The Racialization of Chinese Immigrants in 19th Century America

by Chanina Wong


“Let the Chinese Embrace Civilization, and They May Stay” 18 March 1882. Courtesy of


Mark Twain’s book, Roughing It, published in 1872 brings perception of the relevant attitudes and cultural implications of white America’s reaction to Chinese immigration in the 19th century through an excerpt that was recently titled “Mark Twain’s Observations About Chinese Immigrants in California“. The Chinese were the first group to be prevented from emigrating to the country with the passing of a series of legislation shaping the origins of America’s immigration policy. Chinese exclusion is crucial to understanding the modern American immigration policy, which became experimental for the federal government to practice their powers by creating an infrastructure of bureaucracy that determined who was a helpful “merchant” and an unwanted “laborer”. The origins of immigration policies also began to racialize immigration, making race itself a large contributing factor to who was permitted to enter the country.

In 1864 and 1868, provisions were passed to encouraged free movement and trade between the US and China, especially the movement of people to answer the desperate need for cheap manual labor for work like in the railroads and mines. Once the railroads were completed, legislation started being passed 1882, purposely restricting immigration from China with policies like the Chinese Restriction Act and General Immigration Act. The upholding of restrictive immigration policies did not just act as vital provisions of the federal government, but reflected a set of cultural attitudes against the Chinese.

Mark Twain writes of his reflection of how Chinese act in American society:

“They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.”

What appears to be complimenting of Chinese immigrants, in a time of anti-Chinese animosity growing to be prominent, is an example of the racialization of the Chinese as subservient and willingness to be exploitable labor, perhaps more known as the stereotype the “model minority”. Twain is loving the Chinese to their detriment, enforcing stereotypes of the Chinese, and thus contributing to the negative attitudes against Chinese immigration. White laborers who had to share employment opportunities with Chinese laborers thrived in a culture with the attitude that the Chinese were responsible for their own exploitation due to their own beliefs of respecting elders and commanders, contributing to the anti-immigrant rhetoric. In reality, the Chinese were forced to take upon more difficult jobs that white laborers were unwilling to take, like performing the more life-threatening tasks in the production of railroads and mining.

To embrace stereotypes, especially the “model minority” describing Chinese immigrants, is to ignore the more observed struggles they experienced in the very race-driven culture of 19th century America. They did not, in fact, reap the benefits of being good, obedient workers even if their labor benefited white America. Chinese immigrations were conflated with rattails to emphasize their filth with characterization of all having diseases. This generalization, of course, is without empirical basis to categorize all Chinese with collective traits. And the model minority stereotype further enforced the general public to refuse to assist the diseased and sick Chinese population due to the stereotype that they were willing to tolerate a lack of hygienic standards so long as they were given employment. Chinese immigrants, in reality, did not have the resources or knowledge of proper hygiene and sanitation, living in large groups cramped in small apartments. For example, Twain makes note that they save everything because they lacked the actual wages for proper living:

“They waste nothing. What is rubbish to a Christian, a Chinaman carefully preserves and makes useful in one way or another.”

Twain is practically confirming white Americans’ negative stereotypes of Chinese laborers despite praising them because of his lack of empirical basis and interaction with the Chinese:

“The chief employment of Chinamen in towns is to wash clothing…Their price for washing was $2.50 per dozen—rather cheaper than white people could afford to wash for at that time. A very common sign on the Chinese houses was: “See Yup, Washer and Ironer”; “Hong Wo, Washer”; “Sam Sing Ah Hop, Washing.” The house servants, cooks, etc., in California and Nevada, were chiefly Chinamen…Chinamen make good house servants, being quick, obedient, patient, quick to learn and tirelessly industrious.”

Chinese women were restricted from entering the country, having white Americans experience the Chinese only through men living together in communities. A further aspect of racializing of Chinese men was to characterize their willingness to take on laundry and domestic labor for wages as effeminate, differentiating the Chinese from the more masculine white man. Racializing Chinese immigrants as submissive and obedient to their masters gave them characterization in a new “gender” category as “queer”, as Chinese men failed to meet the normative standard of white men, such as different dress, unwillingness to do domestic work, and eating meat instead of preferring rice. Considering how women were treated during this time, Chinese men were placed in a category of gender inferiority, further being placed as a racial inferiority.

Race relations in America during the 19th century (and arguably, much of the 20th and 21st century) usually grapples with a white and black binary describing the struggle of black persons disenfranchised by white persons. The introduction of Chinese immigrants provides newfound diversity as they are unable to fit in the normative standards of race relations, neither fitting anywhere on the binary. It is not productive to perceive white Americans racism against the Chinese as similar to how black persons were treated. Black persons were forcibly removed from their origin country as enslaved thus facing racist discrimination as racial inferiors even when they were free from enslavement. The Chinese faced similar racist discrimination, but with the backdrop of migration and being barred from entering the country. Even European immigrants like the Italians were racialized in a culture in favor of Anglo-Saxon white persons. The whole history of racialization and the cultural implications against groups is multifaceted, needing intentions and understanding to be explored of how people’s identities could negatively affect someone in a race-driven society, even if those intentions by Mark Twain, at first glance, appear complimentary.



Lam, Tracey, and Jonathan Hui. 2016. “The High Cost of the Model Minority Myth for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.” Kennedy School Review 16, 61-68. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 20, 2017).

Twain, Mark. “Mark Twain’s Observations about Chinese Immigrants .” Library of Congress. Accessed December 20, 2017.

Yuh, Ji-Yeon. “Chinese Exclusion and the Racialization of Immigration.” Reviews in American History 32, no. 4 (2004): 539-44.

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