Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Prostitutes and Picture Brides: Chinese and Japanese Immigration

By examining the historical period from 1870-1920, this presentation will explore why most Chinese women were excluded from immigrating to the United States because they were assumed to be prostitutes while many Japanese women were allowed to immigrate as picture brides. Lee argues that the U.S. did not pass the Page Law of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or issue the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907 for geopolitical reasons alone, as some scholars have argued. Using archival evidence, she contends that attempts to resolve the competing logics in "settling the west," which called for cheap labor and the permanent settlement of families on the West Coast, explain why the United States responded to the immigration of Chinese and Japanese women differently. These discrepant responses were a product of geopolitics, economic conditions, and class relations in the U.S, along with state and national fears over miscegenation and desires to maintain the imputed racial purity of a "white" national identity. In turn, U.S. immigration laws and policies helped to determine permanent settlement of immigrant communities and the racial and gendered character of the nation. This presentation suggests that nation-building is not simply the "imagining" of a community but is instead a negotiated process involving geopolitics, political economy, and cultural meanings of gender, race, and ethnicity.

The United States banned practically all Chinese women from entering the country by passing the Immigration Act of 1875 or the Page Law and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the state assumed that all Chinese women were prostitutes, hence, undesirable and ineligible for entry. Many early Chinese immigrants were indeed prostitutes, as were many other early female immigrants.By the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese women were singled out as being unsanitary and immoral, deviant, for engaging in prostitution (Peffer1999, Tong 1996). In consequence, they were virtually prohibited from entering the U.S., following the Page Law, which banned the immigration of prostitutes from China, Japan, and other “Oriental” countries, although China was the intended target.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marked the culmination of growing anti-Chinese sentiment which had begun to gain strength in the 1870s as Chinese male laborers encountered both a recession and angry European American laborers as they settled in urban centers (Higham 1978; Saxton 1971). The act made no explicit reference to the status of women while excluding male laborers. Both laws were attempts to halt Chinese population growth through immigration and biological reproduction. These exclusionary laws helped to maintain the imbalance in the sex ratio caused by original migration patterns. Chinese men who were already in the U.S. when the exclusionary laws were enacted faced very slim odds of marrying a wife and having children in the U.S. (Hirata 1979a); Chinese men’s access to Chinese women was greatly limited.

While limiting Chinese women’s immigration, the U.S. allowed Japanese women to join their husbands in the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 and 1908.5 The Gentlemen’s Agreement made it possible for Japanese women to marry Japanese men by proxy and then to join them in the U.S. Japanese women faced greater chances of immigrating to the U.S. than Chinese women, though Japanese prostitution was also considered a problem in the early years of immigration (Glenn 1986, Ichioka 1988, Ling 1998). Immigration policy toward Japanese immigrants during the first three decades of their immigration to the U.S. produced a viable Japanese American community. Unlike Chinese immigrants, the Japanese achieved greater gender parity.

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