I came across an article in the Huffington Post today that reports on a photographic exhibition taking place in New York that examines the lives and contributions of the early Chinese immigrants to the US. The exhibition is called "Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion" and looks to be an interesting show. The HuffPo article is also very interesting, but in a different way. In light of two recent posts - one dealing with the downgrading of the anti-Asian male violence nature of the Isla Vista killings, the other dealing with the need to promote Asian-American history through culture - the HuffPo article does a good job of illustrating the tendency of commentators to do the former, as well as the necessity to enact the latter.
The article begins thus.....
It wasn't easy being Chinese American in the early days. From exclusionary laws to the racist caricatures that dotted newspaper comic pages, America wasn't exactly laying down the welcome mat.Although the above statement is true, it is also - paradoxically - false. The falsity occurs in what is omitted in the description of the experiences of the first large-scale Chinese immigrants in America. As I wrote in a previous post - here - the lives of the early Chinese immigrants were characterized by savage violence inflicted upon them by white Americans. This is what I wrote in that post, which I titled "Driven Out - An Asian-American Holocaust"......
The stories of violence and manifestations of hatred are almost unbelieveable - they are so savage, brutal, and sadistic, that the perpetrators and the violence that they committed sounds like little more than a caricature of a medieval warlord and his mob of rampaging peasants. If one were to write a novel - or make a movie - with these kinds of incidents, most people might find the characterizations to be too far-fetched. But these things did happen, and the sadistic brutality was real, yet, the entire episode has almost disappeared from the American consciousness......
Mobs of men (but sometimes including women and children) would enter Chinatowns, forcing the Chinese out of their homes and businesses, they would be beaten (or killed) and then made to walk miles to the coast or railway stations where they would be forced onto trains and ships and removed from the town. Then the homes of the Chinese would be ransacked and burned. In some instances, Chinese homes and dorms would be set on fire with the Chinese men still inside, who were then shot at and murdered as they tried to escape the flames.......
In the six or so decades between the 1850's and the early 20th century, there were hundreds of such incidences, that drove Chinese communities out of dozens of American West Coast towns, killing many Chinese men and injuring thousands more. Following the so-called "dog-tag" laws in the 1890's that required the registration of all Chinese, the idea was floated that any Chinese who could not show that they were legal should be placed in "enclosures" - a disturbing foreshadowing of Japanese internment.Most of the information for that post was taken from a book - that all Asian-Americans should be made to read - called "Driven Out", and it paints a far more horrific picture of life for America's first Chinese immigrants. Although exclusionary laws and racist caricatures in the media were significant - and serious - issues facing the first Chinese-Americans, the pervasive violence that accompanied it deserves to be remembered, documented, and imprinted, even, in the consciousness of both Asian-Americans and the mainstream.
But why is it necessary to remember these terrible historical episodes when the Chinese men who went through it were themselves reluctant to record these experiences, preferring to forget the horror of it all? Well, firstly, if we forget exactly how extremely difficult it was made for the early Chinese immigrants to establish communities, and then thrive, then it actually diminishes the successes highlighted in the HuffPo piece. For example, it is an achievement that there was a Chinese-American WWI pilot (highlighted in the HuffPo piece), but if all the community that she came from had to overcome were some mean caricatures and racist immigration laws (which by her very presence, she had gotten around), then her achievement seems less of one.
By contrast if we acknowledge that in order for her to be able achieve what she achieved, her antecessors had to resolve to carry on after being violently expelled from homes and businesses that they and taken years and decades to build, and watching friends, family, and acquaintances, being rounded up, beaten, and murdered, in the process, lends a whole new level of significance to her success. Overcoming racist caricatures and immigration laws to achieve success is good, overcoming a six-decade period in which your community was were subjected to expulsions from dozens of towns, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and suggestions that they should be placed in "enclosures", is far more significant achievement.
The second reason to remember the violence perpetrated against the first Chinese-Americans is that we can see echoes of the relationship between anti-Chinese/Asian political rhetoric, racist media depictions, and racist violence and behaviours, that is still with us today. Often our racial experiences are shaped by rhetoric driven by political tensions between the US and some Asian country that manifests as racial hostility or violence against Americans of Asian descent. Vincent Chin was one such victim of this process. It is possible that political rhetoric empowers and enables the expression of casual racism against Asians in the media which in turn empowers and promotes demeaning racist behaviour and perhaps even violence towards Asian people. This process was a problem for the first Chinese Americans -with deadly results - and it remains a significant issue today, and one that we still struggle to deal with. This is a disturbing reminder that however far we think we have come as a community, there still exists in America a cultural phenomenon and process in which politics and media combine to shape behaviours and attitudes towards Asians that are still largely hostile, dehumanizing, and casually racist.
The third and final reason to remember the violence perpetrated against the first Chinese is not to do entirely with white racism, but has more to do with how we tend to collude (both intentionally and unintentionally) with the mainstream to marginalize uncomfortable history and those who experienced it. The facts of history tell us that the first Chinese communities in America were made up almost entirely of Chinese men. Of course, what this means is that the vast, vast, vast majority of the victims of the expulsions, round-ups, beatings, tortures, and murders, committed by white-American mobs all along the West Coast were men - Asian men. What this means is that by not making mention of this period of ethnic cleansing against the Chinese we are erasing one of the most monumental episodes in history that lies at the root of and defines America's cultural conceptions and attitudes towards Asian men (just think of all the Asian men we still see being slaughtered by the dozen in American films), but we are also erasing - and as a consequence, dishonouring - the bravery, steel, and determination (qualities often associated with masculinity) exhibited by these 19th century Chinese men.
They are the ones who were violently expelled from their own homes, and who did not give up but instead starting again somewhere else, sometimes several times over. They were the one's who survived beatings and violent round-ups, and witnessed their friends being murdered, but who persevered. By their perseverance and bravery, these Asian men made possible the successes of later generations. If they had not fought back against their persecutors, there would have been no "later generations" of Chinese or Asians in America worth talking about. Yet, their story is marginalized. The reasons for this may be complicated.
Some of us may have internalized America's refusal to associate Asian men with qualities of bravery, perseverance and masculinity, and are, thus, unable or unwilling to view this period of Asian history in that light. Some of us may also have internalized America's discomfort with strong Asian men, the idea of which may seem threatening. Some of us may simply be ignorant of this history. More disturbing, perhaps, is the possibility that the story of these Chinese men, who overcame extreme brutality, is somehow a victim of the Asian-American divide that places the genders in competition for a share of mainstream attention and acceptance. It could be that it does not fit the narrative to acknowledge that Asian men laid the groundwork for the subsequent growth and thriving of Asian-Americans - the preferred narrative and the one most readily accepted by the mainstream (i.e. white America), the one that defines Asian men almost entirely by their attitudes towards, or treatment of (real or made-up) Asian women.
The result is that we are left with an Asian-American culture that largely avoids the uncomfortable episode of ethnic cleansing that targeted the first Chinese immigrants but also continued in the form of pogroms and race-riots that targeted subsequent communities of mainly male Filipino and Japanese immigrants. By allowing ourselves to forget, allow our community to be ignorant of, or deliberately downplay the experience and history of Asian men overcoming decades of racial violence, then we are guilty of colluding with white supremacy. Firstly, we are basically allowing Asian-American history and thus Asian-American culture to be feminized in an unhealthy way - a type of feminization that does not uphold Asian feminine power, but rather patronizingly views Asian feminine power as somewhat passive, cute, and girly. Secondly, we are allowing mainstream sensibilities and apathetic acquiescence to racial stereotypes to be the main factor in defining the elements that are important to the cultural development of Asian-Americans and, hence, the factors that drive our identity.
It could be that the resilience of these early Chinese immigrants does not fit our own mainstream caricature-derived notions of Asian men and their masculinity. The Chinese men who overwhelmingly comprised the first Chinese immigrant communities, had to display a kind of courage and depth of determination that one would not believe possible if we were to take our references for Asian male masculinity from America's cultural depictions. Consider this; over a six-decade period, these men were targeted by mobs and individuals for violence and abuse. They were dragged out of their homes, beaten, their homes ransacked and their belongings stolen, then often their homes and places of business were burned to the ground, sometimes with the Chinese men in them.
Those who were not murdered were rounded up, and marched at gunpoint - sometimes for miles without being given food or water - and were forcibly put onto trains and ships where they were told never to return to the towns that had just expelled them. Now, remember that none of this even speaks to the daily occurrence of racism that they endured - like verbal harassment, personal violence, white customers taking goods and services from their stores and refusing to pay, not to mention racial murders, separate from those committed during the expulsions, that were never investigated, or when they were, resulted in no charges or only perfunctory sentencing for the perpetrators.
Our racist concept of Asian masculinity that is America's culturally appropriate way of viewing Asian men that we have internalized, might make us believe that the response of the Chinese men might be to slink away in fear, complaining unintelligibly in funny ching-chong accents, and cower in fear. Yet, this is not the case. Even after being threatened with death - by local politicians as well as local labor thugs - if they returned to their burned out homes and communities, these Chinese men, did just that to reclaim their belongings, homes, and even to seek justice from their attackers. Others simply re-settled elsewhere and started over, arming themselves for defense. The real nuance here is that even in that time, these Chinese men found ways to negotiate with their white neighbours - some of whom were sympathetic, others not so much - and build a strong connection and even community that included non-Chinese friends and benefactors that helped the communities to survive. These Chinese men were smart as well as tough.
This is how it was possible for Asian-America to exist and we have Asian men to thank for it and the subsequent successes that we have come to enjoy. Let's try to remember them.