Category Archives: Asian America

Broken Blossoms (303)

With any luck we’ll screen a clip from DW Griffith’s 1919 silent film Broken Blossoms starring Lillian Gish, who was, I suppose, the Jennifer Lawrence of her day. Note that this film, though clearly racist by present standards, was an effort to portray Chinese characters with some degree of cultural sensitivity.

Mr. Wong, Detective (HUM303)

You’ll recall that I mentioned in class that there is a history of the Asian detective in US cinema, one that includes fictional characters such as Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Mr. Wong. All of these figures were played by white actors in a form of “racial masquerade” that has deep roots in US culture. Here is the first film in the Mr. Wong series– Mr. Wong, Detective— starring Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame. If you’re interested in the cultural politics of Hollywood representations of Asians and Asian Americans you can consult The Slanted Screen (2006), a great documentary on the subject, or Robert Lee’s seminal study Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999).

Chinese in the Frontier West/ Maps

Chinese in the Frontier West is part 2 of a larger documentary titled Ancestors in the Americas. Because we will not screen part 1 we’ll miss out on some interesting history– for example the arrival of Chinese and Filipino sailors in Mexico in the 17th century. Yet there’s a wealth of information in CFW which can help us to make sense of the social topography of Machine Age America.

Recall how the film begins with the search for photographic evidence of Chinese labor, evidence which seems strangely absent. Such gaps in the archive are in their own way instructive: who is missing? Which stories do not get told? Whose experiences do we need to recover in order to establish a fuller, richer account of the past?


Most of the immigrants from China during the antebellum period came from either Guangdong or Fujian, two provinces in the south east, in particular the Pearl River Delta region. Primarily young men, they were the first non-white foreigners to arrive in the US and, as the film relates, were subject to a variety of legal provisions segregating and, indeed, oppressing them. The 1790 Naturalization Act, the Foreign Miners’ Tax, the Dred Scott decision (the precedent for People vs. Hall), the Page Law, various local regulations such as the Sidewalk Ordinance and the Cubic Air Ordinance: all of which constituted forms of legal harassment intended to specifically target Chinese. Against that official discrimination, Chinese mobilized to assert their claim to the rights of citizenship through court cases. As Suecheng Chan remarks, this strategy of challenging unjust laws on their own terms was something Chinese communities adapted to– there were no such opportunities in China.

If we’re to gain insight into the Chinese American experience it might help to re-center our view of the world. The ability to grasp history often depends on the capacity for a spatial imagination. Here’s a map of the Pacific Rim:


The Pacific Ocean functions as a kind of continent in its own right, to be crossed on the way to Jinshan (Gold Mountain). Now consider the following two representations of the world. The first version is one we’re all likely familiar with, a Mercator Projection:


Now compare with the map below, the Peters Projection:


The Peters Projection offers a truer scale for the continents. The relative area of land masses are more accurate, though it does this at the expense of outline detail. Turning a three dimensional object, a sphere, into a two-dimensional image always involves a degree of distortion. The Mercator is good at representing shape, while the Peters is good at representing size. Do you see the difference?

Finally, a map of the expansion of the United States across the North American continent:


It’s important to consider what was required to claim such a vast space– the physical forces, daily experiences, and material conditions that came into play in the project to consolidate the continent. Chapter 16 if the Norton offers a very useful account of the settlement of the “far west.” Be sure to read it.

Mapping the Asian Diaspora: Take One

Americans, it has been said ad nauseam, don’t know much geography. Even further, the geographical knowledge they have managed to amass generally comes from the wars they fight. On the other hand this observation might be too optimistic. Want to prove it? Go here and take the quiz.

Let’s attempt to conceive of Chinese immigration to the United States and the development of Chinese American culture as part of a larger historical and geographical process: the Asian diaspora. We’ll need new ways of visualizing that phenomenon. To begin, consider our assumptions about the way the world looks. Below is a Mercator map, the most common representation of the world, one found in classrooms throughout the United States:


Now here’s a Peters projection map.

Followed by a map of the Pacific Rim:


and a map of China:




Here are the reading assignments for the coming weeks. Ideally, students simply read the book we’re working with as soon as they can. Baseline expectations are as follows:

Week of Mar. 9-13

Mon: Look at this chronology of Asians in America

while not exhaustive (no mention of Filipino “Manilamen” who settled in what is now Louisiana in the 1760s) it offers a good foundation.

Read “On Discovery” and “On Fathers” in Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men.

Read this article, An Alleged Wife.

Wed: Read “The Father from China” in China Men.

Fri: Read pp. 74-122  in CM.

Week of Mar. 16-20

M: pp. 123-162

W: pp. 163-234

F: pp. 235-308

Our goal is to complete our study of China Men and Chinese American history by Spring Break. We’ll see if we can meet that target.

I’ve added some interesting links to the blogroll, including SF’s Chinese Historical Society of America and a website for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF)