Know the history Chinese immigrant women

The historic trauma of Asian American women, since Day 1

betty ming liu Identity 8 Comments

Did you know that a ban on Chinese immigrant women created America’s first immigration laws? Discovering this forgotten historical moment left me appalled by the suffering of the ancestors. They were singled out because they were poor, foreign and “exotic.” Learning these facts makes me more aware of the deep racism and sexism in our legal system.

I’ve always felt that the more we know, the more we can be the change. With all the anti-immigrant scapegoating going on right now, researching the information in this post gave me a foundational understanding of where we all came from.

Reading up on this topic made me feel awful. Thank you, ancient sisters, for what you suffered.


History of Chinese immigrant women: the freaks

Flashback: It’s 1834. The first Chinese woman sails to America. Her ship lands in Manhattan.

Hello, Afong Moy. And now, let’s put you to work at the American Museum. If it sounds fancy, haha. You don’t know this yet, but you are actually joining a freak show. 

Afong Moy was put on display like a zoo animal exhibited in “natural” habitat. She moved around this space in traditional silk robes, surrounded by carved Chinese furniture and shiny, brocade fabrics. Crowds marveled as she ate without a fork. Instead, she used two sticks — chopsticks.

Most dazzling of all? Her dainty, tiny embroidered shoes. She had bound feet. It’s a form of physical and sexual abuse inflicted on Chinese women. In those days, little girls had their toes broken and curled under their soles. Wrapping their feet in fabric strips bound their feet into tiny, pointed shapes that the culture considered erotic.

Every few minutes, Afong Moy hobbled around for the amazed crowds. Accounts disagree on the size of her feet. Newspaper descriptions said they were anywhere from 2.5 inches to 4 inches long — barely the length of a computer mouse. 

This poor woman was caged in a “museum” created by P.T. Barnum. You know the name. He’s the founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus. Later, his business merged with Ringling Bros. to become Barnum & Bailey Circus. The greatest show on earth, which still operates today as the most famous circus in the world.

In 1850, Barnum added more Chinese women to his New York freak show stable. He marketed them as “exotic curios.” A newspaper article raved about his newest star attraction:

“Miss Pwan-Yekoo, the Chinese belle, with her Chinese suite of attendants, is drawing all Broadway to the Chinese collection. She is so pretty, so arch, so lively, and so graceful, while her minute feet are wondrous!”

The drawings from that period break my heart:

The shocking history of Chinese immigrant women

U.S. immigration law began because of Chinese women 

While Barnum built his freak show in New York, Chinese women began arriving in California by the hundreds. This was the mid-1800s, when Chinese sex workers were following the trail of tens of thousands of Chinese male laborers.

They are the story of the so-called Gold Mountain. The men came to the West Coast for the back-breaking work of building America’s railroads. Like the women, they included kidnap victims and indentured workers taken by force from China.

In those days, the majority of sex workers were from Mexico, Brazil and Peru, with a smattering of white women, according to historian Huping Ling. Chinese sex workers  were relatively few. The 1870 Census recorded only 3,536 Chinese women in all of California, with 2,157 listed as prostitutes.

But still, their Asian-ness made them hate magnets. This is where the history of Chinese immigrant women gets really, really ugly.

California’s God-fearing, middle-class white women accused Chinese sex workers of spreading disease and wrecking family values. They complained that Chinese sex-trafficking turned neighborhoods into ghettos and destroyed property values.

Their protests led to the passage of America’s very first immigration law. Its purpose was to ban females from China. That’s right. The first immigration law in this country was written to lock out Chinese immigrant women.

We’re talking about The Page Law of 1875. Named after Republican Congressman Horace F. Page, he demanded the end of “the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.”

From here, racism escalated into hysteria. The result was another law: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The ban against ALL Chinese

The 1882 legislation banned low-income and poor Chinese immigrants. Over the next six decades, increasingly stricter versions of the law were passed. By World War I (1914-1918), Chinese immigration was down to almost nothing.

How ironic. The Chinese played such an important role in California’s development. Yet, few Chinese Americans can trace their ancestry to the 1800s, according to historian Shirley Hune.

During this period, European white immigrants grew and multiplied through several generations. Their families communities expanded, along with their political and economic clout. Meanwhile, the Chinese population barely existed. In 1920, only 61,639 Chinese lived in the U.S.

But even though the Chinese disappeared from real life, they were a sinister hit in reel life. During those 60 years of anti-Chinese exclusion immigration laws, the media bombed pop culture with images of Chinese bad guys (and gals). A character named Fu Manchu blasted through newspaper comic strips, novels and movies.

Fu Manchu was an evil genius with slanty eyes and long fingernails. He also had a sexy, dangerous daughter. She was the “Oriental woman,” the temptress. She remains an enduring “erotic” stereotype that goes beyond Chinese and East Asian women. Today, her orientalism plagues all of us, including South Asian and Middle Eastern women.

The history of Chinese immigrant woman is so, so racist and sexist

America held onto its anti-Chinese views until World War II (1939-1945). Once China joined the Allied forces in fighting Hitler, the U.S. softened its attitudes — a little. But real change towards the Chinese only came decades later.

History of Chinese immigrant women: today

Finally, in 1965, the U.S. completely overhauled its immigration policy. At last, the feds abolished quotas that favored white, Western European immigrants. The doors opened for immigrants of color from developing nations. This is why today, America is more diverse than ever before.

We’ve gone from the few thousand bullied Chinese immigrant women of the mid-1800s to a population boom today. The 21st century gives us a different perspective on the history of Chinese immigrant women. Check out this PEW Research chart:

The history of Chinese immigrant women keeps evolving

Asian Americans are trending as the largest, fastest-growing immigrant group. As for female Asian newcomers, consider these facts:

  • Asian women are 52.9% of all arrivals, according to a 2013 study.
  • In addition to outnumbering the headcount of incoming men, Asian females also boast a higher-than-average participation level in the female immigrant labor force, according to that same 2013 study.
  • While the poor and uneducated still come to America, the lioness share of new Asian immigrant women — especially the moms — possess at least college degrees and tend to work, according to a 2015 study. 

Read the history of Chinese immigrant women 

For more info on the history of Chinese immigrant women, here’s a list of the sources I used in this blog post:  

Share your thoughts, your history

I first wrote this blog post last year. But I was so emotional that I felt like I was babbling. Now, 12 months later, I’ve done a rewrite. hopefully, the post is more clear.

To make positive change, we need to know our stories and how we got here. Does the history of Chinese immigrant women speak to you on any level? Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Comments 8

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  1. Hi Betty,

    Thank you for this post because I didn’t know anything about the history of Chinese women immigrants. I took history in high school and at U.C.L.A. , but I don’t remember that I learned how the earliest women came here as prostitutes. My family and I came to this country from Viet Nam in 1980 as refugees. Even then and living in Los Angeles, we still faced a lot of racism. Being in a new country and can’t speak the language and looking different from the majority of people can really make us feel the inferior complex. I can’t image what these early Chinese immigrants have to go through. I am trying to imagine how difficult it was for you to grow up here in the 50’s. I have said many times to people that it was much more difficult for us when we came here in 1980 then for the recent immigrants. Yes, there is power in numbers. At least we are not made to feel we are weirdo or freaks. I am really glad that I read this post because I have learned a lot. Thank you and Happy Mother’s Day.


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      Mandy, thank you so much for dropping me a comment. Believe in your struggle and your ability to triumph — this is your country now. And we are all your people.

      During the Vietnam War, most of my relatives arrived as Vietnam refugees. Earlier than you. But my heart goes out to you. Their struggles broke my heart. And thank you for understanding my tough times growing up American-born in the ’50s. :)

      I’m so glad you found this blog post useful. It’s really a shame that even AA kids growing up in California get so little of our history. But that’s why we’re here, right?

      Thanks too, for your Mother’s Day wishes. And thanks for this comment — I appreciate the validation! xo

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      Charlotte, until about a year ago, I didn’t know either! I think students who take Asian American studies classes learn some of this stuff. But this is worth sharing in wider circles. Thanks for the feedback. :)

  2. Betty; Thank you for reprinting this. I did not know this part of our history but than I am aware that so often history is rewritten or the ugly deeds are minimized in order to make it palatable. I had never grasped until reading your article of the many people groups we have exploited and then enacted laws or barriers to their harm afterwards. Native Americans, slaves, migrant workers and let us not forget the ‘internment’ of American citizens. I love my country but I am under no false illusions concerning our terrible deeds at home and abroad. Thank you for using your voice to raise awareness and sound alarm bells! Peace.

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    Oh my goodness, Debra. The list of horrors goes on and on. Thank you for bringing in the larger picture and the other communities. We’ve gotta pull together as people who love our country and our planet. Great to get your input. Thanks again.

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