Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Plain Truth About Anti-Asian Prejudice in America

 The Plain Truth About Anti-Asian Prejudice in America



 What is the Plain Truth about Anti-Asian Prejudice in America?

·      It is not new. You can trace its roots nearly 200 years;

·      Trump did not create it. He just made it PC to express.

·      It cannot be legislated away; prejudice is embedded in American culture and history. 

·      The first step toward eliminating this and other prejudice is to recognize The Plain Truth.



Let’s look back:


In the mid-eighteenth century, Chinese began to immigrate to America to escape famine and bloodshed in China. They found work building railroads, working mines, etc. in California during the Gold Rush.


There they found extreme racism which sometimes turned into fatal violence. One writer said:

“Chinese immigrants simultaneously confronted major racist barriers and also significant violence in their quest to make a new life in America.

James Bradley quotes a Wyoming state official who arrived first on the scene

of the Rock Springs Massacre in September 1885: “Not a living Chinaman—

man, woman, or child—was left in the town. . . . The smell of burning human

flesh was sickening . . . and plainly discernible for more than a mile along the

railroad. Bradley adds that during the court trials that followed, there were no convictions.”[ii]


Chinese immigrating to America showed the patience and forbearance that is inherent in their Confucian culture, worked hard and looked very different, with their traditional clothing and hairstyle, which featured a queue for most men. This and their successful work ethic attracted attention and caused fear in other immigrant groups, most notably the Irish. In 1878 Dennis Kearney, an Irishman of the Workingman’s Party of California, shamefully said:


“To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.

These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are wipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things. They have no wives, children or dependents.

…The father of a family is met by them at every turn. Would he get work for himself? Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper. Will he get a place for his oldest boy? He can not. His girl? Why, the Chinaman is in her place too! Every door is closed. He can only go to crime or suicide, his wife and daughter to prostitution, and his boys to hoodlumism and the penitentiary.

…California must be all American or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so.”[iii]


The best anecdote from that era is the quote from an American lawyer’s defense of his white client after a violent race riot in 1865, “Why, Sir-r-r, these Chinamen live on rice, and, Sir-r-r, they eat it with sticks!”[iv]


The extreme prejudice against Chinese at the time did not go unnoticed by the rest of the US. One of the many cartoons that the famous Thomas Nast published in Harper’s Weekly in 1871 clearly showed the xenophobia that was unchecked at the time, and whose characteristics were not unfamiliar to Americans:


The plight of Chinese in America also caught the attention of famous American writers such as Mark Twain and Bret Harte. In 1870 Harte created a satirical poem about a Chinese named Ah Sin from the same Gold Rush country. The original title was “Plain Language from Truthful James” which was changed upon publication in The Overland Magazine of September 1870 to “The Heathen Chinee.”[vi]The poem was intended to satirize the plight of Chinese in America but ended up having the opposite effect. The language tells us why it could be misinterpreted, even if we believe Harte had egalitarian motives in writing it;

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
Which the same I would rise to explain.

Ah Sin was his name;
And I shall not deny,
In regard to the same,
What that name might imply;
But his smile it was pensive and childlike,
As I frequent remarked to Bill Nye.

It was August the third,
And quite soft was the skies;
Which it might be inferred
That Ah Sin was likewise;
Yet he played it that day upon William
And me in a way I despise.

Which we had a small game,
And Ah Sin took a hand:
It was Euchre. The same
He did not understand;
But he smiled as he sat by the table,
With the smile that was childlike and bland.

Yet the cards they were stocked
In a way that I grieve,
And my feelings were shocked
At the state of Nye's sleeve,
Which was stuffed full of aces and bowers,
And the same with intent to deceive.

But the hands that were played
By that heathen Chinee,
And the points that he made,
Were quite frightful to see, --
Till at last he put down a right bower,
Which the same Nye had dealt unto me.

Then I looked up at Nye,
And he gazed upon me;
And he rose with a sigh,
And said, "Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor," --
And he went for that heathen Chinee.

In the scene that ensued
I did not take a hand,
But the floor it was strewed
Like the leaves on the strand
With the cards that Ah Sin had been hiding,
In the game "he did not understand."

In his sleeves, which were long,
He had twenty-four packs, --
Which was coming it strong,
Yet I state but the facts;
And we found on his nails, which were taper,
What is frequent in tapers, -- that's wax.

Which is why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar, --
Which the same I am free to maintain.[vii]


The sentiments expressed then—could they be coming from the White House in 2020? The point, again, is: expressed or unexpressed—do these sentiments still exist? The dramatic rise in hate crimes against Asians in 2020 say yes. To be sure, let’s look again at some words from the 150-year-old poem:


We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,


Twain and Harte wrote a screenplay together entitled “Ah Sin” based on the main character of the poem, ostensibly to further understanding by satirizing anti-Chinese xenophobia. Again, it had the reverse effect. The play premiered in New York at Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theater in July 1877. Despite their protestations and writing to the contrary, the play did nothing but stoke prejudice.


If you were not surprised until now, take a look at one of the cartoons that accompanied the play’s release:


The embedded prejudice was supplemented by Official US Government Policy. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Acts which prohibited the immigration of Chinese into the USA. Mind you, this in an era where European immigrants were immigrating in droves. Between 1870 and 1900, about 28 million Europeans immigrated the the US; during that same 40-year period, about 350,000 Chinese were recorded.[viii]

Prior to 1882, in 1875, the US passed the Page Act, which prohibited the importation of women expressly for  the purpose of prostitution. This determination was left to the immigration officers, those in California being on Angel Island; what do you think was the result of their observation?


The Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943, during WWII when China was considered an ally and a “model minority,” which allowed 105 Chinese immigrants per year (no zeros missing), and was not finally abolished until 1965, when Congress and President Johnson passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which eliminated the National Origins Formula.[ix] Of course, millions of Japanese were imprisoned in Internment Camps during WWII without regard to their loyalty. 


So then, in 1949, comes Mao, freeing China from thousands of years of dynastic rule and claiming that China “stood up,” but allying itself with Stalin, and then later fighting with the US in Korea. And threatening to obliterate Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan and who the US had backed to the point of inviting him to meet with Roosevelt and Churchill at Cairo in 1943 (despite Mao’s many overtures; is it significant that Chiang is the only one smiling?):


The rise of Mao’s China did nothing to promote better understanding of China and the struggle of the Chinese people in the US; so, during a centennial, embedded prejudice became cultural bedrock and has not changed materially until this day. Culture itself is learned, shared and passed on from generation to generation; in addition, it is usually embedded in children by the age of five. 


Which is why we face anti-Asian prejudice in 2021. Prejudice, Nativism and Xenophobia have been institutionalized in the US for nearly 200 years. It is part of our culture. Of course, this embedded prejudice in our culture is not restricted to Chinese. 


Back to Trump, he didn’t invent anti-Chinese prejudice; he merely let the cat out of the bag. The fact is, that even if anti-Chinese and anti-Asian prejudice is not expressed, it clearly exists under the surface. After Trump sanctioned anti-Chinese prejudice, it was PC to come out.


The most certain element here is we can’t legislate our way out of prejudice. As difficult as it is, the only way to eradicate the problem is to scrub the culture clean. Whether this can ever happen in the US or not, I am sure that it cannot be mitigated or controlled to afford respect to all minority groups unless we first face

the Plain Truth about our culture and our history of Prejudice, Nativism and Xenophobia.


(Above is an exclusive excerpt from my as yet unpublished book, “The Culture Factor: Understanding the Plain Truth about US-China Relations.” If you wish to read more, please email me at and I will put you on the list to receive priority notice of publication and a special recognition for your patronage and support)

Copyright Michael Serwetz 2021

[i] Thomas Nast, “The Chinese Question-1871,”

[ii]  “BAD BLOOD: The Legacy of History for US-China Relations.” Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry, by Lyle J. Goldstein, Georgetown University Press, 2015, pp. 26–45. Accessed 24 Dec. 2020, p. 33.

[iii], “Chinese Exclusion, and the Dangerous Islamophobia of Donald Trump,”

[iv] LIU, HAIMING, and Huping Ling. From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States. Rutgers University Press, 2015. JSTOR, Accessed 24 Dec. 2020, p. 40.

[v] Thomas Nast, “The Nigger Must Go” and “The Chinese Must Go,”

[vi] Mark Twain Library University of Virginia, “Plain Language from Truthful James,”

[vii] Ibid.

[viii], “United States Immigration Statistics,”

[ix]  Wikipedia, “Chinese Exclusion Act,” Ibid.

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