Lecture: Jack Tchen on “Yellow Peril” and the election cyle

The following notes are from Prof. John Tchen’s talk “Yellow Peril” at the Oregon Historical Society on May 25, 2016:

Most Americans don’t know about the “Chinese Exclusion Act” passed by Congress in 1882 that stopped Chinese immigration with a few exceptions. The law wasn’t truly abolished until 1965.  How did it happen? Especially in view that:

1) China Trade was an important part of the U.S. economy in late 1800’s.

2) Desirability of Chinese goods such as silk, carvings, porcelain, and tea; and the influence of Asian art (on American painter James Whistler and others) gave a prestige to Chinese culture.

3) Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the U.S. and China that promoted free exchange of people, goods, and ideas between the two countries. Chinese immigration was encouraged.

How Chinese Exclusion Act came to be:

Unemployment, concentration of wealth in the few (the Gilded Age of 1870 – 1900), and the “long depression”; led to labor unrest and violence against Chinese. One example, the 1877 San Francisco “sand lots” riot:


Anxiety, loss, and fear led to the “yellow peril” becoming part of working’s man psyche.  Workers feeling of loss led to feeling that they could reclaim power by voting for the right politician.

Chinese laborer as “yellow peril” became a whipping boy for political parties because Chinese people in America did not have political allies and no voting power.

Eugenics movement fed racism. Center of Eugenics movement was New York City!


“The Yellow Peril” from Wikipedia:

The Yellow Peril was a racist color metaphor for the Asian races, which is integral to the xenophobic theory that peoples of East Asia were a danger to the Western World; a psycho-cultural vision of the menacing East, more racial than national, derived, not from concern with danger from any one country or people, but from a vaguely ominous, existential fear of the vast, faceless, nameless horde of yellow people opposite the West; the white fear of the rising tide of non–Western colored people.

Culturally, the Yellow Peril is represented in “the core imagery of apes, lesser men, primitives, children, madmen, and beings who possessed special powers”, which are cultural representations that originated in the Græco-Persian Wars (449–499 BC) between Ancient Greece and the Persian Empire; centuries later, the Yellow Peril theory included East Asians.

Has America reconciled with the past? 1870’s rhetoric appears again in 2016 (e.g., China is taking American jobs). See this Citizens Against Government Waste (factually incorrect) video:

Prof. Tchen hopes his talk is more of a dialogue than a lecture.

Election rhetoric where solutions are shallow, and go off in the wrong direction, is still with us. How do we achieve a rational, fair, and just society?

See sociologist Peter Marris’s work on the psychology of loss and uncertainty.

Recent news article describe current sense of loss, anxiety, and fear;  in this election year.   Anxious in America

Jack advanced a premise that during election cycles, in times of economic loss and uncertainty;  politicians play upon fears of the electorate and often immigrants are blamed for problems. There are similarities in the elections of the 1870’s and today’s.

Note: Tchen’s book Yellow Peril is out of print, but another printing is due out soon. A kindle version will not be available because of high royalties needed for rare color photos. I ordered a copy from Amazon.