Racist Fears of Chinese Eateries ‘Corrupting’ White Women in Early 1900s

The glut of Chinese restaurants in the US proves just how popular the cuisine is with Americans.

But once upon a time, these eateries were the target of a “war” from the white mainstream, one that represented a continuation of the horrifying yellow peril that first emerged in the late 19th century. Americans used racist and xenophobic narratives that tapped into white fears, including those surrounding interracial mingling.

As NPR reported:

… there was the pervasive idea that Chinese men were lecherous threats to white women. Chinese restaurants were considered “dens of vice,” Chin says, where white women were at risk of moral corruption by way of sex, opium and alcohol.

….

At the American Federation of Labor’s 1913 convention, organizers proposed that all states should pass laws that barred white women from working or patronizing Chinese or Japanese restaurants for both moral and economic reasons, Chin says.

….

While the proposed white women’s labor law was never officially enacted, some police officers began patrolling the restaurants of their own volition, Chin says.

….

For example, he adds, “when there were concerns about white women patronizing Chinese restaurants and when the police thought this was prejudicial to the safety of white women, they would simply order white women out.”

The NPR story also mentions that a case in 1909, where a Chinese restaurant worker killed a white woman named Elsie Siegel working at a Chinese restaurant, further fueled the hostility against these establishments. “‘To be a Chinaman these days,’ one Connecticut newspaper wrote, ‘is to be at least a suspect in the murder of Elsie Sigel.'”

On Sampan,  a bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England, a post on this ugly phenomenon in history comes with an example of the kind of racist propaganda that circulated at the time, even in the northern US. Led with an image from the era bearing the title “State Law Being Sought to Save Girls from Lure of Celestial Wiles”, the post notes a number of local media outlets that pushed this narrative, including  a newspaper “claiming it was dangerous for young girls to go sightseeing in Chinatown” and another paper that actually stated in an article “‘The picture of a girl’s ruination through the medium of the Chinese restaurant is too horrible to depict'”. A representative in Massachusetts attempted to pass a bill to “prohibit women from entering Chinese restaurants unless they were over 21 years old and accompanied by a non-Chinese man” — which was later never enacted.

You can read the full stories at NPR and also the Sampan website.

What do you think?

Photo: A Chinese restaurant on Dupont Street in Chinatown in California in 1895.

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7 Replies to “Racist Fears of Chinese Eateries ‘Corrupting’ White Women in Early 1900s”

  1. The orientalist language is quite appalling now. I was more familiar with the racist western tropes of Chinese restaurants being seen as threats for illness and disease rather than threats to white womanhood. Do you know the book New York Before Chinatown by John Kuo Wei Tchen?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Heather! I think I’ve heard of that book, but haven’t read it yet. Will put it on my to-read list. The tropes you mentioned aren’t surprising either — and even more recently, immigrants have been demonized in similar ways.

  2. Elsie Siegel was the granddaughter of a Union general in the Civil War. The Siegel family had been beset with very bad luck since the 1860s, with many members dying very horrific deaths over the years. In the case of Elsie Siegel, she had fallen in love with a Chinese organized crime hitman who was the enforcer for one of the Grand Street Chinatown cartels that was making HUGE profits off of bookmaking and extortion in the Lower East Side and they were on the verge of taking over a racket that was originally dominated by the Italian Mafia in the area. Ms. Siegel had fallen in love with a hardcore playboy and heavy drug user who helped run an intimidation and “take care of business” racket for the syndicate by night. The Triad-Mafia wars had began and assaults and arsons on both sides started to escalate into murders and brazen daytime robberies of delivery trucks and warehouses. Elsie had long witnessed the warning signs that her love interest was a violent and unstable person who would resort to any criminal act to score his next fix but she refused to leave the spotlight of the party scene which he was into. One night, he and several other syndicate hitmen had shot dead an Italian mob associate and just seconds after the shooting, Elsie had ran up to the gang members trying to get her boyfriend’s attention, who was amongst the gunmen. Fearing that she had witnessed the crime and might rat him out, accidentally or intentionally, the guy had her murdered the following night. Her corpse was discovered in the trunk of a car on Delancey Street with multiple close range gunshot wounds. Yep. He was scum, through and through. Believed he got the electric chair for that crime and several previous killings too. This whole thing is heavily discussed in the annals of organized crime in New York City.

  3. PS: That notorious murder, along with the other murders that occurred during the latest 1909-1910 outbreak of organized crime violence across New York City had set in motion the steps for the city’s highly corrupt Tammany Hall ruling faction to pass the Sullivan Act in 1911, which is one of the most strict and controversial gun control laws in the USA. The Sullivan Law required anyone who wished to own or carry a firearm in the city to go through a tedious, expensive, and time consuming application process which, over the last century, had very little effect on reducing actual crime and how criminals easily obtained their firearms illegally. The Sullivan Law’s exclusive aim was to keep minorities and non-politically affiliated people from acquiring guns. In the 50s and 60s, one had to be a labor union or political club member affiliated with the Tammany faction in order to get your application approved by the police department. The Sullivan Act was never repealed and is still the main enforced law in NYC today. I had worked part time at one of NYC’s largest shooting ranges as an NRA/NYSRPA certified handgun safety instructor and we have a team of lawyers whose job is to guide applicants for NYC gun licenses through the city’s notorious and excruciatingly difficult bureaucracy, which cost hundreds of dollars and can take up to 10 months wait for a license to be approved. Carry licenses are almost never granted, unless you are a security guard tasked with transporting large amounts of cash, or if you are a celebrity

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