Category Archives: Labor

“The Chinese Question” 1871

“The Chinese Question” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Feb. 2, 1871, Source: Walfred scan

The Chinese Question is full sized cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly, 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.

Irish brute Nast’s Irish brute

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 are 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 indicates this mob and associating the participants to the crime.  A barren tree is seen in the distance. An 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.

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

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 possesses 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 overpower 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 a 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.

Works cited

“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 a 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 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”

Works cited

“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 as the 1880 presidential Republican candidate.

Blaine stands front and center alongside 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 worker is a butcher. He stands in front of an alley. On his side of the wall, posters declare 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, a statement from Wong A.R. Chong, express an opinion 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 remnants of the Burlingame Treaty, federal legislation enacted in 1868 to protect Chinese immigrants in America. As if to prompt Blaine to reconsider, the butcher gently rests one of his hands upon Blane’s hand. Blaine will have none of it. The Senator from Maine 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 whom Kearney inspired.

Kearney and his Workingmen’s Party are represented on the right side of the wall to the alley entrance. Angry men emerge 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 rallied 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’s gesture and his request for Blaine’s comprehension of a more common sense approach is met with shock and disdain. Blaine’s body language suggests he is surprised, and in a bit of a huff. He did not expect this reaction from the butcher. The butcher represents reason, while the Workingmen’s Party represents Sinophobic hysteria.

Works cited

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

the-new-comet-a-phenom-now-visible-8-June-1870 by Thomas Nast. Source: UDel-Walfred

This 1870 cartoon is not typical 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 upon 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 into 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. This 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 depending on sources) 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. As experienced sailors, many Chinese males 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 declined 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 4,000 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 creative license 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, which 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, regarded either 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 the Chinese could live and operate businesses and receive mutual support. This concentration of Chinese residences and storefronts, despite being statistically very minute, commanded New Yorkers’ attention. “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 sympathetically depicted the Chinese in six prior renderings. 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 presence in the largely white, Euro-centric community.  This atmospheric arrival from another world drove families out of their homes so that they could get a good look at the occurrence  – the Chinese novelty – 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 pigtail 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 different states of mind in his hometown. 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 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 with 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 refers 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 an example of turning a minority race into an “other.” Seen alone, without Five Points backstory, 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.

Works cited

Coolie

Detail from Nast's "The Chinese Question" 1871. Nast frequently put the declarations of people he disagreed with as backgrounds for his cartoons. They almost never represent his sentiment.
Detail from Nast’s “The Chinese Question” 1871. Nast frequently put the declarations of people he disagreed with as backgrounds for his cartoons. They almost never represent his sentiment.

The term “coolie” is commonly associated with Chinese Americans  depicted as an involuntary slave labor force, forced cheap labor, or indentured servitude/contract laborers unwittingly recruited and trapped into slave work conditions, or exploited and victimized by low or zero wage compensation. “Coolies” lacked the freedom to leave the work site.

Indeed, many Chinese men were tricked and set aboard ships for paying jobs that did not exist.  Many turned out to be slave ships, where men were forced to perform grueling labor in the polluted guano pits of coastal Peru to harvest solidified bird droppings prized as fertilizer. Other Asian slave labor journeyed to the tropics to harvest sugar cane.

Coolie labor differs from an individual offering to undercut one’s rate of pay in order to be competitive – a willingness to negotiate terms of labor. But from the very beginning of the Chinese arrival in the U.S.to work in the gold mines, and sustained through the development of intense anti-Chinese hysteria, the concept of “cheap labor” was synonymous with “coolie labor.” The white workingmen labor movement saw no distinction and all Chinese workers were “coolies” and no different than slaves. “Coolies” undercut all the labor competition. Employers would not hire white men as long as they had a source of “coolies” to do the work instead.

John Kuo Wei Tchen, an authority on Chinese-American history, describes the term “coolie,” and “Chinese labor” as being used interchangeably in the minds of American capitalists during the nineteenth century.  The Chinese had arrived in America, specifically on the West Coast, after the 1848 discovery of gold in California, with an aim to strike it rich, and then return to their native China with a significant windfall. These Chinese did not view themselves, nor did Americans view them, as like other immigrants. Instead, they were “sojourners,” individuals who planned to stay in the United States temporarily, just long enough to make enough money to return home and provide economic security for their families back in China. The financial windfall promised from gold mining did not meet expectations and most Chinese remained in America and sought other means to earn money.

Tchen quotes a Protestant missionary in China describes how many viewed the Chinese labor as an export product and opportunity on which to capitalize (169),

The Coolie trade, it will be seen is speculation in human labor. In  other words, it is reducing human labor to the list of marketable commodities –making it an object of purchase and sale, and holding it, subject to the various vicissitudes which attend stocks, provisions, dry goods and other articles of commerce.

The year 1870 “marked the moment at which struggles between capital and labor interpenetrated commercial culture, producing a common visual and written language in which Chinese labor would be represented in national political debate” (Tchen 167).

Post-Civil War industrialization created a need for labor. The Burlingame Treaty, enacted in 1868, sought in part to facilitate expansion of trade between the U.S. and China. The United States with the annexation of Alaska and inclusion of California and other western states needed plentiful labor.  Treaties with Native Americans were abrogated in order to connect the East and West Coasts with the transatlantic railroad. A larger United States needed and encouraged the spread of homesteading, commerce, and European immigration. “At the same time, “cheap”–and seemingly limitless–Chinese labor became a highly desirable commodity for post-slavery capitalist” (Tchen 168-169).

But it was the lure of gold that beckoned those from China’s port cities to leave behind their rice farms and fishing villages and turn their ambitions toward the “Gold Mountain,” of California. “Facing warlords, destitution, and British battleships,” Chinese villagers were enticed by advertisements describing America as a land of plenty (Pfaelzer 4).

In addition to men tricked to work in slave shops, women were kidnapped and forced to serve as prostitutes for the burgeoning gold mining community. Not surprisingly, these women died early from diseases. The state of their health was used to define all Chinese women as immoral, reason enough to restrict their immigration into America. The cruel conditions these women were forced to endure lent credence to some American claims that the Chinese were unsanitary and carriers of disease.

“Free labor” had been swirling around as a concept, an ideal and a goal as anti-slavery ideology began to grow in antebellum America. “Chinese miners arrived in a new state that had just voted to outlaw slavery” (Pfaelzer 25).

Many Americans, fresh with the memory of battling slavery, could point to “coolies” as an anathema to free will. “From the outset, the penny press widely reported the uses and abuses of Chinese and South Asian indentured “coolie” labor” (Tchen 169) and were disturbed by its reality.

The problem was that the perception of “coolie” labor extended to those Chinese who were in fact, not being forced to work at all. Many had entrepreneurial ambitions and created businesses that fit the need of a growing community or boon town.

“The great majority of Chinese arriving in the United States were not contract laborers” (Tchen 170).  By repeatedly classifying all Chinese labor as “coolie labor” and successfully blurring that distinction, the white labor movement, particularly the Workingmen’s Party led by Denis Kearney succeeded in presenting a moral argument to their rallying cry that, “The Chinese Must Go.”

“Blaine Language” 1879

“Blaine Language” by Thomas Nast, 15, March 1879

The labor question was uppermost in the publics’ mind during the latter 1870’s. It was a political question. Nast chided Republican Senator from Maine, James G. Blaine, for his willingness to forgo promises made to the Chinese with the Burlingame Treaty, in order to secure a Chinese Exclusion measure (Paine 412)

Blaine was a three-time presidential hopeful. With corrupt scandals of the Grant administration surfacing and swirling in political circles, and with no signs of public sentiment shifting in favor of the Chinese, Blaine courted Democratic voters and advocated for a revision of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty. The treaty was the product of negotiations between the Chinese Six Companies, “the most important association representing the Chinese community and the federal government” (Takaki, 113).

The more groundbreaking articles of the treaty included measures that promised the Chinese the right to free immigration and travel within the United States, and allowed for the protection of Chinese citizens in the United States in accordance with the most-favored-nation principle” (U.S. State Dept.). The treaty was “a major victory for the Chinese” (Takaki 114).

Republican politicians who wavered and bowed to the growing anti-Chinese mob pressure alarmed the artist. “Nast never had the slightest sympathy with any sort of organization or movement that did not mean the complete and absolute right of property ownership, as well as the permission to labor, accorded to every human being of whatsoever color or race. His first real antagonism to James G. Blaine began with the latter’s advocacy of Chinese Exclusion” (Paine 386).

Nast viewed the attempts to abrogate the treaty, and Blaine’s role in that shift, as deplorable and an unforgivable breach in Republican values.   As Nast’s biographer points out, Nast frequently lampooned Blaine in order to expose his hypocrisy, a reality that made Blaine “heartsick” given his national ambitions. Nast was for Blaine, a painfully persistent pest.

Blaine was all too aware that Nast’s sphere of influence on the electorate was wide.  Nast relished exposing Blaine’s hypocrisy. Nast’s fixation on Blaine was unrelenting, nearly equaling his Tweed/Tammany days.  The adverse attention worried Blaine, who “attempted to explain and to justify his position, but the artist could see in the Chinese immigrant only a man and a brother, trying to make a living in a quiet and peaceful manner in a country that was big enough for all” (Paine, 413).

The cartoon also capitalized on the popularity of a popular 1870 poem,  Bret Harte’s “Plain Language from Truthful James,” with Nast exploiting James Blaine as Harte’s fearful and deeply suspicious character.

Blaine is seen center at the top of an equal rights podium, welcoming an Irishman on right, and giving him space on the platform by kicking off a Chinese worker. The irony that both ethnic groups arrived in the U.S. to flee famine, was not lost on Nast. All of the accusations leveled at the Irish by Protestants, e.g. cult religion, large numbers (hordes) of poor and diseased people of a different race (the Irish were thought to be of a different race) who would ruin and dilute American culture, and an unwillingness to assimilate, became the exact charges the Irish leveled against the Chinese.

“The Martydom of St. Crispin” 16 July 1870

Two Chinese men raise swords behind an white shoemaker, as if to attack
Martyrdom of St. Crispin by Thomas Nast. Harper’s Weekly 16 July 1870. Source: UDel/Walfred

This cartoon, published on July 16, 1870, is one of the more curious of Nast’s Chinese pieces. The cartoon addresses the issue of using Chinese labor as an efficient, lower cost alternative, thus blurring the definition of contract, or forced slave labor known as “coolie” labor. For a nation still coming to terms with the issue of slavery and slave labor, “coolie” labor was viewed as suspect, and a threat to replace free white labor for the betterment of capitalist or business interests. For another perspective click here.

Two Chinese workers stand behind a shoe cobbler. They carry sabers marked “Cheap Labor” on the blades. The cobbler is St. Crispin, the patron saint of leather workers. The cobbler’s hair is styled in a tonsure and a halo hovers over his head. Whether intentional or not, the cobbler bears a strong resemblance to Nast’s hero, Abraham Lincoln. He concentrates on his work and appears to be unaware of his Chinese visitors lurking behind with their swords raised. A violent attack is imminent.

The Chinese man at the far left has an abnormally elongated face and slanted eyes that upturn at an unnatural angle. He clenches two weapons, but he has yet to lunge toward St. Crispin.

At center and directly behind the cobbler is another Chinese man. His facial features are more normal and do not appear exaggerated. His look is intent on what he is about to do.  With a two-handed grip, he hurls his “Cheap Labor” blade high over his head, ready to strike the first blow upon cobbler oblivious to the danger.

Nast identifies this as a “New Issue – The Chinese – American Question” and that question is how to reconcile the Chinese into the labor force.

The next issue of Harper’s Weekly reported on an uprising that may have been breaking at the time Nast executed his drawing. In that issue, Harper’s Weekly  reported on Mr. Sampson, owner of a New England shoe factory. Experiencing financial difficulties, Sampson sought wage concessions from his factory’s labor force. They agreed to consider his request provided Sampson open his books to make sure the owner had done all he could and operated his business above board. Sampson refused this request and instead arranged to recruit Chinese workers from San Francisco. The article makes an explicit distinction that Sampson recruited Chinese workers already in the U.S., unlike that of an individual by the distinctive name of Mr. Koopmanschoop, a labor broker, and capitalist who dealt directly with China for his labor force. The article infers that the methods to import Chinese labor from China were nothing more than disguised slavery. Coolie labor became a subject of everyday discussion and concern, but Harper’s argues, Mr. Sampson was well within his rights to seek out cheaper labor to save his business.

The Harper’s Weekly article takes a favorable view of the Chinese workers. “Since their arrival…their deportment has been excellent, and the prejudice at first existing against them is said to be gradually giving away” (Harper’s Weekly, 23 July 1870). The article included two large illustrations, not drawn by Nast, showing where the factory was situated, and an interior scene of Chinese men working inside the factory without incident. The scene was clean, peaceful and unremarkable.

Presumably, as news of Chinese workers entering American factories in New England reached New Yorkers, Nast quickly created this small cartoon, placed near the back of the issue in the advertisement section. Cartoons of this size, roughly 5 inches by 5 inches, were typically nestled near the advertisements. This section of the magazine may have been blocked out, ready to receive a quick image for breaking news. This would explain why there is no article in the paper about Chinese shoemakers that week, but appeared in the next issue.

The pro-capitalist position of Harper’s Weekly does not describe the Chinese as strike breakers, but according to John Kuo Wei Tchen, this maneuver in Massachusetts and a similar one in New Jersey was a deliberate attempt to break a strike of the shoe labor union known as the Knights of St. Crispin. “The Crispins were one of the largest trade unions in the country, claiming some forty thousand members in Massachusetts alone.”  Using Chinese labor in such a manner made national news, and reinforced the perception of the Chinese as cheap, possibly indentured or forced labor. Willingly or not, by undercutting the price of white labor, and working to the satisfaction of employers, the manipulation of Chinese labor played a crucial role in how their racial identities were formed within a Euro-centric America (Tchen 175-176).

As a Radical Republican, Nast believed in the capitalist point of view that saw a benefit by adding Chinese labor to any given industry. Yet, Nast drew an unflattering portrait of Chinese labor with this cartoon. As John Kuo Wei Tchen notes, “Chinese cheap labor” had become a “war cry” and that was reflected in cartoons and in contemporary poetry, such as Bret Harte’s “Plain Language from Truthful James.” The poem depicts a Chinese character, Ah Sin, as a cunning heathen.  Nast would revive Ah Sin nine years later, but this 1870 cartoon reflects the idea infused in the poem that allowing the Chinese to have “unfettered entry” into America was dangerous (Tchen 196). Nast would also play on the poem’s title with his pro-Chinese cartoon “Blaine Language” one of many cartoons which criticized U.S. Senator James G. Blaine for his anti-Chinese positions.

Whether Nast believed in the danger or merely reflected what was discussed on the street—as a topic for conversation— is unknown.  The cartoon is inconsistent with the majority of his Chinese cartoons. The figures, however, closely resemble the Chinese men who taunt Denis Kearney in Nast’s 1880 cartoon, Ides of March.

Historian John Kuo Wei Tchen speculates that Nast likely did not have any real knowledge or exposure to the Chinese in New York, and adds that his cartoons “indicate familiarity with the representational conventions of Chinese in literature and on stage, but not much other knowledge” (211).  Tchen’s assessment makes sense. The question remains,  does that excuse Nast from drawing images like this – or was characterizations like this one purposeful because Nast was simply incorporating the popular view?

Related to this cartoon: See “The Latest Edition of “Shoo Fly“” and “The Chinese Question.”

Works cited

“Pacific Chivalry” 1869

This is Nast’s first cartoon of a Chinese immigrant or sojourner in the West Coast. The cartoon establishes Nast’s sympathies toward the Chinese.

Pacific Chivalry, Harper's Weekly, 7 August, 1869
Pacific Chivalry, Harper’s Weekly, 7 August 1869

Pacific Chivalry sets the western locale and places a central focus on the unique hairstyle or “queue” of Chinese men. During the Manchurian takeover of the Ming Dynasty, it was decreed that Chinese men shave their heads with the exception of a part of the back of the head where a long ponytail, often braided, would remain. In times of battle, the “queue” helped to distinguish Manchu warriors from the enemy. Chinese men faced execution if they did not grow a queue (Spence 38).

In the United States, the queue was a subject of fascination that added to the mystique and perceived feminization of Chinese men who were often “depicted as lacking virility.” In the male-dominated world of western gold mining “Chinese men became targets of white men’s fears of homosexuality or the objects of their desire” (Pfaelzer 13).

Unknown terror awaits this Chinese figure as he attempts to flee from a white aggressor. Wearing a hat that bears the name California, the white laborer bears his teeth in a determined grimace.  In his right hand, he raises a whip – a variation of a cat-o-nine whip, believed to have originated to punish African slaves during the U.S. slave trade.  He has lifted his left leg to counterbalance his swing and prepares to strike his Chinese victim.  His left hand grips the Chinese queue and prevents the Chinese from escape. The force of pulling on the hair elongates the Chinese man’s head.

Shapes of skulls were thought to be indicative of intelligence and placement in an evolutionary hierarchy by stretching out the skull of a Chinese man, the perpetrator, and perhaps the artist offers the Chinese different than the standard perception for human normality. Though he is not drawn as overtly Irish, the working man fits the look that Nast establishes for white labor – gruff, bearded, burly and dominating. The look was repeated in The Chinese Question, 18 February 1871. and other cartoons. It should be noted that the Knights of Labor, an organization formed for white labor interests in western states and territories, and often the instigating agent for violence against the Chinese, did have a large Irish Catholic membership. (See Here’s a Pretty Mess).

The Chinese man is startled by his capture. His fearful expression further distorted by the pulling from the back of his scalp.  His sun hat, the douli, has fallen to the ground and his hands are open in a defensive posture, though the threat has come from behind.

To the right, along the railroad tracks rests a small building on the edge of what resembles a small mining camp. The words on the building pronounces, “Courts of Justice Closed to Chinese. Extra Taxes to Yellow Jack.”

Nast, of course, is mocking California’s definition of justice and the battery of local laws passed by the new state to scare, threaten and restrict Chinese and opportunities in the gold mines, in society and in business.

Nast draws a contrast from Pacific form of “chivalry” compared to from the respectful way Columbia introduces the Chinese to American society.

What fate awaits this Chinese man is up to the reader to decide. Will he be beaten, robbed, driven out of the mining camp, out of town, or sexually abused is not known. With this image, Nast clearly asserts something terrible will occur. “Nast condemned this treatment as an affront to the values of an open society” (Keller 108).

Works cited

“”Here’s a Pretty Mess!” (in Wyoming)” 1885

Here’s a Pretty Mess!” (in Wyoming) – 19 September, 1885 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly.Thomas Nast Source: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One of Thomas Nast’s last cartoons featuring the Chinese was published in the fall of 1885 as a reaction to the Rocks Springs Massacre of Chinese miners, “one of the most violent racial episodes in the history of the West” (Pfaelzer 209).

Harper’s Weekly addressed the massacre in two separate issues, each with an illustration and unsigned editorial commentary (likely by George W. Curtis). While Nast contributed full-sized images on other topics, his sole cartoon on the massacre was a quarter-page-sized image near the back of the issue.

The cartoon lacks the passion and sophistication one would expect from Nast in reaction to the largest racial attack in U.S. history. Perhaps the cartoon was hastily drawn as events became known. The image may have replaced another cartoon slated for the spot – the advertising section always blocked out the area for one or two small cartoons.

Nast’s image may provoke different reactions from those who view it. One common reaction is that the cartoon adopts a pro-Chinese stance, but depicts a sarcastic Chinese tone or voice – one which emphasizes Chinese civility over Western “enlightenment.”

Two Chinese diplomats stand upon higher ground and overlook a scene of mayhem below. They witness the Rock Creek massacre in progress.  An assortment of white laborers are pummeling Chinese laborers whom Nast identifies with long hair queue.

The primary Chinese figures are styled in the same manner as the “John Confucius/John Chinaman” diplomat, however, one holds a fan in front of his face. One diplomat stands in profile and faces the massacre directly, the other crouches behind his colleague and appears to whisper in his ear. The fan emphasizes the secret nature of their conversation.

The detail of the cartoon is centered on the Chinese men, and not on the violence below, which is more crudely drawn. Of all Nast’s images of the Chinese, this depiction, particularly of the Chinese man in profile, are strongly feminized. With some minor costume details, these men could be women. This is an unusual tact for Nast to adopt.

It is the caption, and not the image, which drives the satire and ironic definition of civility.  White America repeatedly favored the term “barbarian” in describing the Chinese.  The caption reads, “Chinese Satirical Diplomat.”There’s no doubt of the United States being at the head of enlightened nations!””

At first glance, the contrast is quite clear. Who are these white people calling the Chinese heathens, barbarians and a race unfit for American citizenship? Look at how Americans behave! This is quite a spectacle of enlightened behavior. On this score, the cartoon is successful.

With a deeper look, the viewer may realize that these Chinese diplomats do nothing but observe the melee. They watch as their countrymen are murdered and driven out. The Chinese are denied the right to earn an honest living – a living they were recruited for by American business and invited to participate in.

One might interpret the Chinese men are gleeful for this opportunity to make a cultural comparison between East and West.  Does Nast suggest the massacre serves a higher purpose – an occasion upon which the diplomats can prove their superiority? If so, they make their point at the expense of their countrymen. Still, Nast portrays the two men as inactive. Shock is absent. They feel no outrage by what they witness. Neither is Nast.

Nast chose the cartoon to be sardonic and sarcastic – and on one level, he succeeds in showing his viewers who the real barbarians are.  But Nast could have made his point and at the same time, infuse his Chinese observers with a sense of sorrow or anger. Why did Nast not weigh in on the moral argument, as he had done many times before, by simply adding Columbia to the scene?  By standing alongside her Chinese guests, shedding tears, Columbia  her fist raised in defiance, the maternal icon of American morality might elicit sympathy from the viewers.

Nast followers knew what Columbia meant in his cartoons.  Nast chose not to take her to Wyoming.  He did not employ her as a moral agent. Columbia’s values and message are absent in this composition. Nast also refused to demonize or detail reports of a predominately Irish-labor mob as the perpetrators of the massacre. While his drawing depicts white upon Chinese violence, Nast chose not to exploit the Irish nature of the mob. Nast’s infamous Irish ape is not present as instigators at this scene.

In reality, response to the massacre by the Chinese government was immediate and persistent as they complained to Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, and argued for prosecution of the murderers and reparations (Pfaelzer 211-214).

Harper’s Weekly’s brief editorial commented on the outrage, expressed in part:

The massacre of the Chinese laborers in Wyoming is one of the crimes which disgrace a people, because it is due to the jealousy and hatred of a race. In excluding the Chinese from the country by law we have especially stigmatized them, and common decency and humanity should lead us to protect those of them who unfortunately happen to be among us, and whom the law shows that we wish were somewhere else.

Perhaps Nast’s state of mind had grown tired of an issue on which he and the progressive Republican base had repeatedly experienced defeat. As Morton Keller has surmised, Nast’s passions were linked to the utopian principles of the Radical Republicanism he championed. “When that spirit faded, so did the force and fire of Nast’s art” (Keller  viii).

In the next issue Harper’s Weekly published a full-page engraving based on a photograph taken at the scene of the massacre. Nast had no part in the illustration.

“The Massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs Wyoming” 26 September, 1885. Engraving from photo. Wikipedia Commons

Nast contributed a full-paged cartoon in the same issue, but it did not address the massacre. Commentary on the massacre was left to others.   Nast’s career at Harper’s Weekly was coming to a close.

Historical background on the Rock Creek Massacre

In 1862, the United States Congress authorized an act to construct railroad and telegraph lines connecting East and West. The Central Pacific Rail Road (CPRR) was in charge of construction from Sacramento, California to the East.  In order to fulfill the enormous labor demands and meet financial incentives offered by the federal government, Chinese labor was recruited. The principals of the CPPR were known as the “Big Four” Leland Stanford, president; C.P. Huntington, vice president; Mark Hopkins, treasurer and Charles Crocker, engineer (Storti 10).

Despite early reluctance from his partners, Crocker recruited thousands of Chinese as railroad laborers, and due to their experience as miners, hired them as coal miners to support the fuel needed for the rail effort. “Crocker brought them in by the trainload” and by 1868, the Chinese “made up 80 percent of the Central Pacific’s work force.” Crocker happily called them “the best road builders in the world.” They were known derisively as “Crocker’s pets” (Storti 12).

Rock Springs was located along Bitter Creek tributary and in an area rich with coal.  The path of the Union Pacific Railroad was slated to go right through the coal-rich area.  Coal was “a discovery of almost incalculable value to the company” (Storti 34). On the surface, the land, which the Indians had negotiated away seemed inarable and desolate – the poorest tract of land in Wyoming. What lay underneath the soil made it valuable. Rudimentary mining towns quickly sprang up in the area and by 1871 Rock Springs had become central headquarters to the Wyoming Coal and Mining Company (Storti 54).

The year 1873 began a sustained era of severe economic depression which affected the railroad, and other supporting industries including coal mining towns like Rock Creek.

A Wall Street investor, Jay Gould, “had his hands in virtually every major business undertaking of the day” and this included the coal mines at Rock Springs. Gould ordered a series of wage cuts for coal miners in the region. Various labor organizations and miner’s associations threatened and carried out sporadic strikes across many mining camps in the country that supported the transatlantic railroad effort.  As these strike continued to percolate on and off, Chinese miners were used as strike breakers or “scabs.”

In 1875, 150 Chinese workers reported for duty as strikebreakers, under the protection of U.S. troops (Storti 71).

Coal mining was “astonishingly dangerous work.” Storti’s book on the Rock Creek massacre provides valuable insight into the details and dangers of the coal miner’s (or colliers as they were known) exhaustive toils.  Storti describes it as a “tightly knit brotherhood” of men who risked their lives – rarely saw daylight or breathed in clean air.  They were protective of each other and of their wages. They knew the risks they undertook and expected to be paid well for that sacrifice.

Nevertheless, Storti explains, labor management wanted profits to increase and did not think twice about humiliating their labor force.  When Chinese miners arrived, they “were routinely given the most productive rooms and were always allowed first choice of rooms when a new entry was opened” (Storti 83). The Chinese were not above flaunting their privileged position, deepening further resentment and competition.

As in other locations where the Chinese gathered to work, a supporting society was quickly established. A Chinatown near Rock Springs flourished.

With the help of Chinese labor, the Rock Springs mining camp tripled its coal production from 104,000 tons in 1875 to 302,000 tons in 1884.

In the fall of 1884 threats of strikes across the region were instigated by invigorated union interests and new pro-labor affiliations, such as the Knights of Labor.  Rock Springs avoided these threats and colliers from Rock Springs did not partake in Knights of Labor meetings. But by the summer of 1885, Chinese -White labor tensions reached a breaking point regarding the continued preferential treatment of Chinese workers, with the Chinese gaining the most concessions.

When disputes arose, the Chinese stood their ground and offered no concessions. The confrontations, which took place deep inside the mines, came to blows. Word of the fights made their way to the surface as white laborers began to collect in the streets, “shouting anti-Chinese slogans” (Storti 108-113).

In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor stood as the most powerful labor union in the nation (Storti 103). The Knights of Labor were strong proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act and their membership was predominately Catholic (Catholic University of America).  The Knights of Labor organized 1886 events that led to the Chicago Haymarket demonstration and massacre, though violence was never planned and did not directly involve Chinese laborers.

The white miners had asked the Chinese to join them in a strike. Unwilling to strike, violence erupted. “A force of about 150 Irish-born miners marched to Chinatown armed with shotguns” (Pfaelzer 210).

The mob first fired into the air, demanding that the Chinese leave. As they began to do so, Chinese were shot at directly. Several homes and businesses in Chinatown were burned to the ground. An estimated 400 to 500 Chinese were forcibly driven out, many escaped to the outskirts of town without food, water or shelter where “about 50 died of exposure and starvation as they tried to reach the Green River and escape from the mine” (Pfaelzer 211). The final death toll was put at fifty-one, the highest ever for a race riot in American history” (Storti 142).

“The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them?” 1878

A donkey (Denis Kearney( honks as scenes of Chinese workers surround
“The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them?” – 11 May 1878 by George Frederick Keller for The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp

The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them? was drawn by George F. Keller and published on May 11, 1878. The cartoon is The Wasp’s interpretation of the Workingmen’s Party’s rallying cry against Chinese presence in California.  Front and center is a donkey in military garb, an indication of a war- war against the Chinese, and liberal immigration policies. On the epaulets of the donkey’s uniform, the initials “D.K.” represent the faction’s self-styled military leader, Irish-born Denis Kearney and chief crier of “the Chinese Must Go” mantra. Kearney, a charismatic Irish American “began his infamous outdoor “Sandlot” meetings on vacant lots…and understood how to turn rage about unemployment, the price of food, and the huge land grants to the railroads against the Chinese” (Pfaelzer 77).

The cartoon’s title question has a double meaning. Kearney and his Workingmen’s Party were clear on one goal. They wanted the Chinese out of California- out of the West Coast – out of the labor market.  Go back to China, go East – as long as they went. They cared little about who would take care of the Chinese afterward.

The title challenges the readers to look within. Who was taking care of the Chinese in California? Who was keeping them, enabling them, to stay in California? The Wasp pointed the finger at their readers.

Surrounding the braying Kearney, six vignettes show the consequences of white citizens patronizing Chinese business; a cigar shop, shoe cobbler, laundry, horse livery and meat butcher. All professions that the Chinese successfully established and sustained through white patronage. White dollars kept the Chinese in place.  By asking, “But who keeps them?” the cartoon places the blame directly upon white households.  The editorial called for widespread boycotts of Chinese goods and services.

White woman in California were reluctant to give up the freedoms they had enjoyed by subbing out the domestic work to Chinese businesses. “Their freedom to travel east, to visit friends and family, and their time for church and artistic clubs – all the result of inexpensive Chinese servants – was in jeopardy” (Pfaelzer 66).

As the 1873 economic collapse persisted well into 1876,  anti-Chinese zealotry organized into groups, such as the Supreme Order of the Caucasians, who vowed to “annihilate” white people who did not follow their “hit list” of boycotts (Pfaelzer 67).

However, the image is not entirely flattering to Irish-born Kearney and his followers. According to Richard Samuel West, The Wasp abhorred mob violence and the paper adopted the editorial position that while it believed in the true threat of Chinese labor at the expense of white labor, Kearney’s method lacked dignity.  Unlike Nast who drew Kearney’s realistically, The Wasp rarely used Kearney’s face in their magazines and in this particular instance, preferred to use the Democratic donkey in his place. “The animal appealed to illustrators for its jackass connotations” (Dewey 17).

Nevertheless, Kearney’s Sandlot speeches resonated with California Democrats and the working class who comprised Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party. “Just two years later, the new party managed to rewrite local anti-Chinese codes into the second California constitution” (Pfaelzer 78-79). Other anti-Chinese measures would follow in California, and loomed on the federal horizon. Back east, Thomas Nast took notice as he watched the Democratic Party gain influence over the electorate and contribute to the shifting public policy against the Chinese. To Nast’s horror, Republicans came under the influence, as well.

Nast drew numerous cartoons sympathetic to the Chinese’s plight in America. Many of his cartoons react to unfolding events in California. Nast included many references to Kearney in his cartoons, often sarcastically quoting him on wall posters.  See example: Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day, February 8, 1879

It should be noted that Keller’s donkey wears a bicorn military hat. A few of Nast’s anti-Chinese cartoon figures contain a military figure wearing a bicorn hat. This may or may not serve as a symbol for Kearney. In the context of Nast’s cartoons, the suggestion seems plausible.

 

“What Shall We Do With Our Boys?” 1882

Satire cartoon of Chinese laborer working abnormally fast
“What Shall We Do With Our Boys” – 3 March 1882 by George Frederick Keller for The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp
One distinctive feature of The Wasp was its use of color lithography. Korbel’s and Keller’s experience and expertise in color lithographs of cigar box labels and Korbel’s investment in its own printing equipment gave The Wasp instant appeal. An example of effective use of color can be found in What Shall We Do With Our Boys, March 3, 1882.

Clearly fixated on the labor issue the cartoon incorporates two of West’ six themes favored by The Wasp: the Chinese as ruthless competitors and subversive labor monsters.

The frame is divided, two-thirds occupied and dominated by an eleven-handed Chinese worker-monster. “The Chinese were depicted as “many handed” or monstrous creatures depriving white labors of their jobs” (Choy 84). Keller’s uber-octopus like Chinese laborer is seen going to town, a busy industrial whirlwind of labor productivity. He is unstoppable in the trades and crafts most attributed to Chinese workers; shoemaker, tailor, cigar maker and laundryman testifies his industriousness. Collectively, his array of hands holds a saw, mallet, hammer, and brush. Most dangerous of all, he is succeeding. Two hands are busy socking away a substantial bag of money and assures the satchel is carted off in a rickshaw to export “For China.”  “Chinese Trade Monopoly” is secured in place with his foot. The image emphasizes the prevailing anti-Chinese view that the Chinese aren’t like other immigrants. They are instead “sojourners” whose only wish is to make money in America to send back to their families in China.  The cartoon does not reference the fact that the Chinese were legally restricted from becoming naturalized citizens.

In the event the viewer does not fully appreciate the implications of this Chinese monster, the remaining third of the screen, clean shaven, non-threatening white boys collect with nothing to do, loitering outside. These are not angry Irish boys. They are victims of the Chinese menace. These young men are well dressed, with jackets and hats and bear pensive expressions – chins resting on their hands. One young man leans on a lamppost with an American Eagle on top, and another leans against the side of the one-man Chinese factory. Without a future, they are, as the caption points out “our boys.”  A police officer leads one of the loiterers away to one of three structures in the distance.  What path lies in the boy’s future? What fate? Institutions in the distance provide the grim answer, “San Quentin,” “Industrial School,” or “House of Correction.” The message is clear. The Chinese labor problem erodes an opportunity for wholesome, American boys to obtain honest work. They cannot compete with the whirlwind of cheap, Chinese labor. Inside, the Chinese phenomenon could care less. Keller imbues him with a gleeful, sinister expression as he monopolizes and spins profits.

The Chinese worker’s face is grotesquely distorted. His eyes are deeply slanted, his crooked smile missing several teeth, digs crevices that form a malevolent expression.  His queue rises in mid-air, curled like a whip, propelled by the frenzy of his windmill-like hands.

“Ah Sin Was His Name” 1879

“Ah Sin Was His Name” – 8 March, 1879 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: UDel-Walfred
Thomas Nast once again borrowed from Bret Harte’s popular 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James ” and the “heathen chinee” character Ah Sin as the focus of this cartoon against Denis Kearney, the leader of the anti-Chinese movement making waves in California.

A gaunt Uncle Sam is seen crawling out of the tapered mouthpiece of a large bull horn with the “UNITED STATES” engraved along its long scrimshaw.  The largest part of the opening faces West, where framed by majestic mountains a vaguely drawn figure dances around a campfire.

The horn has additional engraving. “This is the land of Liberty, and the home of the KEARNEY’s.” In between a flourish is another declaration “Kearney’s Equal Rights.” Lengthwise, the tail of the horn is engraved “Declaration of Independence by Kearney.” As Uncle Sam crawls out of the smaller end, he offers up the “Anti-Chinese Bill” to Ah Sin, a Chinese merchant waiting under an umbrella at the edge of Chinatown. Behind Ah Sin,  Chinese architecture is visible. His community is under transition. Beyond, the village stores, owned by non-Chinese, are display signs, “American Produce Market Closed” and “No Foreign Devils Wanted.”

Ah Sin appears startled by Uncle Sam’s weakened appearance. Ah Sins’s hands are on his knees, ready to rise. His queue vaults in the air by the surprise. Uncle Sam is unable to stop the fast-moving current of anti-Chinese legislation, and in fact, has become a reluctant courier — a mere delivery boy for Kearney’s orders.

Nast’s message is clear. Denis Kearney has a big mouth. He needs a big horn. Kearney, an Irish immigrant, is the self-proclaimed soldier and leader of the Workingmen’s Party, an organization of white labor fixated on driving Chinese labor competition -— and all Chinese immigrants — out of California.

By 1879, Kearney had been at his anti-Chinese campaign for a solid two years, effectively growing his agitated labor base. His voice still thick with an Irish brogue, Kearney’s charismatic Sand Lot speeches provoked white workers to violence toward the Chinese —  and Kearney’s successful lobbying efforts led to the passage of numerous local anti-Chinese laws.  National political candidates, most notably presidential aspirant James G. Blaine were eager to please a growing western labor constituency in the West.  Kearney and his followers were sought out and courted for their votes.

In this cartoon, Nast attributes Kearney’s loudmouth proclamations as self-serving attempts to remake and rebrand the U.S. Constitution as his own personal instrument to redefine the meaning of civil rights. Nast’s cartoon highlights the hypocrisy of one immigrant ordering another immigrant to leave the country.

“A Paradox” – 22 May, 1880

“A Paradox” 22 May, 1880 by Thomas Nast for Herper’s Weekly.. Source: UDel-Walfred, Public Domain

This Chinese man is being pulled in two directions by two opposing political parties. Typical of most Nast drawings, the bad is on the left, the good on the right. The party figures also represent their regional power base -—the West for Democrats and the East for Republicans. We do not know from what location the Chinese man is standing or how he arrived at this particular tug-of-war predicament. Rare for Nast, there is no detail as to location, no props to suggest a political issue or visual guides to suggest how one might think about the Chinese man’s unfortunate situation. He is is simply being pulled apart.

On the right, the Republican Party, and particularly the Radical Republicans to whom Nast aligned and identified, wanted the Chinese to remain in the United States and argued for their admittance for American citizenship.  Radical Republicans stood first and foremost from a position of morality and believed that the Chinese were no different than any other immigrant group. Mainstream Republicans and those Republicans whose constituency represented business, industry and capitalism, wanted the Chinese to remain. Good workers were good for business. Capitalists admired the hard working, non-striking Chinese and fiscally benefited from their industriousness and productivity. Ideal employees, the Chinese kept to themselves and completed their work. Chinese went where work was offered and perhaps unknowingly, served as pawns to break strikes, drive down labor costs and inflame white workingmen’s charges of coolie or slave labor. break strikes and drive down labor costs.

Democrats in the South also wanted the Chinese to teach newly freed African Americans a lesson.

“Democrats developed ingenious methods of limiting black voting power” and included the poll tax, property qualifications, literacy tests, and anyone convicted of petty larceny (and many such arrests resulted) restricted African Americans from exercising their newly gained voting privileges (Foner 422).

Plantation owners in the Deep South also looked to punish African American labor and reduce dependance on black labor’s earning power by encouraging immigrant labor that included the Chinese. One Alabama newspaper appealed to Irish and German immigrants to earn $10 a month on the farms. “Even more attractive were indentured laborers from China, whose “natural” docility would bolster plantation discipline and whose arrival, by flooding the labor market, would reduce the wages of blacks” (Foner 419).

“Give us five million of Chinese laborers in the valley of the Mississippi,” wrote a planter’s wife, “and we can furnish the world with cotton and teach the negro his proper place, (qtd. Foner 419-420).

Democrats along the West Coast however, wanted the Chinese driven out all together. As Euro-American populations increasingly traveled west, any Chinese earning money was seen as competition — as the enemy. This view took on an even greater urgency during the economic crash of the late 1870s.

The Chinese man central in this cartoon is confused and startled. His queue stands up straight like an exclamation point in reaction to the tug of war over his person, his talent, and his future. He is both a prize of labor and a future victim. Representing the average Chinese worker, he has nowhere to call home, no political party with whom he could place absolute trust.

The Chinese were prohibited from becoming citizens in the United States and could not vote. This prohibition did not extend to any other immigrant group.

By 1880, some Republicans like James G. Blaine aligned less with pro-business and bent under the populist pressure to rid the country of the purported Chinese threat.

“Which Color is to be Tabooed Next?” 1882

Irish and German man sitting at a table
“Which Color Is To Be Tabooed Next?” 25 March, 1882. Library of Congress

Fritz, a German and Pat, an Irishman, discuss what race should be tabooed next. The Germans and Irish were often adversarial rivals for jobs, but by the late 1870s and 1880s were more unified as white men as the “Chinese Question” hovered over their economic future. Increasingly Euro-centric whites affiliated with groups like the Workingmen’s Party, whose goal to drive out all labor competition, particularly from the Chinese  Chinese were often viewed incorrectly, as “coolies” workers who were brought to the United States under duress, or tricked into contract labor.

The caption, “Fritz (to Pat). “If the Yankee Congress can keep the yellow man out, what is to hinder them from calling us green and keeping us out too?””

As these men ponder their victory, they also dwell upon the repercussions of their victory over the Chinese and the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which had in place, a 20-year option to renew.

Nast’s square jawed Irishman in top hat and vest had more to worry about than the German. The Irish had long been considered by other white people as not fully white – a separate race of people who sat on the evolutionary scale above the African American, but below Caucasians. By 1882, the Irish American had made great political gains, but this cartoon infers a certain irony, that people hadn’t completely forgotten earlier perceptions. Seventeen years later, Harper’s Weekly published this scientific-based cartoon.

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. This cartoon showing the notion that the Irish were physically and scientifically different still persisted 17 years after Nast published his cartoon in 1882.

Fritz the German (smoking a Meerschaum styled pipe and holding a mug of German beer) has a good inkling of who might be next in the pecking order. He directs his question and emphasizes it with a slight touch to the Irishman’s arm. We can see the Irishman is considering the implications.

A common Nast technique placed proclamations on walls behind his subjects, in this case language direct from the Exclusion Act, on the wall behind the two men as they reflect their future in America. A looming possibility hovers over their casual moment and invades their enjoyment of a legislative victory against the Chinese in America.

“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.