Last week was the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. On May 6, 1882, the US passed a law prohibiting the immigration of Chinese people to America. The very few Chinese people allowed to live in America were denied citizenship, as well as the privileges and protections citizenship entails. Anti-Chinese sentiment (and violence) was rampant, accepted, and part of the American cultural landscape.
Make no mistake, this was a ban based on race.
During the Exclusion era Chinatowns were born, not as “exotic” tourist stops but as segregated communities where Chinese struggled to survive. Chinese people were seen as less-than-human; shifty, criminal, drug-addicted, savage, thus unassimilable. They were either sexually deviant (prostitutes) or sexless and impotent (Chinese men). Chinese people were depicted by journalists, artists, and politicians as one of the number one threats to civilized American life (never mind that they built the railroad that united America’s coasts).
And while 135 years may seem like a long time ago in the grand scheme of American history, let’s not forget that 1882 was when the Exclusion Act became law. It was not repealed until 1943 – and even then only a very small quota of Chinese people were allowed to immigrate to the US. It wasn’t until 1965 that such discriminatory quotas were repealed.
This is not the distant past; mistakes of a bygone era. Our parents and grandparents may very well have been born during, or lived through, the Exclusion era or the National Origins Act. The earliest members of “Generation X” were born while the quota system was still law.
In 2017 it is both a testament to progress and an indictment of revisionist history that so many Americans cannot fathom our government doing such a thing to Chinese people. After all, Chinese-Americans are the “model minority”. As a Chinese-American myself, I was told all the time while growing up, “Chinese people don’t really feel racism” or “You’re basically white.”
For many second or third generation Chinese-Americans, the idea of being at times the most reviled minority in America is shocking. More now than ever, Chinese-Americans are faces and voices in the media, leaders in government, successful business people, artists, and innovators. There are Chinese-Americans who don’t know what “anti-miscegenation” means – they’ve never had to. Would a Chinese-American from the early 20th century believe any of this to be possible?
It does not escape me that I, a second generation Chinese-American woman, can write an article (one of many) that is critical of America without any real fear for my well-being or my family’s well-being. That is a rather new privilege for someone who looks like me.
At a glance it seems as if Chinese-Americans are fully accepted, and integrated into every part of American society.
It is the distance that America has come that makes its racial shortcomings so much more disturbing.
Those shortcomings were recently demonstrated in a bold display of insensitivity by none other than Walmart. On May 7, AsAmNews published a story about Walmart’s sale of a blatantly racist button.
The button, featuring a crudely-drawn image licensed by David & Goliath Tees, depicts a “slant-eyed” Asian cartoon wearing a pointy “Chinaman” hat, with the phrase “Ry you no call?” below it. It is on a yellow background. Of course.
Though Walmart quickly pulled the button from online sales (I’m not sure if it is still available in stores), they have yet to offer an apology when contacted by AsAmNews.
Additionally David & Goliath Tees remains silent after being contacted.
But the image is not isolated to a button sold by Walmart. The image is ubiquitous in t-shirt form around the Internet. Up until May 9, Amazon had a t-shirt featuring the image searchable on their US site. It was listed as “Stupid Factory Men’s Ry You No Call T-Shirt, Mustard, Medium”. Stupid Factory is the seller; the shirt had 1.5 stars.
Amazon has also remained silent when approached about carrying the shirt.
But all it takes to find the shirt elsewhere is a quick Internet search of “Ry you no call?” and you will be rewarded with a bounty of “edgy” online t-shirt shops that sold the shirt at one time. Admittedly most, if not all (outside of eBay), now list the item as sold out or unavailable.
And while “Ry you no call?” may be the Asian racism t-shirt of the moment, it’s not hard to find more.
Some of you may remember Abercrombie & Fitch’s racist t-shirt debacle from 2002. The once unstoppable clothing retailer catering to preppy, affluent, youths briefly sold a series of “novelty” t-shirts featuring “humorous” cartoons of stereotypical Chinese/Asian characters – they had pointy hats, squinty eyes, there was a Buddha.
The Asian-American community was outraged, rightly so, and the t-shirts were quickly pulled from stores. But pulling the shirts so quickly caused something of a stir, with many people actively seeking out or duplicating the t-shirts as some sort of action against oversensitive Asians and censorship.
The most popular, and most offensive shirt was one that read “Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs Can Make It White”. With the slogan, two stereotypical cartoons of Chinese men stand by smiling.
Though Abercrombie & Fitch does not sell the shirt anymore, some industrious designers took it upon themselves to recreate the shirt and sell it on the Internet.
Among them is tshirtcrack.com who sells a version of the shirt alongside the charming explanation, “Bless any of you who understand why this shirt is so so wrong. (this shirt was so offensive it got pulled a few years ago) Wong Brothers Laundry Service…Two wongs can make it white!”
But the “Wong Brothers” aren’t only relegated to random, alternative t-shirt shops on the Internet. You can also find a version of the design on CafePress.com – that beast of customizable clothes, bags, stationary, anything.
Of course, everything on CafePress is created by users, so the company did not design and market the image and they do not count themselves responsible for the views expressed on the products. I looked through CafePress’ marketplace under the search “Anti Chinese,” and there is certainly no shortage of racist designs. But where does a company draw the line?
But not all problematic products are so obvious. Again, that’s due to one part ignorance and one part cultural conditioning.
Online vintage-style clothing retailer, Pinup Girl Clothing, released a “Chinese New Year” collection earlier this year. Despite Pinup Girl Clothing touting the line as celebrating the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese lunar calendar, the clothes featured a nondescript Chinese-style print with dragons. As reported by The Daily Dot, of the women photographed for the launch of the line, “Not a single model wearing the dresses was of Asian descent”.
Though not in the same ugly racist vein as the Wong Brothers or “Ry you no call?”, Pinup Girl Clothing’s collection is thoughtless appropriation. It is quite literally wearing some bland version of Chinese culture as a novelty. It is the reduction of Chinese culture, of a major Chinese celebration, to a “cool” look. (Chinese New Year is the cultural celebration of the year in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Chinese territories – bigger than Christmas.)
To their credit, Pinup Girl Clothing founder Laura Byrnes did apologize. The print is now described as “Dragon Print,” and models of “Asian descent” appear wearing the clothes on their website.
One may argue that the above examples are just clothes, novelty clothes at that. But they are indicative of how America cannot quite shake a regard for Chinese people as “others.” A lazy appropriation or a “funny” racist t-shirt may seem like harmless fun, but such things throw light on the fact that Chinese-Americans are still, in some way, seen as outside of America’s inner circle.
At its “least” harmful, America’s racist treatment of Chinese-Americans is disappointing, at its worst it’s dehumanizing.
When I look at the “Ry you no call?” image, I see a clear line between it and the anti-Chinese propaganda art from the Exclusion era. It’s not hard to see how one informs the other.
We have come very far, there’s no denying that. I benefit from the privileges of Chinese-American progress. But with that progress it seems we have been unable to completely bury the racism that our culture was built upon. It took 74 years to get this far, hopefully it will not take 74 more.