April 26, 2013

Intimate Relations: 19th-Century Chinese Immigration Before Exclusion

Friday April 26, 9am-4:30pm
Location: John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities, Library

This symposium delves into the issues of intimate space that swirl around Chinese immigration to the U.S.  Historic narratives can become stuck, repeating slight variations of the same scenario over and over.  This session seeks to expand our knowledge of relations between Chinese immigrants and U.S. citizens during the 19th century with the goal of “unsticking” narratives of the China Trade, railroad workers, segregation and racial prejudice, and exclusion.

Introductions: Evelyn Hu-DeHart and Robert Lee

 “Taking to the Stage: Selling Chinese Goods in early 19th century America”
Nancy Davis, National Museum of American History, Washington DC

Powerful visual imagery of exotic Asian goods secured sales in the early 19th century American marketplace. In the 1830s Captain Benjamin Obear and China trade merchants Frederick and Nathaniel Carnes imported large quantities and types of household and decorative arts goods from China. They took extreme measures to hawk their array of Chinese objects when in 1834 they brought a to America a young Chinese woman named Afong Moy who was accompanied from Canton aboard the ship Washington by Obear's wife Augusta as chaperon. With bound feet and exotic dress, Afong Moy was ensconced in a New York City townhouse surrounded by Chinese lanterns, fabrics, porcelains, and other goods. Advertisements in the 1834 New York papers encouraged the general public to view Afong Moy—and the imported Chinese articles—for a fee.

  “’He is the color of our White natives’: An Early Chinese Visitor to America”
Caroline Frank, Brown University

In 1807 a Cantonese merchant boarded a Nantucket vessel and sailed to the United States in order to collect bad debts in New York.  Not long after landing, Jefferson instituted his infamous trade embargo, and Mr. Winchong was trapped in the United States.  He sojourned in Nantucket and New York for a year.  This paper reconstructs his experiences and the overlooked historic context that framed and made possible this visit.  Chinese of the south China coast had centuries of experience in shipbuilding, maritime trade, and overseas travel, as well as government interference.  Winchong easily navigated all these arenas, and returned to Nantucket twice in subsequent years, indicative of close ties formed there.

“Bound for California: The Migration of Chinese Women to California in the 19th Century”
Elizabeth Sinn, University of Hong Kong

The migration of women to California in the nineteenth century differed greatly from that of men. Very few women migrated, and most of them had been bought and sold for the highly profitable American market. Hong Kong was the major embarkation port for San Francisco. Elizabeth Sinn will discuss how a British colony, where slavery and human trafficking were theoretically illegal, could have allowed such activities to take place openly. Professor Sinn will explain how Hong Kong’s Chinese merchants, with their largely patriarchal values, played a role in shaping the movement of women. Ironically, though the merchants won the day by persuading the colonial government to tolerate Chinese patriarchal practices – such as the selling of daughters by poor families as bonded servants and concubines – their actions ended up empowering American politicians in their fight against Chinese immigration and led almost directly to the Exclusion Act.

Luncheon workshop:   "Exhibiting Chinese in America & Expanding Historical Narratives beyond the Textbook"
Franklin Odo, Smithsonian Institution

"The American Question"
John K. W. Tchen, New York University

1882 Exclusion clearly troubles the foundational formation of what it means to be of, for, by “We, the People.” How might we also challenge prevailing epistemologies of white Anglo-American Protestant knowledge and citizenship claims past, present, future? As the new and uncorrupt (the not-Great Britain / and not-Europe of the republican synthesis) what secrets and mysteries were invested in the fabled East, both of fascination and fear, by a terribly poor, proud, indebted, and ambitious peoples? With the westernization of the Americas, the imagined “Orient” figures as a fraught, reimagined horizon of possibility to achieve wealth, power, virtue. The more the underlying issues of “The Chinese Question” are not dealt with at any given historical moment, the more it haunted/s the national political culture. 

 “Chinese-White Intermarriage through the lens of Patrician Orientalism”  
Emma Teng, MIT

 When Chinese immigrant Yung Wing married Mary Kellogg in 1875, his pastor Joseph Twichell noted in his diary: "The match was a good deal commented on. Some people feel doubtful about it; some disapproved it utterly; some (like me) gloried in it." When Twichell later married Yan Phou Lee and Elizabeth Maude Jerome in 1887, Hartford Daily Courant headlines proclaimed: "Yan Phou Lee Assimilates." While scholars have argued that the idea that interracial marriage was "unnatural" was entirely taken-for-granted between the 1860s and the 1960s, such cases suggest that there was greater ambiguity surrounding Chinese-White intermarriage in the US, and diverse (often class-inflected) viewpoints on the subject, especially in the years before Chinese Exclusion. My paper will examine Chinese-White mixed marriages and family formation, and also compare discourses on Eurasian "half-castes" in the US and among Shanghai expatriates, with a focus on the 1860s through 1880s.