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.

The Imagination of the Civil War

by Chanina Wong


Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier, Beauvoir, Harrison Country Mississippi. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Civil War reenactments can produce imaginings to glorify the Confederacy and its racist causes instead of memorializing it. The practice of burying tombs of unknown soldiers, however, was conducted on the side of the Confederacy, too. Death touched both ends of the Civil War, but is it right to memorialize the Confederacy even if such memorial produces imaginings that are “beneficial” to remember death?

Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering discusses the Civil War’s common practice of disregarding the proper identification and return of bodies and remains of the dead. The notion that the state is required to properly name and return every deceased soldier from war is a fairly recent assumption that stemmed in World War I when soldiers began wearing dog tags for identification. The end of the Civil War only resulted in the state obligated to officially honor the military dead through national cemeteries. It was impossible to honor each deceased Civil War soldier due to the lack of proper policy of identification, especially when most bodies were disregarded and denied their proper burial rituals. The honoring of the dead became imagined for the deceased were unknown, lacking identification of a name:

“It was the Civil War, as Walt Whitman observed, that made the designation ‘UNKNOWN’ become ‘significant’” (Faust 103).

In 1868, a soldier who died in the Civil War unidentified was published in northern magazines. Unique to this unknown soldier was his possession of $360 and an ambrotype of a child, the circumstance allowing the body to not be forgotten like other unidentified corpses. There were those seeking the fortune of the unknown soldier, of course, but numerous letters by women replied to the publication in hopes that the corpse was their beloved husband, child, or father. “The absence of identifiable bodies left these women with abiding uncertainty and fantastical hopes, illusions that for them made the world endurable” (Faust 130). It was unlikely for the body to be a woman’s loved one, but the short time of imagining and hoping provided some sort of relief for those who’s deceased loved one has yet to return home.

Similar practice was utilized after the Vietnam War on Memorial Day 1984 with the burial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, with President Ronald Reagan hailing it “symbolic of all our missing sons” (Allen 90). A year before the Unknown Soldier’s burial, Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities, which argued the boundaries of what is contained in a nation like the United States is a social construction, with rules constructing who belongs to create the “imagined community”. Nationalism and a strong devotion to one’s country is then produced by mere imaginings only. But those “imaginings” are strong enough to allow one’s self to do horrific things for their nation: to kill, go to war, even die in the name of their nation. Benedict Anderson believed that the Unknown Soldier greatly contributed to the imaginings of nation-states:

“No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than the cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers…Saturated with ghostly national imaginings” (Allen 92). 

Like religion, Anderson states nationalism provides eternity after life, memorializing those who died for their nation through the survival of the state. The remembrance of Unknown Soldiers produces a memory of war, focusing purely on its physical consequences. War provides death and losses in a family or a circle of friends, and tombs of unknown soldiers allows remembrance of such through imaginings. To walk past such tombs is to imagine what kind of life the unknown soldier had, the loved ones he cared for, and the life he could have had if not cut short due to war. To be unknown is to not define who one is imagining, because of the lack of identification of who the tomb represents.


The persistence of the glorification of the Confederacy has resulted in a culture of “Southern Pride” tying one’s beliefs to the sentiment of an older time. The actual cause of the Civil War has been bastardized to merely a disagreement of the state’s rights, which dangerously avoids the very racist (and very real) policies of subjection of a group of people. Instead, the cause is morphed into a celebration of the Confederacy “upholding” individual rights and liberty. Southern pride stems from ancestral history, but also allows white Americans to uphold their own type of imagined community that is purely white and asserts their comfort. Americans who have such pride in 2017 would usually vehemently deny such claim. It is not difficult, though, to find primary documents that describe the defense of the institution of slavery, what the Confederacy was purely fighting for, as fundamentally upholding white supremacy and culture. A popular part of that culture is Civil War reenactments.

The first Civil War reenactments are recorded from 1861 as “sham battles” as entertainment, advertising for recruiting new soldiers, and providing Americans what their loved ones experienced during the war. Mark Guarino of The Washington Post writes after 2017’s protests of Charlottesville and the revolt against the memorialization of Confederate statues:

“Since those days, reenactments have grown in scale, and instead of providing relief to the people whose lives would be irreparably changed by the war, the staged battles emerged as a novel form of ‘living history.’ In every part of the country almost every weekend of the year, participants push aside historic dates and names and instead concentrate on more tangential learning: how a soldier felt charging across grass into battle, down to what he ate at the campfire before forcing sleep to come while lying on a hard earthen floor” (Guarino).           

The tendency to romanticize death, especially death by honor through war when one sacrifices their life for their country, almost sacrilegiously glorifies war and its consequences, giving void to the sensitivity of death. There is no arguing that death has the right to stake importance and devastation when it occurs, especially when it can be avoided or happens in mass numbers. Thus, it must be questioned if it is right to reduce the significance of death and the consequences of war through reenacting it as a form of entertainment, reducing dying to “masculine play”. “Living history” can be argued as beneficial for purposes of education, but actual history, like dates and the actual causation of the war (slavery) is downplayed. It serves more as a purpose of immersion, requiring a degree of imaginative play. They do not provide relief anymore as originally intended through imaginings, rather they provide a little show to go and enjoy. There is a culture of authenticity in the reenactment community with focus on methodical details like uniforms and food of the mid-nineteenth century battlefield. But there is also disregard for the negative consequences and embraces common misnomers of the Civil War. Rather, types of artillery and uniforms are what is focused on instead. The Civil War was one of the U.S.’ deadliest wars, not for just the deaths of soldiers, but the deaths of Americans not even fighting on the battlefields. It also contributes to an environment that is willing to go to war constantly.

Imagination occurs constantly as a result of war, like providing relief when one’s loved one’s remains have yet to return home or as a symbol of all those who gave their lives for their country. But because reenactments are imaginary play, the severity of the actual war is not acknowledged. Different imaginings produce different memorializations of the war. There must be responsibility to choose which imagining to produce that is according and sensitive to historical fact.


Works Cited

Allen, Michael J. “‘Sacrilege of a Strange, Contemporary Kind’: The Unknown Soldier and the Imagined Community After the Vietnam War.” History and Memory: Studies in Representation of the past, no. 2, 2011, p. 90. EBSCOhost,

Guarino, Mark. “Will Civil War reenactments die out?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Aug. 2017,

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Emily Dickinson and the Civil War’s Relationship with Death

by Chanina Wong

Emily Dickinson’s most celebrated poem “Because I could not stop for Death” has its narrator recall the day Death finally collected her to take her to the afterlife in the form of “Eternity”. Death is personified as a carriage driver, considerate for the speaker’s reluctance to take the journey to the grave with him. The journey to eventual eternity is slow, but the speaker and death complete their journey as they recall her life before death:

“We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –“ (Dickinson 9-12).

This stanza symbolizes the passing of different stages of life: being in school as a child (childhood), the grain that grows to be harvested (maturity and adulthood), and eventual death with the “Setting Sun”. The imagery of the process of dying is not abrupt or harsh, it is tranquil and slow, significant through the portrayal of a carriage ride that demonstrates the time that passes until its end, or the end of the journey with Death.

Little information is found regarding actual inspiration of Dickinson’s work and her overall relation to 19th century American life. She wrote a large majority of her work during the span of the Civil War, and though it is difficult to gain evidence of the direct influence the war had on her work, her many letters refers to her relationships with those involved with the Civil War, proving it affected her, too (“Emily Dickinson and the Civil War”). The Civil War marked the U.S.’ “new relationship with death, entering into a civil war that proved bloodier than any other conflict in American history” (Faust xi). Americans in the 19th Century were concerned with their ideals of death and salvation after the occurrence of death, signifying the strong belief in the importance of an afterlife that is to be eternal. The Civil War, with its sheer amount of deaths and carnage, violated “prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances” (Fuast xii). It was commonplace for Americans during the Civil War to speak of the newly percieved “work of death”, meaning what is means to kill, coming to terms that the soldier’s job is to take life, but also consciously anticipating death, which requires participation and action. Dickinson’s work is thematically centered around death and its occurrence, similarly concerned with the responsibility of the process of actually dying like most Americans that experienced the Civil War.

Soldiers started anticipating their death, as displayed by their writing of condolence letters to their family, providing the “good death” where their loved ones were “virtual witnesses to the dying moments they had been denied” (Faust 15). Similar to how Dickinson wrote in her poetry the final moments before death, camp hospital nurses and doctors administered the important final rituals one’s family would perform on their dying loved one, focusing on the finality of life as the person dying expresses their last words. Death is meaningful due in part of the process of closure, while still maintaining the humanity of the dying into the eternal afterlife.

Trademark to Dickinson’s work is her constant use of dashes. Seemingly more powerful than a comma, the dash causes one to pause—to halt the smooth rhythm typical of a poem that one craves. But Dickinson also utilizes the dash immediately after the very last word of the poem, suggesting that the poem is still to continue and to never stop:

“I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity—“ (Dickinson 23-24).

There is irony in eternity after death, which is actually caused once the opposing temporary mortal life is over, and her dashes emphasize such contradiction. Death may require closure for the living, but it is also believed to be the start of the continuation of a different type of living. They reinforce “a visual sense of the gap between the two worlds, the earthly and heavenly, and emphasizes the endlessness of infinity” (Clews). Death is to be meaningful as it is the entrance into an eternal afterlife, a different type of living. When Civil War soldiers would die, they would die in a distant battlefield from their family and be left to rot with maggots and deformed by bullets. This new form of dying signifies its uncertainties of the afterlife. Did disfigurement of the body affect how the body is in heaven? Is the peace of the afterlife affected by the desolation of the war? And due to these uncertainties, the perception of death and life after death changes and altars according to tradition and time. The Civil War changed that perception, and Dickinson’s work reflects such concern as death touched every side of the war.



Frida Kahlo’s The Dream (The Bed), 1940, she represents death through the separate perception of Mexican culture, which is celebrated instead of mourned for, as seen in the holiday Dia de los Muertos. Kahlo’s own life was marred with heartache through her tumultuous relationship with her unfaithful husband, Diego Rivera, and multiple health problems caused by a bus accident when she was eighteen. She awaited death as she mirrors the skeleton atop the canopy of her bed, laced with fireworks waiting to explode. Similar to beliefs surrounding the Civil War, the afterlife brings a sense of renewal from a desolate life, as signified through the green leaves and plants that surround a dying Kahlo, symbolizing the rebirth of life.

Works Cited

Clews, Helen. “The panther in the glove: Emily Dickinson: Helen Clews offers some ways of approaching this fascinating but difficult American poet.” The English Review 13, no. 4 (2003): 14+. Literature Resource Center (accessed November 6, 2017).

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I could not stop for Death (476).” July 05, 2016. Accessed November 06, 2017.

“Emily Dickinson and the Civil War.” Emily Dickinson Museum. 2009. Accessed November 06, 2017.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.

Kriedler, Michele L. 2009. “Emily Dickinson “Because I Couth Not Stop for Death.” Literary Contexts in Poetry: Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ 1. Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed November 6, 2017).

“The Dream (The Bed), 1940 – by Frida Kahlo. 2011. Accessed November 06, 2017.

When Slaves Become Strange

by Chanina Wong

Conjoined since birth, twins Millie and Christine garnered mass interest and attraction from when they were even ten months old.

Millie and Christine McKoy were twin sisters conjoined at the lower spine born into slave family in North Carolina, 1851. Even at birth, they were considered a spectacle as many onlookers sought to see their deformity themselves with many visitors going to their owner’s home , causing him to sell them to another white couple. It was under Joseph Pearson Smith and his wife, that they felt they were treated kindly; the Smiths even made an effort to locate and purchase Millie and Christine’s entire family. They contribute their Christian beliefs from their “white ma”, Mrs. Smith, who they revered who also taught them how to dance, sing, read, and speak different languages (19):

“None can mistake our determination in remaining under the guardianship of Mrs. Smith. Our object is two-fold: We can trust her, and what is more, we feel grateful to her and regard her with true filial affection” (16).

The History of the Carolina Twins: “Told in Their Own Peculiar Way” by “One of Them” was sold by the twins’ agents, written directly to their audience they perform for and “skeptics” of their deformity, as seen by a medical testimony placed at the end by doctors who observed the twins themselves and the detailed explanation of their lives. Their entire history is present from when they were born shocking their family, to when they were kidnapped from their “kind master and guardian”, to the publication’s present when they performed and traveled as a show (8). The publication almost acts as a form of advertisement, for skeptics to visit the Carolina Twins’ show and see for themselves the oddity of their body. Reviews are placed in the publication further enhancing its goal of persuasion.

It is crucial in narratives of enslaved persons to consider how the speakers view themselves, especially when “one’s self” is arguably, two separate minds connected in one body. It is difficult to tell if the narrative actually stems from the twins’ own words or if it was twisted, despite referring to themselves in first person. At the end of their published pamphlet, the author placed lyrics of their popular songs they sing when performing, which many have requested a copy of:

“Two heads, four arms, four feet, All in one perfect body meet, I am most wonderfully made…I’m happy, quite, because I’m good; I love my Savior and my God. I love all things that God has done, Whether I’m created two or one”(21).

Millie and Christine consider themselves according to the publication as one, or “Millie-Christine”, one with the same thoughts, ideas, opinions, despite two different brains and heads. Even on trains they were required only one ticket, considered only one person. One train ticket, of course, makes more sense economically, but being constantly portrayed as one person, “Millie-Christine”, demonstrates how the twins viewed themselves as a singular person and a unique creation that should be displayed.

How the public viewed Millie and Christine is similar to their own perception, as an odd, but beautiful demonstration of “God’s creation”. They were presented like a sort of circus act as  the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, pleasing many crowds intriqued with their uniqueness:

Millie-Christine, the “Caroline Twin”, are photographed in the center, advertised as one of the “Eight Wonders of the World”, revered as a spectacle and a “freak of nature”.

“The editor of the Louisville Journal said, ‘The exhibition of these remarkable twins is characterized by the peculiar delicacy, modesty and ingeniousness of these young girls themselves. Nothing occurs nor can occur offensive to the most fastidious sense of propriety, or refined taste’” (17).

Their deformities were not only placed as entertainment for many to enjoy, but their songs and dancing were of “exquisite taste and sweetness”. “Christine [had] a soprano voice. Millie a contralto”, and their harmonic duets were paired with graceful dancing that is seen as even more impressive with the uniqueness of their four legs (16).

Christine and Millie were sold like products between owners through transactions, and were kidnapped for someone to gain a profit. They were of course, not treated with the dignity of that era’s white person. But the twins were so marveled and revered that their skin color, which was a large contributing factor to how one was categorized in 19th century America, was not the reason for their “oppression” as profitable products that traveled and entertained. There is an alternative situation to consider. If Millie and Christine were white, would perhaps they be treated differently, or if their deformity been taken advantage the exact same way?

Millie and Christine’s life raises the conversation discussing whether the twins were placed under the same oppression as black enslaved persons in America, even being born within a family under slavery. The twins were not set to work in the fields or care for their white masters as exploited labor. They traveled as commodities, displaying their talents as exhibitions for an audience. There are connections to be made, however, to the practice of slave traders commodifying their slaves as “products” to appear their fittest and most healthiest to gain a large profit. Such practices by slave traders included shaving men’s beards, plucking gray hairs and blackening them with dye, exercising slaves so their muscles stay toned, amongst other techniques “by which the traders turned people into things and then into money” (Johnson 119).

The twins do not speak much about slavery in their publication, considering it was for their audience, not abolitionists. Slavery is spoken more as a given fact of that time’s culture instead of a horrifying one, like financial transactions between owners instead of terrible exploitation. There is no incident spoken that is recalled to be graphic or violent that is usually described in an enslaved person’s experience, and they revere and compliment their white owners. According to their narrative, it appears that Mrs. Smith truly loved and appreciated the twins, but her efforts in educating the twins could be considered grooming them to perform for profit. It must also be mentioned that this publication was sold by their “agents”, who were their owners.

The twins were of course viewed as some sort of product with services to sell, but they were differentiated from black enslaved persons, perhaps more “worthy” of white people’s attention and admiration. Practically celebrities, they even were gifted jewelry from Queen Victoria, and lived under seemingly caring owners who extensively strived to unite their family and provide an education for the twins. Their unique circumstance presents questioning if their deformity saved them from a lifetime of oppression, a different type of oppression, under typical enslavement. Did the twins even percieve themselves as oppressed at all? It may not be entirely clear, but perhaps Millie and Christine were very fortunate to have been bought under the “very giving” Smiths, who appear to have loved and worked hard for Mille and Christine and their family. Millie and Christine’s circumstances cannot be understood without the backdrop of slavery, however, where they were still considered products and not breathing, meaningful people.