In the late nineteenth century – early twentieth century, United States of America started expanding their trade with China. These ties resulted in an influx of Chinese immigrants crossing the American borders.
However, women formed a very small percentage of the Chinese immigrants, which only began to rise significantly towards the middle of the twentieth century. This is a result of a combination of political, cultural and moral reasons both on the American and Chinese side.
The unwelcoming situation Chinese women found themselves in can only be understood through an in-depth examination of the period, which was done in the essay “The Exclusion of Chinese Women, 1870-1943”, by Sucheng Chan (Chan 94-146).
The political, cultural and moral problems faced by female Chinese Immigrants
The essay studies the history of Chinese women immigration between 1870 and 1943. It reconciles the meagre numbers of oriental women residing in the USA during the period with the regulations that were passed to control and later limit the number of immigrants.
Chinese culture affected the perception of Chinese women by Americans and, as a result, the development of these laws in a major way. China, being a patriarchal society, was against female family members leaving the households, which meant that a majority of the women who went to America in the early stages of Immigration were prostitutes, sold into sexual slavery by their impoverished families.
With the prostitutes making up as much as 70-75 percent of the already small number of female Chinese Immigrants, this painted a very negative image for the oriental women (Chan 1). As a result, most of the Immigration Exclusion laws that targeted prostitutes put “decent” immigrants in the eye of the law as well.
The American Government was also passing cases that restricted immigration of Chinese workers and welcomed merchants, to strengthen the trade roots. A good example would be the Page Law, which restricted labourers, prostitutes, and felons from entering the country (“To Enter and Remain ” par.2). As a result, the wives and daughters of Chinese merchants had much better chances of gaining entrance to the country and receiving naturalization.
The growing Opium trade and its association with the East only amplified animosity and suspicion (“Chinese Immigrants” par.5).
During the early twentieth century, the number of female Chinese immigrants increased, in spite of the Bureau of Immigration and the Customs Office’s opposition, who often put innocent women into custody or denied them entry even if they had the right. (“The Women of Angel Island”).
However, prostitution and virulent diseases, which were often an excuse to deny entry, actually were serious problems. The article “Free, Indentured, Enslaved: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth Century America” by Lucie Cheng delves deeper into the issue of Chinese prostitutes coming to America (Cheng 402-34). Cheng explained the Gold Rush as the reason for the sudden demand for immigrant miners and, as a result, prostitutes in the gold-mining California and in San Francisco, in particular. These immigrants were often forced to leave their native country due to rampant poverty, political shifts, and natural disasters, and saw America as a way to save themselves and their families (“Chinese Immigrants” par. 3-4)
Honest women, however, found little opportunity for work. The developing Chinatowns provided an opportunity for performers, male and female, to make a living by entertaining the curious about the Orient. Unfortunately, most of the time, they were restricted to reinforcing popular Eastern stereotypes (Dong 43).
The study by Sucheng Chan shows, in great detail, the obstacles that an honest female Chinese Immigrant had to overcome to have a chance to settle down in America. The numerous court cases she listed show the willingness and effort these women were willing to go to escape the turmoil of their home country. It also shows that these obstacles were resultant from political, racial and ethical reasons.
Chan, Sucheng. “Exclusion of Chinese Women, 1870-1943.” Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943 (1991): 94-146. Print.
Cheng, Lucie. “Free, Indentured, Enslaved: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth Century America.” Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Workers in the United States before World War II (1984): 402-34. Print.
“Chinese Immigrants.” Immigration to the United States. n.p., n.d. Web.
Dong, Lorraine. “The Forbidden City Legacy and Its Chinese American Women.” Asian American Women and Gender: A Reader. By Franklin Ng (1999): 37-60. Print.
” The Women of Angel Island.” Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance. n.p., n.d. Web.
” To Enter and Remain.” Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance. n.p., n.d. Web.