A new film by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu and scheduled to appear on PBS AmericanExperience in May.
Jean Pfaelzer, who contributes to the film at approximately 4:52, was my graduate professor and advisor at the University of Delaware and inspired me to study this chapter in our history. Her book, Driven Out is compelling story of how and why this disturbing part of our history came to be. This website is a direct result of Jeannie’s inspired leadership. Also contributing is John Wei Kuo Tchen, whose expertise I sought through two books, New York Before Chinatown, and Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. Dr. Tchen has also been wonderfully responsive via email and I appreciate his accessibility and contributions.
Rare Nast watercolor features a possible self-portrait
Through this website, I received an inquiry from Susan M., who recently acquired a small watercolor image, signed in print script, by T. Nast. Susan had little history on the image, and as author of this site, having accumulated the most information on Nast and the Chinese, I was a natural person to ask. Nast watercolors are quite rare, and to see an art piece, featuring the artist, in what I believe to be a self-portrait, engaging in a transaction with a Chinese tobacconist, is a real treat!
The man on the left with paper tucked under his right arm is most certainly Thomas Nast. At 5’5″ Nast was not a tall man, but when he included himself in his work, he depicted his physique as disproportionately tiny. This could be a young Nast, without the goatee. He is trying out a new cigar. In New York, the Chinese sold tobacco, specifically cigars, as well as teas and spices. The little man’s posture is erect and brave, with his rotund abdomen jutting out.
A 1959 self-caricature shows the artist without facial hair, and a similar physique:
Initially, I guessed that the much taller Chinese man to be a merchant. He is dressed in a familiar blue tunic and black pants, and rises from an oblong stool and leans over a small table toward his customer to offer the small man something. Did he just light Nast’s cigar, or is he offering Nast an alternative – an opium pipe? The slant of the Chinese eyes are quite exaggerated, but his expression is more friendly than sinister. Nast posture indicates little fear. The Chinese man’s feet are quite tiny.
I showed the image to historian and author John Kuo Wei Tchen (New York University) and appreciate his quick reply. Tchen feels the Chinese figure is more likely an employee at a tobacconist shop, rather than a merchant. His response in today’s email includes the following:
“There were Chinese cigar wrappers [especially] in the earlier antebellum era, and its possible the owners of these small shops would have welcomed guests to come in for a smoke. How long they continued, I don’t know but its possible even into the Civil War Chinese men could have worked in such stores around Chatham Square especially even if they weren’t the owners. That would not quite make them merchants but employees. And Herald Square was just blocks away (indeed very close to Park Row where some of the first cigar wrapper shops seems to have been & I suspect if memory serves me some of the wrappers lived around Herald Sq). If so, I’d be more specific and say the Chinese man could have been either a worker in a tobacconists’ store and/or a cigar maker and owner of a small cigar wrapper shop. The “merchant” category, though as defined by the letter of the Exclusion Act might be technically accurate, is a bit blurry in the usage here.”
Tchen also discounted the theory of an opium pipe. It was customary for patrons to recline when smoking an opium pipe.
At first glance, under the shadows of the table I thought I could make out artist’s strokes form in the shape of a pig, with its snout pointed down toward the center. Pigs were a stereotye often used to indicate the Chinese. If this is a pig, vague or not, it is Nast’s first use of the stereotype. Upon further inspection, I retract that opinion, and agree with Tchen that it is more likely Nast or the small youth is sitting, and the shape of his extended legs are less defined by the artist. Behind the customer, shadowy strokes create a sole figure witnessing the transaction. A single word hovers on the wall above the merchant’s arm, but it is difficult to make out the meaning.
Echoing Tchen’s speculation from his book New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture (see Overview) “Nast’s exposure to living and breathing Chinese and other racial groups was probably quite limited” (211). It is unknown if Nast ever met or associated with a Chinese person in New York. Reportedly only 200 Chinese were in New York in 1870 – or how he felt about them. Tchen suggests Nast represented what he knew or was told about the Chinese, rather from direct personal knowledge.”
Furthermore, dating the image to the antebellum era of the New York cigar wrappers, as Tchen suggests, explains Nast’s appearance. Nast gained fame first as a Civil War illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Before the war and his own fame, Nast would have had a.) possibly more time to paint, b.) had not yet grown the facial hair (as seen in the 1859 image above) and c.) may have not yet affected his signature script which he signed his works as a well-known artist.
Whether Nast did or did not meet a Chinese person in his lifetime, this painting clearly demonstrates an attitude toward them. It endorses the patronage of a Chinese-owned business and Nast is clearly not afraid to do so and interact with Chinese shop owners or their employees.
Does this image provide a clue that Nast did indeed meet and interact with Chinese business in New York City? Is this a recreation of that scene? Is it a fantasy painting, with the Chinese employee offering the artist a smoke of gratitude for championing their cause against Chinese exclusion? A date for the painting would offer some clues, but none exist. Gratitude would only be plausible if the watercolor were painted in the late 1870s or early 1880s.
Initially, I was concerned about the the signature. In his cartoons, oil paintings and some known watercolors, Nast used his characteristic Th Nast or Th:Nast. script:
The signature on the painting is quite different – plain and not stylized.
Apparently, a precedent exists – as this watercolor from Arader Galleries indicates. It is attributed to Thomas Nast and indicates he might have printed his signature without the traditional flair in other early pre-fame work.
The owner also sent me additional images in hopes to find further information. Nothing is written on the back of the aged backing.
I am excited for Susan’s new find and so glad that she shared it with me. If indeed, it is an authentic Nast watercolor, it is extraordinarily special for its Chinese subject and self-portraiture. It is the only known image (in my experience) that includes Nast with Chinese-Americans, and a work that suggests he interacted with them on some level.
Speaking on behalf of both the owner and myself, we would love to hear from Nast experts and curators concerning this watercolor.
All photos of watercolor taken by owner and provided to this website with permission for use.
Follow up January 11, 2016: The owner of the image contacted Ryan Hyman, curator at McCollough Hall, and in viewing the photographs only, Hyman proffered that the painting is consistent with other Nast watercolors and the signature similar to others found in the early 1850s, a pre-fame period when Nast was a young man and teenager and a practicing art student. Hyman thought the image of the short man/patron could indeed be a Nast self-portrait. The printed signature is also consistent with Nast before he became famous, after which Nast employed a more flourished signature. I advised Susan to seek out a professional appraiser, allow the painting to be personally examined and appraised, date the paper, etc., in order to rule out any possibility of a forgery.
If authentic, and I think it is, the existence of this painting certainly suggests that Nast did personally meet and do business with Chinese people in New York City. There were few Chinese in New York City at this time (in the 1870s, only in the hundreds) so in the 1850s, it would have been quite a memorable experience for the teenage artist, one worth documenting as a visual memory by means of this most interesting watercolor.
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!
I found this Slide Share on the Internet, likely made for a high school classroom. It has some interesting images (photographs and illustrations) by Nast (not sourced from this website) and other artists. Difficult to source who produced this slideshare.
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”
Nast drew numerous cartoons sympathetic to the Chinese in reaction to unfolding events in California. In Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day, February 8, 1879 Nast drew attention to a disturbing shift in anti-Chinese sentiment, but he does so at the expense of the Negro (Keller 107).
Nast features a male Native American (Red Gentleman) and Chinese (Yellow Gentleman) standing as they consider a wall of seven placards espousing various sources of nativist sentiment. The Native American, driven out of his East Coast home in the early nineteenth century moves westward and encounters a Chinese man somewhere in the middle of the United States. Each is being forced to live in new areas as a result of racial prejudice. At the stop, he warns the Chinese man that it is now his turn to be uprooted to the East. The caption reads: “Red Gentlemen to Yellow Gentleman. Pale face, ‘fraid you crowd him out, as he did me.”
Behind the two men is a classic Nast device of using public declarations – proclamations of prejudice and hate speech pasted on a wall for public viewing. At the top of the wall a simple illustration shows a feathered man with a tomahawk fleeing westward, barely ahead of a U.S. railroad engine at his heels.
Conversely, in the sketch directly below, a Chinese man flees with such urgency that his queue is propelled airborne at a 45 degree angle. He beats a drum of “cheap labor” as he tries to catch up to an Atlantic-bound steam engine. Six other wall posters pronounce prevailing and growing political sentiment. The notices call attention to a fear of foreigners and Irish illiteracy. Nast wants his readers to see the variety of vitriol that exists. He sarcastically turns the meaning of the secretive nativist society, ‘Know Nothingism’ as braggarts of ignorance. Those who were once oppressed (Irish) are now the oppressors. Nast tucks his signature right below the bottom right sign. In the history of Know Nothings’ ignorance repeats. Once, the nativist society had proclaimed “Down with the Irish,” and “Down with the Dutch.” The Irish are now just like their Know Nothing oppressors. Only the victims have changed. German demands for a “bier” government round out the cluster of declarations. Most are proudly signed by their purveyors: “‘Down on the Nigger,” “K.K.K.” and “’The Chinese Must Go. Kearney (A real American).” Denis Kearney, Nast’s reminder of the Irish-born instigator who shouted the loudest and most effectively that “The Chinese Must Go.”
The largest and most prominent poster in the cartoon addresses the “Chinese Problem” and its solution–highlights of a proposed law prohibiting Chinese immigration to the United States. This would become the Chinese Exlusion Act, passed in May, 1882.
The two gentlemen read the writing on the wall. The feathered Native American “Red Gentleman” scratches his chin. He’s seen this all before–he has lived it. Driven from his native East Coast lands he has walked the Trail of Tears. A blanket drapes his upper body covering a hump that suggest he carries most of his belongings and is a nomad in his native country. In his hand, he holds a peace pipe which he is ready to extend to the “Yellow Gentleman.” The Chinese man is styled as a diplomat, the same “John Confucius” character seen in the Civilization of Blaine. His eyes are fixed on the pending legislation that is advertised front and center. His face shows concern and his arms are folded in defiance, enveloping his long queue close to the front of his chest. He is embracing his culture and identity. Hanging low in his left hand is a western-styled pipe (not an opium vessel). Both men are wearing their cultural dress–a dignified, if not purposeful use of stereotype.
Among the many stereotypes that prevailed about Chinese people, Americans considered Chinese men docile and easily manipulated, thus it was believed, ideal workers for capitalist interests. In this cartoon, Nast creates a different character, a man who does not readily accept his limited options. The Chinese man is thinking and he reflects and weighs his future plans.
Curiously, off to the left and in the background an African American relaxes against a wall on which is scrawled “My day is coming.” The black man is minimized and not part of the larger debate commanding the discussion at hand. An early champion of abolition and the African American Vote, by 1879 Nast no longer considered the African American an equal partner in the minority rights debate. After winning a hard-fought battle for abolition and civil rights, which included suffrage, Nast is angry by failed Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party. Nast believed the African Americans as a group, too easily compromised their gains to southern politicians who did not have their best interest at heart. Nast therefore draws the African American kicking back, one leg resting over a knee; head tipped down, with a carefree grin on his face, content to allow the politicians to oppress other minorities. For Nast, this was a breech in integrity and his early progressive Republican values, a disillusion of hope that permeated within the once hopeful Republican Party. Nast subsequent drawings of African Americans would never again possess the dignity that embodied his Utopian vision seen in the “Emancipation of Negroes.“
Thomas Nast applies irony and a direct hit at hypocrisy to this 1882 commentary on the eve of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“Uncivilized” and “barbaric” were leading accusations (two of many) hurled against the Chinese. Always defined and depicted as outsiders, sojourners and others, the Chinese were not accorded the rights of other immigrants and in many locations, especially in the West, were specifically prohibited to integrate or assimilate into normal white American culture. Nast assumes this voice of normal America and suggests, if only they could be like us, behave like us, if the Chinese could only “embrace civilization” the Euro-American brand of civilization, then maybe they could stay in the U.S. Nast throws this brand of tolerated American civilization right in the face of his critics and illustrates the baseless hypocrisy of anti-Chinese sentiment.
Nast’s use of humor is effective. The center image is a direct hit at the Irish, whose penchant for whiskey was an oft-repeated stereotype. Perhaps, if the Chinese could drink like the Irish, then maybe they could stay.
Or, how about good old fashioned pugilism? For decades, the Irish had earned a reputation for bare-knuckle prize fighting. White men considered Chinese men docile. As boxers, the Irish had organized violence into a popular entertainment and sport. Did the public really want to see the Chinese taking up fights?
Cheap, competitive labor kept the Chinese busy and productive. If they raised their rates and joined the labor unions – they could join the ranks of civilized men and strike, starve and loaf about the city streets. Many white working Americans viewed the Chinese as a threat because they worked hard, kept to themselves and aided capitalist interests.
Nast offers an alternative. He invites the reader to consider the reality and dangers of getting what one asks for. Would pro-labor prefer drunk, idle, unproductive Chinese beggars? Is this how the Chinese must behave in order to join the ranks of civilized men? Through this a collection of visual tales, Nast exposes the irony and the hypocrisy of white accusations and demands placed upon the Chinese. Must Chinese emulate Irish behavior to be accepted?
By 1882, Nast grew disgusted with U.S. Senator James G. Blaine – a Republican from Maine who sided against the Chinese for Exclusion legislation. The image of a Chinese man as a U.S. Senator, doing nothing but “talk,” “talk,” “talk” is a stab at the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of public service.