‘The Chinese Exclusion Act’ on PBS Reminds Me Asian Stereotypes Haven’t Changed Much

The other night, I had the chance to stream The Chinese Exclusion Act, a nearly two-hour film documenting the events that led to America’s one and only piece of legislation targeting a specific nationality and race, as well as the aftermath and eventual repeal. The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in May 1882 and didn’t end until December 1943.

Much of the film centers on the mid- to late-1800s, and yet it feels timely because many of the stereotypes originating from that era still persist to this day, continuing to shape US media portrayals of Asians as well as how many Americans still view the rise of Asian countries such as China.

Here are 4 stereotypes from the 1800s that have still survived – sometimes in slightly different forms – to this day, as mentioned in The Chinese Exclusion Act.

#1: The stereotype of Asian men as “inferior”

A few years ago, I wrote Debunking the “Model Asian” Myth: Five Ways Asian-Americans Still Face Discrimination for Hippo Reads, which includes the following paragraph:

Justin Chan spoke for generations of Asian men when he wrote, “Are Asian Men Undateable?” in Policy Mic. Years of pernicious stereotypes have branded Asian men as emasculated, weak, asexual, and even too small in a certain department—essentially, editing them out of the most eligible bachelor pool. Not surprisingly, Freakonomics calculated that an Asian man would need to earn $247,000 more than a white man to be equally appealing to a white woman. That’s like requiring every Asian guy to own a Bentley before asking out the white girl next door.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that, back in the late 1800s, when Yellow Peril took hold, white Americans cast Chinese men as being inferior to white men, as experts point out in part 1 of The Chinese Exclusion Act (emphasis added):

John Kuo Wei Tchen, Historian: So what happens is that class and racialization converge – get confused. And the “Coolie question,” and the Chinese question, really become the big question nationally of labor and class.  Can the American man compete with this degraded Asian male form of labor?  They don’t eat as much; their nerves are farther away from the surface of the skin, so they don’t feel as much; they eat rats.  You know, all this  gets played out even more and more around not just class lines and racialization, but also around gender.  The Chinese male is inferior – is not the same as white manhood, right.  So you have that famous cover – “Meat versus Rice.” American manhood vs. Asiatic coolie-ism,?   And, of course, the Asian male is inferior – but tenacious, because there are a lot of them.  So they’re dangerous because they’re so many of them, right.  Not because they really rival the actually superior white male.

#2: The stereotype of Asian women as “sexualized”

A major stereotype that still persists is this idea of Asian women as sexualized and subservient (see Kristina Wong’s post earlier this year titled I Give Up On Trying To Explain Why The Fetishization Of Asian Women Is Bad).

And again, we see echoes of that stereotype in the late 1800s in America, prompting the 1875 passage of the Page Act, which forbade the immigration to America of those coming to work under contracts and as prostitutes. The latter prohibition was aimed squarely at Chinese women, as The Chinese Exclusion Act explains (emphasis added):

Scott Wong, Historian: There developed this sexist, racist, misogynist attitude among Americans, that Chinese women were naturally prone to become prostitutes.  And, therefore, Chinese women, who wanted to come to the U.S., had to prove that they were never prostitutes; that they weren’t prostitutes then; nor would they ever become prostitutes.  Now, of course, one can’t prove what will not happen or happen in the future.  So many women chose not to even go through that humiliation. So we had that first act that’s passed, that is very racial and gender-specific.

#3: The stereotype of Chinese “stealing jobs/opportunities from Americans”

When major elections roll around in America these days, there’s one thing you can count on – those politicians claiming China is “stealing” jobs and opportunities. And as Chinese students still comprise the largest group of foreigners studying abroad at US institutions of higher education, you’re sure to hear complaints from Americans, alleging Chinese are also “taking away” slots at colleges and universities that belong to American students.

Sadly, this narrative has hardly budged from the late 1800s, when white workers concocted this stereotype that Chinese were also plundering their economic opportunities back then, as The Chinese Exclusion Act noted in years following the California Gold Rush (emphasis added):

Narrator: As surface gold in the river beds became scarcer – hydraulic mining run by companies increasingly displaced the lone prospector panning for gold.

Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: A lot of white independent prospectors went bankrupt and became unemployed. But instead of turning their anger against the gold-mining company and the water company for exploiting them, they turned against the Chinese.  They say: “Ah, the Chinese were here.  They take away our jobs.” And so that is really the beginning of white working-class agitation for Chinese Exclusion.

#4: The stereotype of Asians — including Chinese — as “perpetual foreigners”

Back in 2016, Christopher Hoffman penned the post Perpetual Foreigners: A Reflection on Asian Americans in the American Media, commenting on a racist segment aired on Fox News titled “Watters’ World: Chinatown Edition”, and noted the following:

The larger problem is the segment clearly challenges the American identity of Asian American citizens in Manhattan’s China Town. Frank H. Wu’s Race in America Beyond Black and White defines this idea of Asian Americans as the “perpetual foreigner.” By assuming Chinese Americans have a better relationship with the country of their ancestral heritage, Watters is placing Chinese Americans in a second-class citizen role, unable to fully adopt all the characteristics to become a full citizen of the United States of America. This idea of the “perpetual foreigner” is not limited to Chinese Americans, but a xenophobic image many Asian Americans from a variety of Asian backgrounds must face.

This xenophobia can be traced back to the late 1800s and the Chinese Exclusion Act itself, where people believed it was impossible for Chinese to ever be fully American, as The Chinese Exclusion Act explains:

Martin B. Gold, Attorney: It really did two things.  One is an exclusion from immigration, and the other thing was an exclusion from citizenship.  at the time there were approximately 105,000 Chinese in America.  Now, they were just two-tenths of one percent of the overall American population.   So what happens to the people who are already here – people legally in the United States?  And what that law said was, “These people cannot assimilate.  They are too different in terms of their culture – in terms of their appearance – in terms of their language – the clothes that they wear – and the food that they eat – and the gods that they worship.  They cannot assimilate into the American population.  And in that sense, they are different from European immigrants.  So we’re going to make, as a Congress, a judgment.  We’re going to say that because they are an unassimilable population, they cannot come to the United States, and those that are here cannot become American citizens.”

If you haven’t yet viewed The Chinese Exclusion Act, I highly recommend streaming it — and noting how the legacy of oppression still lingers to this day.

What do you think?

20 Replies to “‘The Chinese Exclusion Act’ on PBS Reminds Me Asian Stereotypes Haven’t Changed Much”

  1. I am at least hoping that my little one will learn all this in school rather than in college…But I don’t have much hopes of people teaching him that pertinent information.

  2. Unfortunately, there are very few people who would listen to us when talking about this types of issues. At first it makes me frustrated, then it was calming and explanation, then it was confusion. After all of that, I just gave up talking or even thinking about it. I don’t think I deserve this type stereotypes, but I don’t think about it.

    Thank you. Your blogs reminds me that someone cares, and there’s hope. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Richard. I share your frustrations, as I’ve attempted to explain similar things to people, who usually are white, and I found people just didn’t get it.

      You might enjoy this book I recently finished — Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. It’s written about the UK but totally applies to America and other Western countries.

  3. yes, prejudice is alive and well in North America. when the economy is bad and some one has to be laid off, the first to go are the Asians and this is still happening now. My niece’s accounting firm had to laid off 2 staff, so she and another Chinese girls were let go and my niece has more seniority than some other white Canadians !!!!! ( my niece did find another job with another company later ).

  4. I spent a short time on an Asian dating site (because I have loved two Chinese men, which is a completely different topic), and I had to chuckle at the number of American men looking for their “sweet, gentle (read subservient?) Asian Queen.” Now, I’m not going to make generalizations here, because we American women differ greatly, and I know that Chinese women do as well. But I think there are probably a lot of American men that are quite surprised by how independent and strong – and not subservient – Chinese women can be. The stereotype of the beautiful Chinese wife following meekly behind her master – uh, I mean husband is alive and well in America. Sadly.

  5. As I said in another website, you will definitely not get in China……




    For all those folks who claim that Asians are as racist as whites, please come back to be me with evidence in China or for that matter Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong or the Philippines where you have characters such as above running and in the case of the last, even winning elections. I do not believe China or Japan or any Asian country ever had a White Exclusion Act even when the white Brits were trafficking in opium contravening Chinese laws!

      1. Not that difficult if you look closely,….As a Filipino I know only too well, but oftentimes, it is more ethnic than racial….And I also consider myself “reasonably informed” about the historical Asian-American experience, in part because I have read and own a copy of Ron Takaki’s book, “Strangers from a Different Land: A History of Asian Americans.”

  6. Totally Hideous! I do believe that something similar occurred in Australia. Unfortunately such views are maintained by some today.

  7. I recently watched it on PBS.com. And accidentally, I also watched an old 1930 movie made in the US called “The Good Earth.” I wonder how that played during the time of this act? Though the main actors and actresses were European-Americans, not even Chinese-Americans.

    I doubt here in North Texas many people would be interested in a movie of this old and this kind, but it’s a library.

    I strongly believe that all these shape the ways how Chinese-Americans, or even Asian-Americans are facing nowadays in the US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: