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.

Chinese American History is American History

  • Frank H. Wu Distinguished Professor, UC Hastings College of the Law


Photo by Jeff Lee

“They were there at the beginning,” Jennifer Fang told me. “Chinese Americans were an integral part of the founding of Portland,” she continued.

Historian Fang said that was the most striking realization she came to as the associate curator for a new exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society. It is the local companion to a national show on Chinese immigrants (for which I did a tiny bit of work).

“It is the story of an ethnic group,” she acknowledged. “But it turns out to be much more than that.”

The secret is hidden in the open. People, Asian Americans being no exception, take Asian immigration to be a new phenomenon, enabled by the 1965 legislative reforms that finally eliminated the last vestiges of flagrant racial restrictions on entry. Yet the record of Asian Americans extends back over a century. Well before “PDX” became the hip destination where twenty-somethings “retire,” Chinese Americans were residents, even if they were neither called “Chinese Americans” nor regarded as permanent.

In fact, Portland has had two Chinatowns. The original burned down. It had been inhabited primarily by bachelors, in an era when male laborers were recruited and policies were intended to prevent any population from burgeoning. After it was incinerated, it was replaced over time by settlement only a few blocks away.

The “New Chinatown” in due course became the second-largest in the nation (behind only San Francisco in size). The descendants of the Chinese immigrants from the nineteenth century can still be found in the region. They have dispersed from the blocks that delimited their ancestors.

According to the definitive history of the two neighborhoods, Marie Rose Wong’s Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, the Chinese influx to Portland was so significant that the records for some years list the group as number two after German immigrants; in a few outlying counties during the nineteenth century, the Chinese were the most abundant among the many new arrivals searching for gold.

In the debate over the state constitution, however, Wong indicates “the finished document made little distinction between ‘Chinamen’ and ‘Negroes.’”

All the same, Wong reports that the Chinese settlers were not contained by Chinatown. It was a district, not a ghetto, because of the interactions between Asians and Anglos, the wealth accumulated by some of the former, and the lack of violence from the latter. Chinese Americans commanded respect as they did not elsewhere.

The primary curator of the exhibit, Jackie Peterson-Loomis, explained that Portland has not always been progressive. She recounted how even Greek immigrants were not accepted as fully, equally white.

In such a context, the Portland Chinese Americans demonstrated extraordinary resilience as a community and as individuals. Several panels on display present biographies that are remarkable. They attest to accomplishments that would be impressive today and were unique for their time.

The first American flying ace in World War II, credited with shooting down multiple enemy planes, was Major Arthur Chin. A native of Portland, he was motivated to support his father’s China in the battle against imperial Japan. His lineage, furthermore, is distinctly American: his mother apparently was from Peru. Hazel Ying Lee of Portland was among the female military aviators during the conflict. She died while on duty, in an airfield collision.

The first woman of color selected as the Rose Princess beauty queen was Ruth Fong, in 1946. In a photograph that through a single image tells a story of bridge building, she is being congratulated by Edwin C. Berry, the head of the Urban League, the organization dedicated to African American economic empowerment.

Chinatown has receded into antiquity. It can no longer be discerned as a distinct area. There is a traditional gate, marking a derelict territory. Although the landmark restaurant, Hung Far Low, is boarded up, its colorful sign has been restored,

The Oregon museum has preserved the Chinatown spirit. It deserves to attract a wide audience for its inclusive choice of subject matter, and it has succeeded in drawing in the requisite crowds.

Our past is our future. As our ideals are realized, the documentation of our progress allows us to understand what remains as a problem. Reviewing the challenges that people who came before us faced is humbling, because it reminds us of how they made it possible for us to follow.

“A Journey to Unforgetting”, Amy Chin

Amy Chin gave an informative two hour talk at the OHS Genealogy Seminar on March 26. Her family was featured in the NYC Exhibition. She is an engaging speaker, and drew material from the comprehensive classroom study material:  [large PDF file] (which includes the graphic novel of her family’s immigration experience).

She screened this video of about her family history: [click here]

Some notes:

One reason for the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) was to allow direct trade with China. As a colony, Americans were not allow to trade directly, but were required to purchase product (porcelain, silk, and tea) from English traders.  The Boston Tea Party was about Chinese tea.

California was barren until Chinese workers transformed major areas of the state into agricultural land.  Bing cherry was created by a Chinese, Ah Bing, in Oregon.  Lue Gim Gong is credited with creating frost resistant oranges in Florida, and allowing hearty, juicy oranges to be transported around the country.

During the Exclusion Period, two Chinese lawsuits reached the Supreme Court and established milestone legal precedents:  the Yick Wo case in 1886 established “Equal Protection Under Law”, and the Wong Kim Ark case established “Birthright Citizenship” (which is in the news today).

Amy also talked about her own genealogy search that started with searching information about her father and grandfather,  and ended up with a 700+ page, 23 generation book from her grandfather’s village.  The last lines in the book had her grandfather’s and father’s name.  Since then, she has helped them add an American branch to the book;  and include names of female descendants to what had been traditionally a patriarchal and patrilineal book.  She advises the audience (mostly Chinese Americans) to make use of the “Overseas Chinese Affairs Office” in Taishan if traveling there.

She also mentioned that villages had a “generational poem”, where each subsequent character in the poem would render a middle name to each son of a particular generation.  These common names help trace family and village connections.

She offered Chinese Americans tips on tracing their ancestral roots.  A good place to start is requesting an “index search” (Form G-1041) here: http://www.uscis.gov/genealogy

Chinese Genealogy Seminar

Oregon Historical Society:  Chinese Genealogy Seminar
Presented by Amy Chin, Trish Hackett Nicola, and Hannah Z. Allan,

$40 / $25 for Members
Saturday, March 26, 2016   10AM – 3PM

A Journey to Unforgetting: Finding Chinese American Roots
By Amy Chin | 10am – 12pm

For decades, Amy Chin’s family carefully saved records, objects, and other personal artifacts. Part of her family’s story is recreated in a 12-panel graphic novel inside the Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion exhibit now on view at the Oregon Historical Society. In piecing it together for the exhibition, Amy delved deeply into government archives and other repositories in the U.S. and China to find out more about her family’s past (going back nearly 5,000 years). Amy will talk about that research, the journey, and some of the secrets uncovered along the way. She will also provide an overview and reveal tips and tricks to researching Chinese American genealogy.

Bio:  Amy Chin is an arts management consultant working with non-profit companies, government agencies, foundations, and individual artists. She has been researching Chinese American history and genealogy since childhood and beginning in 2011, in addition to her own research, has provided select genealogy consultation services to private clients. Amy holds a B.A. in East Asian studies from Barnard College, Columbia University.

Break | 12pm – 1pm

Chinese Exclusion Act Files: A Treasure Trove of Original Documents and Information
By Trish Hackett Nicola | 1pm – 2:30pm

Thousands of lives were impacted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In this talk, Trish Hackett Nicola will discuss why the Act was created, as well as the many records that were created as a result, as well as how to find these records. Many of these records contain photographs, Chinese village maps, U.S. birth and marriage certificates, witness affidavits, court documents, and pages of interrogations. See examples of the unique documents that can be uncovered in these files, and learn about the rich details of the lives of Chinese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Bio:  Trish Hackett Nicola is a volunteer at the National Archives – Seattle and has worked with the Chinese Exclusion Act case files for fourteen years. She is a retired CPA and librarian and is a Certified Genealogist. Though she is semi-retired, she is still actively working with the Chinese records.

Chinese and Genealogy Resources at the Oregon Historical Society Research Library
By Hannah Z. Allan | 2:30pm – 3pm

The Oregon Historical Society Research Library has a wealth of resources including newspapers, business papers, books, and photographs that can help you fill in the gaps to your ancestors’ histories. In the final segment of the seminar, learn how to access these historical treasures and use them to enrich and expand your story.

Bio:  Hannah Z. Allan, a BYU Family History and Genealogy graduate, is the genealogist for the Oregon Historical Society and a popular family history speaker who has spoken at venues across the nation. She is the Vice Chair for the Portland Metro Cemetery Advisory Committee and the Director for the BYU myFamily History Youth Camp.