If you are in the D.C. area celebrating our nation’s independence, take a moment to visit the “On the Move” tent at the Smithsonian Museum to hear Jean Pfaelzer talk about the Chinese experience in 19th century America.
It was through Jeanie, then “Dr. Pfaelzer” that I first learned about the Asian immigration experience in the United States, when I took a graduate level course, for no other reason than it fit my schedule. As an East Coast resident all my life, my curiosity swirled around my own region and my own Irish-American ancestry.
Jeanie is an inspiring educator and gifted storyteller. It is because of her this website exists. It is because of her I stretched my perspective and curiosity about the people who formed our American story and the compelling Often heartbreaking story of the first Chinese Americans!
The Chinese Question is full sized cartoon published in Harper’sWeekly, February 18, 1871,
Nast was tolerant of all races, nationalities and creeds. He was not, however, tolerant of ignorance. He deplored the mob mentality that in his mind, the Irish represented. Their alliance with Tweed and Democratic Party values drove Nast to draw with savage fervor. It wasn’t the Irish per se, but what the Irish did with their political power and alliances that Nast found disturbing. As Patricia Hills points out, “he [Nast] castigates only the ignorant and bigoted who engage in reprehensible deeds” (115).
Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Irish played a major role in Sinophobic hysteria. In her book Driven Out, Jean Pfaelzer quotes a New York Times article on the role of the Irish against the Chinese:
It was well known that the chief objection to the Chinese in California comes from the Irish. It was from this class that the Democratic Party used to draw most of the political capital which it gained by fostering the prejudices against the Negro. Fleeing to this country, as they claimed, to escape British oppression, the Irish immigrant always made haste to join the ranks of the oppressors here. They voted, almost to a man, with the Democratic Party…now that slavery is abolished, we find them in the front ranks of the haters and persecutors of the Chinese. (52-53)
Accompanying this cartoon was a short, but powerful Harper’s editorial, “The Heathen Chinee” which decried the fear-mongering and blame placed upon the Chinese for labor displacement. In a bid to strengthen his Irish constituency, Tweed sought to restrict the use of Chinese railroad labor through legislative means. While a state senator, Tweed sponsored a bill to prevent the Chinese from being hired on projects. Although Chinese population in New York was statistically minute, estimated to be only 200 at the time, Tweed favored invasion vernacular to stoke fear within a male, Caucasian workforce. Harper’s Weekly’s editors observed,
The working-men of this State know perfectly well that no such danger exists as that which is hinted at in Mr. Tweed’s bill. The Chinese invasion, of which he seems to be so much afraid is altogether mythical, as everybody in his sober senses is well aware; and Mr. Tweed presumes too much on the ignorance or the prejudices of the working-men if he expects to delude them with such a flimsy cheat. The general sentiment of the American people on this question is admirably expressed in Mr. Nast’s cartoon. A majority in this country still adhere to the old Revolutionary doctrine that all men are free and equal before the law, and possess inalienable rights which even Mr. Tweed is bound to respect.
Nast featured an imaginary local brouhaha in his cartoon The Chinese Question.
Nast places an angry, defiant Columbia front and center to confront the Workingmen menace and she serves as a reminder of America’s values. She stands over a crouched and defeated Chinese man. In addition, Nast utilizes what would become a favorite technique — to plaster current controversy on a wall of public protest. On the wall, all the various forms of hate speech spouted against the Chinese, could be read and considered.
Chinese are in kind referred to as “coolies” “slaves,” “paupers” and “rat eaters.” Rat eaters in particular became a favorite and virulent Chinese stereotype deployed to great effect, especially on the West Coast, in order to dehumanize the Chinese and affirm their “otherness.” “Barbarians” and “heathens” are additional descriptive terms prominently displayed. The placards pronounce the Chinese as the “lowest and vilest of human race,” “vicious and immoral” declares another. Nast’s wall is an effective tool. It collects the hate speech used within the local white labor community. Each layer of verbal expression collects and builds like pounds in a pressure cooker. Workingmen would stop at no insult to rid themselves of the Chinese menace. The Chinese must go. “Their importation must be stopped.” Nast plastered the prejudice for all to see their ugly truth, and consider the lie.
Nast created a clear visual divide on the issue. The hard edge on the right separates Columbia and the Chinese man from the trouble that is arriving from the other side. Columbia’s body stands in the path as a violent mob approaches. The vertical division creates a tension and theatrical suspense against what comes next and who might prevail.
Whipped up by the Tammany frenzy is New York’s version of the Workingmen’s Party. Led by Nast’s quintessential brawny Irish leader, they angrily turn the corner toward Columbia and the Chinese man. Nast dresses his thugs as would-be gentlemen – his Irish brute wears a waistcoat and top hat. The high fashion does not change his savage character or propensity for violence.
Well-dressed as he may be, his face betrays his brutality. His features are roughly chiseled, his steely stare focuses on the impending attack. He brandishes a club in one hand and a rock in the other. This Irish ringleader is eager for some good old-fashioned mob violence. Behind him, four other men are visible, and by their normal faces, not all of them Irish. All are white and possess guns or weapons and expressions of anger. Behind them, faceless mob members carry signs in the air. One sign reads, “If our ballot will not stop them coming to our country, the bullet must.”
Nast reprises New York Draft Riot imagery of 1863 to recreate a scene in 1871 and give it additional implications. Nast had provided eye-witness drawings of the New York City draft riots and had not overly implicated the Irish in the violence. By including 1863 draft riot imagery to this event, Nast links Irish involvement with racial violence. In the background lies the evidence of their most notorious mob activity–the lynching and destruction of a “colored” community. The Orangemen’s Riots followed later that summer on July 11-12, 1871 and Nast would once again deploy the same lynching imagery against the Irish. During the same riot, a colored orphanage burned to the ground. By including a smoldering orphan asylum in the background, Nast is indicting this mob and associating the participants to the crime. A barren tree is seen in the distance. A empty hangman’s noose dangles from a leafless tree. Below makeshift tombstones acknowledge buried rights, blood, and strikes. With the African American issue handled and put in their rightful place, graves, the Irish-led mob turns to provide their answer to the Chinese question. One problem down, one more problem to go.
Nast’s audience understood the significance of Columbia’s inclusion. She appears in Nast cartoons with great effect, and is a formidable challenger to thwart Tweed. Having fought and won many battles, she alone has the wherewithal to protect an emotionally defeated Chinese man. Slumped against a wall, framed by “heathen,” “idolater,” and exclamations of paganism, he is confused and helpless against this onslaught of white terror and oppression. He raises one knee to support a clutched hand and lowered head. His eyes are closed and his expression is one of utter despair. Columbia’s long tresses toss as she turns her head, alerted to the approaching mob. Her tiara is marked U.S. Her right hand gently touches the head of the crouched Chinese man. Columbia’s left hand rises above her waist and over her heart into a fist. Her neckline bears a shield of America’s stars and stripes. Her expression is resolute. She will not stand for what is about to go down. She addresses the mob, “Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men.” Columbia is Nast’s voice.
Columbia defended the downtrodden before. Consider how Nast uses her for “And Not This Man?” on August 5, 1865.
Here, as in the Chinese Question, Columbia advocates for civil rights, this time for a wounded African American Civil War veteran. Although seriously wounded, he stands erect. He possess a quiet dignity. Columbia touches him at the shoulder, and invites him to step up for consideration as an American. She is speaking to his legislative detractors who appear on an accompanying page.
In Nast’s Chinese Question, Columbia touches the head of the Chinese man. Although he Is able-bodied, he cannot stand on his two legs, he is unable to face his accusers as a whole man, even with Columbia by his side.
Nast has intentionally weakened the Chinese man in the face of the mob. The question is why. Is it to evoke empathy for the Chinese man, is it to make the mob look worse than what they were? Could Nast have drawn the Chinese with more dignity? The Irish were afraid of labor competition. Struggling to get established in America the Irish organized in their new home and resolved that they would not suffer the oppression they experienced in their homeland of Ireland. As Timothy Meagher has noted, the Irish had no history of prejudice or exhibited any racist behavior in Ireland. They possessed, Meagher suggests, all of the sensitivities necessary to be empathetic to others who were oppressed. But in nineteenth century Ireland, the Irish had learned that organization and activism produced results, albeit limited.
The new Irish immigrant in America faced hurdles other immigrants, such as the Germans did not. Because of the Great Famine, they arrived in very large numbers and in the most destitute of conditions. As Roman Catholics, they were considered by the Protestant population as members of a strange cult, unwilling to assimilate to American culture. These built-in prejudices, Meagher argues, forced the Irish to assert their “whiteness” and be demonstratively aggressive to other races, in particular, African Americans and Chinese Americans. Meagher cites the work of Moses Rischin who observed that Irish Catholics who aligned against the Chinese in California, and Irish Catholics who aligned with Democratic anti-abolitionists in the South, found greater acceptance into the white Protestant mainstream of their respective communities if they joined others who expressed racial paranoia.
The prevailing view of many historians asserts that the Irish feared any form of labor competition. The banding together of white against black would not work to the Irish’s favor in the Northeast, and Meagher offers several opinions that dispute a view that the Irish were afraid of southern blacks seeking northern jobs. Meagher warns against drawing such simplistic conclusions that point strictly at racial tensions or only that only targeted African Americans.
The Irish were hostile to all competitors including other ethnicities. They fought with Germans and Chinese. Real fear existed that a “powerful Republican Party and rich industrialists, would over power the Irish” (223). Meagher notes that the New York Times was exasperated with the Irish, writing in 1880, “the hospitable and generous Irishman has almost no friendship for any race but his own. As laborer and politician he detests the Italian. Between him and the German American citizen there is great gulf fixed…but the most naturalized thing for the Americanized Irishman is to drive out all other foreigners, whatever may be their religious tenets” (223). Observations such as these, Meagher suggests, establish that tensions went beyond Irish-African American tension and violence. The Chinese were easy targets.
As victims of the English oppression and prejudice in their homeland, and again in America, as targets of nativist and Protestant fears in America, the Irish directed their paranoia, distrust toward non-Irish and non-Catholics. Irish Americans battled persistent and ill-informed scientific theory which classified them as a unique and inferior human race. The Irish were not considered white. For Irish-Americans, defining others as inferior was an early step in self-preservation. As other ethnicities began to fear the Chinese, many Irish not only latched on to this common concern, but took the lead in ridding the nation of the menace. By attacking the Chinese, the Irish could prove their “whiteness” and earn a legitimate place in American society. Once severely oppressed in Ireland, and again in America, many Irish turned the tables by becoming the oppressors. Nast would never let the Irish forget this irony.
A few months after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (May, 1882), this small square cartoon shows a U.S. Custom House official scrutinizing his law books in an attempt to define or clarify the ethnicity of four Asian men appealing for entry into the United States.
Three would-be immigrants are huddled behind a spokesperson, who denies he Chinese, and testifies he is instead Korean (Corean). Above their huddle, a banner testifies to the United States “treaty with Corea.” The sign also says, “Coreans may live at their option throughout America,” a privilege the Chinese once enjoyed under the protection and promise of the Burlingame Treaty.
Above the U.S. emblem reads, “E. Pluribus. Unum. Except Chinese.”
In addition to volumes on duties and antiques, behind the official is a “Vol. 1 on Bribes.”
The official, wearing a bicorn hat (Denis Kearney?)*consults with an open volume which describes the characteristics that distinguish a Chinese national from a Korean one. The volume refers to “color and pigtails.” The men attempting to enter the United States are wearing the Manchurian queues for which the Chinese were well known in America.
The Customs House guard raises his spyglass for a closer look at the petitioners, who exclaim,”You no stoppee me! me no China manee, me Corea manee; allee samee Melican manee.”
The gaggle of Chinese men behind their spokesperson appear to find the claim amusing.
*Denis Kearney was a self-described soldier against the Chinese immigrants. In California, San Francisco Wasp illustrator George Keller frequently depicted Kearney wearing military garb, and in particular, a bicorn hat. Nast also picked up the symbolism when referring to Kearney, though it cannot be determined this was his intent for this specific drawing.
This small, simple cartoon has a powerful message. Irish and German foreigners were allowed to enter the United States as immigrants – climbed the ladder “Emigration” and rose in status in the land opportunity. The last of the European immigrants scales the wall, his rear end visible as he kicks away the ladder of opportunity. The European immigrants who ascended now declare that Chinese access to America is closed. The man at the top, his arms extended, proclaims nativist sentiment.Another, on the left, with a jutting jaw and top hat clearly resembles Nast’s other representation of Irish. He is clearly enjoying the calamity below.
To the right, a flag waves – its message declares the new American territory belongs to Know Nothings, a secret yet popular group of Americans who vehemently protested newcomers.Interestingly, 30 years earlier, the original nativist Know Nothings protested the arrival of Irish Catholics. The Know Nothing flag reads “1870 Pres. Patrick” and “Vice Pres. Hans.” This inscription signifies great advances for Irish and German assimilation into mainstream American culture as Nast perceived it to be. No doubt, Nast is reeling here from the social and political advances the Irish gained through the patronage and support by William M. “Boss” Tweed. Tweed rewarded the Irish and other immigrants with patronage jobs in exchange for their loyalty at the voting booth.
Five Chinese are seen at the base of a large wall which boldly states, “The “Chinese Wall” around the United States of America.” Demonstrating their knowledge of China, the European immigrants are taunting the Chinese by comparing their wall to the Great Wall of China, built in ancient times to protect their nation from invasion.
Three of the Chinese are wearing doulis, the conical shaped hats, also known as rice or “coolie” hats. All five Chinese are men wearing their native garb and hold onto goods they hoped to bring along as they ascend the ladder.
The cartoon’s caption, “Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose” is Nast’s harsh commentary on the hypocrisy of these new Americans and their willingness to oppress others who are in the same circumstances in which they found themselves 30 years earlier. The once oppressed have now become the oppressors.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 were commonly 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 and readers 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 pushed American workers into 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”