A variety of independent and speculative promoting had led New York spectators to expect sacrificing, dancing, rituals and examples of opium-induced stupor. It was as Tchen describes, a “packaged otherness” (67). The New York Herald observed, “They [the Chinese] are peculiarly attached to old notions, and will not permit the slightest innovation in anything” (qtd. Tchen 68). Later, a labor argument between the Chinese crew and the captain resulted in violence that the New York press took note of and blamed squarely on opium-induced behavior. Throughout the Keying’s stay in New York City, western culture scrambled to exploit the “exotic foreignness” and racial differences of the crew (Tchen 70).

Whatever the circumstances of their arrival, as coolie escapees or as a people driven out of California due to Sinophobic hysteria, when the Chinese settled in New York City they began to organize. Their community leaders sought out properties to rent or purchase in order to establish an enclave where they could live and operate businesses and receive mutual support. This concentration of Chinese residences and store fronts, despite being statistically very minute, was nevertheless noticed by New Yorkers. “It seemed to many observers that Asians had overrun the neighborhood” (Anbinder 399). Lower Mott Street in the Sixth Ward became the foundation of what by 1880 was known as China Town (Anbidner 398).

Nast had drawn the Chinese six times earlier, most of these sympathetically.  This particular Nast’s drawing may represent his desire to capture the mood that Anbinder references – the local reaction, awareness and curiosity of a changed Chinese presence in the community.  This atmospheric arrival drove families out of their homes so that they could get a god look at the comet streaking against the dark, starlit sky.

A smiling Chinese face, with a smug expression, comprises the large comet head. The tail of the comet, a Chinese pig-tail or queue, is emblazoned with “Cheap Labor” a message that is met with mixed reaction to the fascinated audience below.

Detail of comet head which Nast drew as a Chinese face

The reaction of witnesses to the celestial arrival is divided. They are in halves, welcoming and wary. Spread out across the scene, large telescopes labeled “capitalist,” “the police,” “the press,” and “working man,” focus their lens upon  the”phenomenon” as it enters their world.

Detail of the left side
Detail of the left side

A characteristic technique of Nast’s was to visually split his scenes and feature opposing views – pitting his subjects against one another to visually differentiate contrasting attitudes. This cartoon is no different.

The left side of the illustration represents the pro-capitalist (and progressive) stance toward the Chinese’s arrival. A tall factory frames the scene. They clearly rejoice at the prospect of what the Chinese arrival might contribute to progress and industry. Signs rise from the crowds and declare, “Let Them Come,” “We Want Servants, Cooks and Nurses,” and other positive messages welcoming the addition of Chinese labor.  The people on this side of the harbor bring out their families to witness the event. A child and a man are seen throwing up their hands in exclamation. A woman clutches her hands to her chest in a hopeful posture.

Detail of the right side of the image
Detail of the right side of the image

There is no joy on the right side of the cartoon. Here the reaction of the crowd registers displeasure, fear and skepticism. Present are members of the Workingmen’s party and other similar labor groups that saw the Chinese as an enemy of the Caucasian laborer. The telescope far right is labeled “Working Man” and unlike the others, does not show the graduated, collapsible structure of the lens. It is a fixed focal length. This telescope resembles a long gun or cannon. It has the closest view or shot of the approaching Chinese menace.  One ghostly looking woman can be seen pleading with a man who wields a large ax. Behind this man, a small child looks away from the scene. At top right a portly priest with a halo above his head writes pro-trade union messages. His words sermonize that “The Chinese Will Destroy Us.” Signs proclaim that the Chinese “Must Be Resisted.” Buildings advertise slogans that sell resentment and fear, “Down With Cheap Shoes,” and “Down With Capital.”

Tchen observes that Nast is not taking a position with this cartoon. Nast simply documents the two differing states of mind in his home town. Perhaps, it is for this reason that Nast has chosen to objectify the Chinese as a comet – not because he feels the Chinese are other-worldly – but because the New Yorkers already feel feel this way.

Tchen speculates upon this same possibility, for he does acknowledge the pro-Chinese positions and convictions seen in Nast’s later cartoons.  Yet, Tchen is not completely comfortable that Nast did all he could in his body of work to convey a progressive attitude toward the Chinese and encourage further understanding of the obstacles they faced in America.  In particular, Tchen finds it hard to explain Nast’s reasoning behind the creation of “The Martyrdom of St. Crispin,” drawn a month earlier.

Lenore Metrick-Chen disagrees, pointing out that this particular issue of Harper’s Weekly refer to the Chinese no less than eight times and feels that the magazine advanced a negative feeling about Chinese immigration and general unease of the Chinese (39).

We may never know what existed in Nast’s mind or heart – and indeed he may have felt as curious and as astonished as the general public. This particular drawing is often shown to depict Sinophobia and as example of turning a minority race into an “other.” Seen alone, without Five Points back story, modern viewers may not appreciate  how the approach of the major change or perceived phenomenon resonated in the community.  Right or wrong, Nast piece records that New Yorkers at the time they took notice, and while the newcomers were viewed as strange and different, attitudes about the Chinese were divided.

As a documentary image, Nast’s Chinese comet head is better understood. It captures the public reaction and sensationalism that existed and should be seen in that light, rather than as a reflection of Nast’s personal beliefs or prejudices. Nast was not 100 percent consistent or admirable with his depictions of the Chinese, but if this example is to be viewed as an editorial, it is an accurate depiction of how New Yorkers felt about the Chinese arriving, and not an offering of Nast’s personal beliefs. As a Radical Republican, Nast would have aligned with capitalists and welcomed the Chinese as a valuable addition to the workforce and overall commerce in general. In The New Comet, Nast accurately captures the pro and con attitudes that together objectified and sensationalized an increased presence of Chinese in New York City.