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The Fictional Chinaman: Chinese in American Popular Culture 1880-1930


This was for transnational America. I think we were supposed to write about how American pop-culture depictions of some ethnic group developed.

As of the 1880 census, only nine U.S. cities had more than five hundred Chinese residents, and five of those were in California.[1] California itself held nearly three quarters of the U.S.’s Chinese population. Oregon and Nevada were the only other states where Chinese made up more than one percent of the residents. Overall, Chinese made up less than one quarter of one percent of the total U.S. population.[2] As they were relative few and geographically concentrated, very few Americans had even met a Chinese person, much less been in danger of losing their job to one. Despite this, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed with broad national support. It banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S., ostensibly to protect American wages. Anti-Chinese sentiment continued for decades after this, leading to the Geary Act of 1892, which was extended indefinitely in 1902.[3] With fresh immigration very limited, the Chinese population naturally dwindled. As of the 1930 Census, only about six one-hundredths of a percent of the U.S. population was Chinese, yet the restrictions were not eased for decades more.[4]

If Chinese posed no threat to most Americans, why were they concerned about the “Chinese problem”? For the vast majority of whites, their knowledge about Chinese people and culture came entirely from the emerging popular culture and mass media. While most portrayals were heavily stereotyped, no single white American view of Chinese emerged. While the images are varied and contradictory, they are consistent in that the Chinese are inscrutably foreign. Chinese are portrayed as fundamentally dissimilar to whites, with culture, motivations and emotions so indelibly different whites can never fully understand them.

In many stories, the Chinese were not treated as discreet individuals, but a countless multitude with only a group identity. While relatively few Chinese actually immigrated to the U.S., Americans were quite aware of China’s very large population and feared whites being overrun and outnumbered by mass migration. This may have been rooted in memories of the Mongols’ short-lived domination of Europe.[5] While newspapers depicted the influx of Chinese immigrants as a hyperbolic invasion, several fiction writers chose to treat the topic very literally. Near-future tales where China’s military conquered the U.S. with the help of American Chinese were a subgenre of sorts at the end of the 1800s.[6] Robert W. Chambers wrote a more fantastic story in a similar vein in 1896, with the Chinese represented by a plague of strange yellow crabs led by a mystical Chinese man.[7] These are among the most negative portrayals of Chinese. The Chinese are not individual characters. They show no sign of individual history, nor even independent thought. They merely act in uncanny concert. It was this genre that popularized the “yellow peril,” the idea that Asians were a threat to the very existence of Western society.[8] To borrow a phrase from one of the genre’s authors, Robert Woltor, they are not actually characters at all but an “Asiatic swarm.” Woltor goes on to explain that while Chinese can be injured and killed, they do not react to this and are apparently impervious to pain.[9] They are, in many respects, as alien as Chambers’ rampaging, devouring crabs. They are not given personalities, cultures, motivations or any other human characteristics, much less sympathetic ones.

Chinatowns of popular fiction were mysterious and secretive enclaves; everyone was a criminal and conspiracies were the only real relationships. Real Chinatowns were initially developed as a defense against whites after exclusion.[10] Immigration continued through legally dubious means, and exposure would have meant deportation for many residents, so Chinese society would have, in fact, seemed impenetrable to an outsider.[11] Beyond police racism, this is the main reason law enforcement rarely got involved in Chinatowns before the turn of the century. Relatively few people were actually involved in criminal conspiracies. Many writers of the time were aware the Chinese were not a single, monolithic group, though this was frequently limited to the concept of warring criminal organizations. Tongs, or secret societies, were quite real and ran, or collected protection money from, the various illegal businesses such as casinos, brothels and opium dens that sprung up in the police-free environment and form the background of so many Chinatown crime stories.[12] This made the tongs a substitute for an actual police force. Most residents were at their mercy, not on the take. The presentation of these genuine issues in most popular crime-fiction was, at best, highly fanciful.

Writers frequently treated Chinatowns as if they were transplanted pieces of China rather than parts of the U.S. created by American political and economic circumstances. Despite what numerous stories assumed, the tongs were not Chinese secret societies, but rather American secret societies vaguely modeled on cultural antecedents. Authors also frequently confused these criminal organizations with the Six Companies, which were civic organizations formed largely to fight exclusion policy, and linguistic groups like See Yup and Sam Yup.[13] Essentially, these portrayals made crime seem a far more central part of Chinatown than it actually was and, by divorcing it from its cultural and historical context, made it a Chinese problem rather than an American one. The fact that a substantial portion of illegal businesses were owned and patronized by whites usually did not come up.[14] This image also persisted long beyond when it had any validity. While Chinatowns were often dangerous at the turn of the century, most were cleaned up over the next ten years or so as tourism became more profitable than vice. They did not clean up in fiction, though. As of the late 1920s, their depictions in crime-thrillers were essentially unchanged, even though Chinatowns had long since moved from brothels to restaurants.[15]

The inhabitants of these fictional Chinatowns did not exhibit typical white social mores, nor did they form families. Their relationships to women and children were defined through distortions of the familiar family bonds: slavery, prostitution, kidnapping and rape.  The prostitution narratives tended to focus on the idea of ruthless Chinese men exploiting innocent Chinese slave-girls, ignoring the fact that many prostitutes and customers were white, most of the sex workers were not slaves, and the social context in which all this happened.[16] Namely, there was a severe shortage of Chinese women in the U.S. As with many immigrant groups, Chinese men initially largely came to the U.S. on their own with the idea of making their fortune, then returning home or bringing over a wife. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act disrupted normal immigration patterns. Many men were left in the U.S. with no way to bring a woman in from China and the vast majority of states had anti-miscegenation laws, preventing Chinese men from marrying white women even if they found a willing partner. Ironically, crackdowns on Chinese women immigrating were promoted as a way to stop the influx of prostitutes.[17] The actual effect was to ensure what few Chinese women were in the U.S. were presumed to be prostitutes and treated as such and until sex ratios evened out naturally over the next generation or so after exclusion, Chinese men in the U.S. were condemned to be permanent bachelors with no sexual outlet outside prostitution. It also greatly limited natural growth in the Chinese, leading to massive population declines, which was presumably the intent.[18]

Opium and opium addicts were central to lurid Chinatown tales. While opium had originally been foisted on China by the West, it became heavily associated with the Chinese and Chinatowns in the U.S.[19] Portrayals varied in fiction, from part of the background of the setting to sensationalist stories about the drug’s potential to corrupt.[20] Generally speaking, though, opium use was normal for Chinese, or at least consistent with their characters, but tragic or dangerous for whites. At least one story went so far as to posit that Chinese were immune to opium’s effects.[21]

In Achmed Abdullah’s “A Simple Act of Piety,” the main character is written entirely without empathy or any sort of identifiable emotional response. Nag Hong Fah is not a career criminal. He has a family and a successful restaurant. These do not prevent him from committing cold-blooded murder, however. The narrator tells us Fah neither liked nor disliked the victim. He looks back on the murder with regret, but apparently not shame. Covering up an affair and protecting his family honor were sufficient motive. He is quite clever in his execution and has an apparent knack for treachery and cunning. In Abdullah’s version of New York’s Chinatown, Nag can speak about this openly, making the entire community complicit. To the Chinese in this story, murder is unremarkable and opium is used as casually as coffee.[22]

Taken as whole, the Chinese men in popular fiction of the half century from 1880 to 1930 seem to have no compunctions about committing any crime. Not only are they addicted to vice, they are prone to theft and will commit violence over the pettiest of causes. They are too ugly to attract women, so will resort to kidnapping and rape in order to posses them. Both white and Chinese women are vulnerable.[23] They completely lack empathy and thus have nothing to hold them back except their cowardice. An 1899 American political cartoon captured this view. It shows a short Chinese man with a torch in one hand, a gun in the other and a knife in his teeth. His queue rises up like a snake behind him. A woman lies apparently dead by his feet as a house burns in the background. The caption reads “The yellow terror in all his glory.”[24] This cartoon distills most of the anti-Chinese ideas into a single panel. The character is a threat to womanhood and civilization. He is ugly and violent and resembles an ape more than a man.

L. Warren Wigmore’s “The Revenge of Ching Chow,” from 1924, tells the story of a rather pathetic villain who also showcases almost every Chinese criminal stereotype. The titular Ching Chow is an opium addict and envies a local merchant for his slave girl. He plans to kidnap her, but is foiled when a missionary lady leads an anti-slavery raid. He plans revenge on the woman, who doesn’t seem to even know he exists. He does not confront her directly, but sets an elaborate trap, which he accidentally falls into himself and is killed.[25] The prostitute, Purple Dawn, never actually does anything. She exists only as a plot point in the conflict between two evil Chinese men and a heroic white missionary. Ching Chow himself is not only one-dimensionally evil, he is described as repulsive and dies because he is petty and stupid.

Dr. Fu Manchu, who first appeared in 1913, is another imagining of the “yellow peril”: more sophisticated than the thugs of other stories and all the more dangerous for it. He was not portrayed as an overt sexual threat, but an evil genius who the novels frequent compare to Satan in his malevolence and brilliance. Manchu was portrayed as a master criminal whose plans for assassinations and world-domination incorporate exotic Asian elements.[26] The Fu Manchu stories have a different focus than their contemporaries in the genre, possibly due to their British origins, though the books were also popular in the U.S. The Doctor’s clashes with white heroes recast the territorial struggles of the day as battles for racial dominance.[27] Unlike the swarms or common criminals of other stories, who represent white fears of being out-bred and losing control of the land itself, Fu Manchu embodies a fear that whites will lose political control and be outsmarted and out-developed. In this way, he was a challenge to the racial hierarchy. While Dr. Manchu lost in each encounter, he always survived for the next book, reminding readers the white race’s place shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Not all media portrayals of Chinese were negative, but many positive characters were scarcely closer to real people. Chinese characters in a comedy could be bowdlerized versions of the negative stereotypes, with their criminality essentially demoted to harmless vice.[28] In fact, while negative portrayals focused on Chinese men’s sexualized destructive power, good Chinese were rendered essentially impotent in order to be non-threatening.[29] Positive portrayals actually grew quite a bit in the period from 1880 to 1920, but mostly focused on loyal domestic servants. These characters were generally no more elaborately drawn than their villainous counterparts and existed mainly as props in object lessons about being kind to lesser races.[30] The racial hierarchy was therefore not disturbed and, much like the villainous Chinese characters, their moral worth was ultimately measured by their usefulness to the white characters. Interracial romances frequently appeared, but were assumed from the outset to be doomed, if not pathetic. The white party usually did not reciprocate and they typically ended with tragic death through suicide or heroic sacrifice.[31]

Broken Blossoms, released in 1919, was intended as an anti-racist film, but in many ways is still based on a “yellow peril” worldview. The protagonist, Cheng Huan, is rarely referred to by name. The titles call him “the yellow man,” defining a potentially complex character entirely in terms of race. In the story’s central conflict, Cheng attempts to shelter a white teenage girl, Lucy, from her abusive father, a boxer known as Battling Burroughs. Cheng is a Buddhist missionary, which is treated unusually positively. In contrast to the violent, impulsive Burroughs, he is peaceful and reserved. While Cheng smokes opium, this is treated sympathetically as a symptom of his loneliness. However, he still has the potential to be frightening. In a scene where Cheng has Lucy on his bed in his room above his shop, he apparently has to restrain himself from raping her, though his better side does triumph and the title cards assure us his love is chaste.  Despite brief bursts of fearsome masculinity, he is generally shot in soft focus, much like the women are, effectively emasculating him. While Cheng is portrayed heroically, this does not carry over to the other Chinese characters. Evil-eye, the Chinese secondary villain of the story, is an embodiment of all the Chinatown criminal stereotypes. He’s violent, petty, devious, vengeful and implied to be a sexual predator. Both he and Cheng are played by white actors in yellow-face. Actual Chinese actors are limited to background roles, diminishing the on-screen value of Chinese people even as the story argues for their equality. In the end, Cheng is unable to save Lucy from Burroughs and commits ritual suicide, basically affirming that his relationship with Lucy was doomed from the start. The audience is meant to be sad Cheng didn’t succeed, but not to seriously consider the idea that he could or should have had a happy ending.[32]

Charlie Chan is a much less tragic Chinese protagonist, but also quite inscrutable. First introduced in 1925, Charlie Chan is a police detective who never fails to get his man. In some ways, he does challenge dominant racial ideas. Unlike any of my other examples, he not only works in a “white” job, but is incredibly talented. However, this threat is minimized because Chan is also an over-the-top comical stereotype. He is effeminate, clumsy, ludicrously deferential and speaks mangled English. The stories are set in Hawaii, which was not yet a state, so Chan’s power stayed comfortably distant from familiar American life. Chan’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers, chose this setting because it was the only place in the U.S. where Chan could plausibly be on the police force.[33] Chan traditionally closed each case with an ancient Chinese saying, which served the idea that China was a fascinating, though mysterious and foreign land. In many ways, this was just a new variant on the old tradition of the eccentric detective, with Chineseness itself being a sort of eccentricity. While Chan ultimately worked for a white boss, his oddness did not prevent him from besting racist criminals.

Meanwhile, an alternative version of Chinese culture was being promoted by Chinese themselves through Chinese restaurants. Chinese-Americans restaurateurs had been trying to market to whites for years, but were rejected because the food was too unfamiliar and reputed to contain rats and other unpalatables.[34] Chop suey was developed in the mid 1890s in San Francisco and soon caught on, having spread well outside the traditional Chinatowns by the 1920s. Entrepreneurs found many ways to alter and present Chinese culture to appeal to Americans, despite anti-Chinese biases.[35] They essentially embraced their reputation for inscrutability and designed restaurant décor around fantastic and foreign themes, with paper lanterns, pointy temples and dragons in abundance.[36] Food presentation was adapted to European standards, with meat being cut into small pieces rather than being left as identifiable heads and limbs. Chop suey itself was not really a Chinese dish at all, just a hash of inexpensive ingredients with soy sauce and bean sprouts included to give it uniquely Chinese features. Fortune cookies are one of the best examples of this phenomenon. They were invented by Chinese American restaurateurs based on a Japanese cracker, then given a false Chinese history and faux-Chinese sayings similar to Chan’s proverbs, which seemed wiser for their secrecy.[37] They did not come from real China, but rather the China Americans wanted and expected. China had been presented in the media as exotic and forbidden and restaurants were a relatively safe way to sample this world. It essentially mediated cultural contact through consumerism and placed the Chinese cooks and servers in servile roles, meaning white customers could feel they were in control of the whole experience..

Americans removed from direct contact with Chinese saw many ideas were exposed to many visions of Chinese men through the popular culture. They could be threatening or comical, clever or foolish, gamblers or chefs, master criminals or master detectives. Women, on the other hand, could pretty much only be prostitutes. One thing neither men nor women could be was ordinary people. While Chinese were sometimes portrayed as useful or even noble, they were not seen as a potential part of American society, even though they already were by any reasonable measure. It is a small wonder then that most Americans, who may have been eating chow mein and reading Charlie Chan books on a regular basis, were still not open to the idea that Chinese could actually become Americans themselves.

[1] Statistics of the Population of the United States at the Tenth Census, U.S. Census Bureau, 1880, 416-425.

Population of civil divisions less than counties. The cities are: Los Angeles, Marysville, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco in California, Carson City and Virginia City in Nevada, New York City and Portland, Oregon. This part of the census does not distinguish between East Asians, meaning several of these cities may fall below 500 if non-Chinese were excluded from their totals.

[2] [2] Statistics of the Population of the United States at the Tenth Census, U.S. Census Bureau, 1880, 3.

[3] Brendan O’Neill, “Slitty eyes and Buck Teeth? It Must Be China,” (Spiked, 2008),

[4] Fifteenth Census of the United State: 1930, U.S. Census Bureau, Volume II,. 1930, 416-425.

[5] Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1993), 2.

[6] William F. Wu, The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction 1850-1940, (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1982), 30-40.

[7] Wu, 88-90.

[8] Wu, 30.

[9] Wu, 34.

[10] Marchetti, 33.

[11] Wu, 77.

[12] Ivan Light, “From Vice District to Tourist Attraction: The Moral Career of Chinatowns, 1880-1940,” The Pacific Historical Review, v. 43 (August, 1974), 373., Wu, 74.

[13] Wu, 53, 56, 73, 99-100.

[14] Light, 378.

[15] Light, 376-377., Wu, 147

[16] Yu-Fang Cho, “’Yellow Slavery,’ Narratives of Rescue, and Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton’s ‘Lin John’ (1899),” Journal of Asian American Studies, v. 12 (February, 2009), 39-40., Light, 377-378.

[17] Cho, 44., Wu, 77.

[18] Charles J. Rzepka, “’Race, Religion, Rule: Genre and the Case of Charlie Chan,” PMLA, v. 122 (October, 2007), 1469.

[19] Marchetti, 33.

[20] Wu, 46-47, 85-86.

[21] Wu, 95.

[22] Achmed Abdullah, “A Simple Act of Piety,” in Visions and Divisions: American Literature 1870-1930,  ed. Tim Prchal and Tony Trigilio (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 143-157.

[23] Marchetti, 2.

[24] O’Neill.

[25] L. Warren Wigmore, “The Revenge of Ching Chow,” Overland Monthly 2d ser.50 (1924): 60, 81, 87.

[26] Wu, 164-168.

[27] Urmilla Seshagiri, “Modernity’s (Yellow) Perils: Dr. Fu-Manchu and English Race Paranoia,” Cultural Critique, v. 62 (Winter, 2006), 164., Light, 377-378.

[28] Wu, 54.

[29] Marchetti, 2.

[30] Wu, 68-70.

[31] Marchetti, 8.

[32] Broken Blossoms (Deluxe Edition). Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perf. Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp. DVD. Kino Video, 1919., Marchetti, 42-44.

[33] Rzepka, 1466-1467.

[34] Madeline Y. Hsu, “From Chop Suey to Mandarin Cuisine: Fine Dining and the Refashioning of Chinese Ethnicity During the Cold War Era,” in Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture, Sucheng Chan and Madeline Y. Hsu, eds. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008) 181.

[35] Samantha Barbas, “’I’ll Take Chop Suey’: Restaurants as Agents of Culinary and Cultural Change,” Journal of Popular Culture, v. 36 (April, 2003), 671-674.

[36] Hsu, 177, 191.

[37] “Tracing the Origin of the Fortune Cookie,” June 11, 2002, Chinese Historical and Cultural Project,

From → history, media

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