Ashes, ashes, we all fall down....

In 1899, Hawaii experienced its first encounter with the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that can kill an infected victim within three to seven days. Symptoms included red spots on the skin that later turns black, bloody vomit, and decaying skin. The first case of the bubonic infection was discovered in Chinatown at Honolulu after the authorities discovered a deceased body of a Chinese man plagued with the bubonic disease. Authorities took immediate action by quarantining Chinatown.

Based on their previous experience with measles and venereal diseases, local officials were concern about the life-threatening impact of a new disease introduced to the island. Local authorities closed down schools, isolate new immigrants and burned the bodies of the deceased hoping to contain the disease. However, the isolation and containment of people was not enough and local authorities took drastic measures. They started to burn down buildings in Chinatown they believed were contaminated by the bubonic plague. The burnings were meant to be a controlled, only targeting household that came into contact with the plague. However, they were not able to control the fire resulting in the burning of the entire Chinatown community.

Chinatown and Chinese people from early 1900s and late 1880s were often blamed for the spread of the bubonic plague. Chinatown in Honolulu was the target of multiple burnings due to negative connotations of the location as a disease ridden, sinful place. One of the factors that contributed to the image of Chinatown to be a dangerous, dirty and disease ridden site is that Chinatown during the early 1900s is often dominated by Chinese male laborers. Most Chinese immigrants from that early 1900s traveled to America by themselves to make enough money so that they could send money back or return to China. Issues of prostitution, homosexuality, and opium dens portrayed an unclean image of Chinese men and of Chinatown.

I think the extreme measures taken by the local Honolulu officials of burning down Chinatown were their way of “cleansing the community”. Chinatown was already thought of as an unclean, disease-filled place. By burning buildings that were “touched” by the plagued Chinese, they are able to lessen the chance of the bubonic plague spreading because Chinese resident of the buildings could no longer reside there. By burning down the entire Chinatown community, they were able to get rid of “the origin” of the bubonic disease.

Take me out to the ball game...

The image of Japanese American men pitching balls and hitting homeruns does not first come across our minds when we think of baseball, the great American sport. However, Japanese immigrants have already had great appreciation for the sport before immigrating to American in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Japan had already adopted the sport during the Meiji era (1870s), when Japan was adopting western customs to establish a more modern national identity. Baseball, to the Japanese, incorporated both western and eastern cultural elements. Baseball had Japanese values of harmony, determination, and discipline while also reflecting Western characteristics.

In 1899, Japanese immigrants started their own baseball teams after they settled in the US. The first Japanese American baseball team, Excelsiors, was established in Hawaii. Soon after, more teams of different ethnicities were created and competed with each other. There were the Japanese American team, Chinese American team, Hawaiian team and etc. However, the first mainland Japanese American team, formed in San Francisco in 1903, was the San Francisco Fujii Club. Other cities followed and by 1910 baseball leagues were formed.

The establishments of these first baseball teams had two motives. First, it was a way of leisure and entertainment for the players. Second, they hoped the establishments of the baseball teams would created a better connection between the dominating Caucasian community through the shared interest and love of baseball. However, simply the love of baseball was not enough for the Japanese immigrant community to receive acceptance from the Caucasian community. Instead, they still continued to face opposition and aggression from the general public.

The establishments of the first Japanese baseball teams occurred around the same time of the fear of the “Yellow Peril”. America was starting to feel resentment towards the Japanese community because of their growing population. Also, although many Japanese wore Western clothing and adopted Western customs, they were not accepted because of how they looked. The stereotype of Asian male’s bodies makes it hard to associate Asian males to American sports. Asian males were believed to be frail, feminine and dirty while Caucasian males are masculine and strong. There is also the issue of authenticity. Baseball is strongly associated with the American image that anyone who plays baseball who isn’t an American, anyone who is not a white Caucasian male, lacks the authenticity of a real American baseball player. This stereotype is still well played in contemporary society.

San Francisco Board of Education and Japanese Segregation

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted the entry of Chinese immigrant laborers, American agricultural industry immediately started to recruit Japanese contract workers to replace Chinese laborers. Japanese workers were more accepted than the Chinese due to the Anti-Chinese sentiment occurring during that period. This initiated a new era of Japanese immigration to the United States. Japanese laborers were more likely to travel to America with their families. Unlike the Chinese, they did not isolate themselves to a single large community, like Chinatown. Instead, Japanese families lived throughout the city in smaller community clusters. Also, they had no intentions of going back to Japan, so many assimilated into Western society by adopting American clothing and cultural customs.

Because the Japanese families were more spread out compared to Chinese communities, their children attended local public schools as long as it is permitted by the parents of the white students. There have been a policy established in 1893 to create a separate schooling system for the Japanese students but since there was only a few numbers of Japanese students in each public school system, there was not enough money to fund the policy.

The Anti-Chinese sentiment soon reached the Japanese community in early 1900s after the large increase Japanese immigrant population. What started out as the Anti-Chinese sentiment, developed into anti-Oriental movement. Concerns over job losses, low wages and the growing numbers of Japanese population led to the Japanese to be new targets of blame for social and economic problems. The Japanese community was now experiencing what the Chinese community was experiencing since 1882. In some cases, the Japanese immigrants were seemed to be more threatening than Chinese immigrants because of their ability to assimilate into Western culture. Starting from 1901, there were calls for the Japanese and the Chinese to be both isolated into Oriental school systems.

It wasn’t until February 23, 1905, that the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper officially launched an editorial anti-Japanese campaign which fueled the anti-Japanese ideas that already existed within the San Francisco communities. In May of 1905, The Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was established to focus on the segregation of Japanese and Koreans and to legally exclusion Asian immigrants. The segregation of Japanese and Korean students from public school systems was made possible by the occurrence of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. After the earthquake, many Chinese families moved to other areas or temporary refugee camps leaving enough spaces in the Chinese segregated school systems to include Japanese and Korean students. Therefore the Chinese Primary School in San Francisco became the first Oriental Public School.

Anti-sentiment feelings towards the Chinese and the Japanese immigrant communities are both derived from the fear of the Oriental community dominating the Caucasian community. The idea of the “Yellow Peril” was created from this time period. The fear of little yellow Asian men threatening the standard of living for white Americans fueled racism and inequality towards the Asian community.

Picture Brides

The picture bride system was extremely important to the Japanese immigrants during the early 1900’s. It was a system that allowed Japanese men in the United States to find wives from overseas in order to start families. Japanese bachelors would mail their self portraits to a matchmaker in Japan who then matches the picture with other potential brides. Once the matchmaker finds a suitable match, they are married and the bride is sent over on a one-way trip to the United States. Quite often, the only photo that the men had access to were portraits of them when they were much younger. Most often the women in Japan were duped into thinking that their future husband in America is as young as they were in the picture; however this was not the case. The brides later found out as soon as they meet their husband for the first time that they are much older than and not as attractive as they once were. In the portraits the bachelors were young, however in reality they have aged from the laborious work of agriculture and the psychological stress of social marginalization. One would assume that the bride could easily just go back home to Japan but because they lacked the funds for a ride back and also because of their culture, it is important to have pride and “save face” and deal with the circumstances on their own in order to prevent shaming the family. Picture brides gave the Japanese in America social mobility and family formation all due to the enacting of the Gentlemen’s agreement which allowed for Japan to issue passports to the wives in Japan. The picture bride system and the Gentlemen’s agreement were a way to maneuver around the strict anti-immigration laws against Asians.

Japan’s goal for the Picture Bride system was to prevent the vices of the bachelor society from manipulating the Japanese and therefore to create a positive image of the Japanese people who are looked upon as the representatives of Japan. The Japanese government wanted the bachelors to find wives and form families and therefore develop a filial piety relationship which composes positive role models for other Japanese. Picture brides became popularized among the Japanese Americans in the United States because it changed the Japanese and Asian image of devious primitive aliens to an image of a low-maintenance model minority group (Shirley Lim). Because the nationhood is place on the bodies of the Japanese, it was absolutely important that their image upheld the nation state as a supreme candidate for social acceptance by the Americans leading to the recognition that Japan is in fact a supreme nation. Family formations along with good citizenship status helped posit the positive image of the Japanese as worthy of being Americans. The Japanese sense of belonging helped motivate them to become model citizens in an effort to gain acceptance by the Americans as well as cultural citizenship.

Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907

In 1907, the Gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and Japan was enacted. In this agreement, Japan would no longer issue passports to Japanese emigrants and the United States would allow immigration for only the wives, children and parents of current Japanese whom already reside in the United States. What initiated this act was the fact that the San Francisco school board approved separate schools for the Japanese students. This separation of Japanese students from American students enraged Japan, and in an attempt to alleviate this problem, Japan promised to minimize the number of emigrants in order to change their image of overpopulating America. The proponents of the act were Californian natavists who feared the Asian invasion of the Japanese and wanted to stem their immigration by targeting their citizenship status as an attempt to minimize their occupancy. However, the Gentlemen’s Agreement did just the opposite as it actually helped grow the Japanese population because the act opened the door to picture brides which promoted family formation.

America’s gaze of the Japanese was that of a foreign oriental country gaining power as a nation. During this time, Japan had defeated the Russians in the Sino-Russo Japanese war which made Japan the first Asian country to defeat a European country. This militaristic success changed the outlook America had on the Japanese as a mediocre, primitive country transitioning into a developing nation. Japan was adopting westernized ideas and customs and integrated them into their culture. With all of these traits combined, America viewed the Japanese as an up-and-coming powerhouse nation, one that needs to be impeded in order for America to keep its dominance. Also, Americans started to fear the Yellow Peril. The Yellow Peril is the fear that Japan will expand into America taking over and implementing their dominance through culture and occupations. Yellow Peril had spread through the minds of people through racial discourse using the media and newspapers targeting American natavists and hardcore nationalist especially those in the working class. People participating in the discourse ignorantly internalized what they heard and essentialized all Japanese immigrants to the unfounded stereotypes of forever foreigner, nefarious and primitive (Shirley Lim). This hegemonic idea became popularized and influenced the mindset of the Americans to patronize the Asians and therefore creating animosity as well as social marginalization of the Japanese leading up to institutionalized racism.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

During the mid 1800’s there was a massive addition of Chinese immigrants who wanted to form a better life outside of China. California was a popular destination which was also known as “Golden Mountain” to the Chinese for its rich abundance and many economic opportunities. This was a time when America was still building itself as a nation in which the gold rush period and the building of the Railway system were in its initial stages. Gold was abundant and easily gathered as the whites and the Chinese worked collectively. However, as gold inventory diminished becoming scarcer the anti-Chinese sentiment grew. Out of fear, the whites Americans believe the yellow peril was taking over America. Yellow peril is the belief that the Asians were invading America taking over the limited amount of jobs away from them. The Chinese were essentialized to this category which became the catalyst for anti-Chinese sentiment. The whites believed that the Chinese were taking away their jobs as well as creating too much competition for the gold. Tensions and animosity grew against the Chinese which forced the U.S. to enact the Chinese exclusion Act in 1882 which according to the Shirley Lim article, was the first act in American history to bar a group by specific name. This act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur with the intention of only lasting 10 years. However, in reality the law had lasted 61 years when it was repealed by the Magnusson act in 1943. The Chinese exclusion act excluded Chinese immigrants except for merchants, students, teachers, and travelers from immigrating into the United States without proper documentation. This act also affected those who were already residing in the U.S. by preventing them from become naturalized citizens because they had to obtain special certificates that identified them as permanent aliens ineligible for citizenship. The Chinese exclusion act thwarted Chinese immigrants from coming to America because of the laborious and fail prone process of attempting to become U.S. citizens.

The Chinese exclusion act made the assimilation of the Chinese into America difficult and at times impossible. The act was influenced by the common stereotypes of Chinese as being "primitive" and "decadent" according to Lim. Because of these stereotypes and atrocious notions of the Chinese, through court transcriptions and the amount of legislative hearings invoking this stereotype reflected the production of Anti-Asian legislatures. Anti-Chinese sentiment along with an outgrowth for the competition for jobs created the popular belief of open discrimination and institutionalized racism throughout America. Since the Chinese were seen as forever foreign this led to their alienation and were displaced socially which had an emotional and social influence on them. The Chinese were marginalized outside of the socio-realm of white America. This marginalization created psychological affects that made them ostensibly outcaste to outer boundaries of society. On the social level the Chinese were seen as foreigners here to take away the jobs of the working white man which raised tensions between the two groups. The Chinese were denied social rights such as the right to vote and were pressured to live in creped conditions within Chinatown. Chinatown then became the social space for bawdy, unkempt, and dangerous activity which was always essentialized to the Chinese. As the animosity grew towards the Chinese the feeling of lost identity became apparent as they found themselves to be in a country which at first was a land of opportunities that later grew into a land of segregation.


In the 1880’s, a new variety of entertainment surfaced in the United States and Canada widely known as Vaudeville. Vaudeville was brought to life by a producer of concerts and events, named Tony Pastor. He put together random theatrical acts that included musicians, dancers, acrobatics, magicians, and comedians (pretty much like a circus) and called it “clean” Vaudeville in New York City. Since his targeted audience was female and family-based crowds, he prohibited the sales of alcohol and forbid vulgar materials in his theater. As time progressed, other people who adopted the idea of Vaudeville began to add more risque acts and search for more enticing performers.

…Enter the arrival of Asian immigrants. During this period, the most popular anti-Asian stereotype was “Yellow Peril,” which referred to the image of Asians as a threat to the American society. Although this stereotype had a negative connotation, I think that it helped the Asians get their foot through the door and on the stage to perform. Because the Americans felt threatened by the Asian culture, they were intrigued by what they had to offer.

At the time, the only Asians portrayed in the media were perceived as savages or childish human beings who were inferior to other races and crippled from understanding sophisticated literature, art, or music. The acts that were put on would shock audiences because they have never been exposed to such performances or traditions before. These Asian vaudevillains brought true acts and performances that portrayed real Asian performers rather than yellowfaces. I think that because the vaudevillains took the stereotype of “Yellow Peril” and used it to entice audiences; they gave themselves the image of the “Deviant,” which was the stereotype of Asians to be mysterious and deceitful. These vaudevillains were able to dominate the stage because they used their stereotype to their advantage and put on performances that would give the audience what they expect to see and at the same time, give them a taste of Asian culture that would defy that image. Many performers would wear traditional Asian costumes and play Asian instruments, but sing American songs in English and dance to popular routines.

The history of Asian vaudevillains is not a topic spoken about often because during the 1880’s to 1930’s, the Chinese Exclusion Act would marginalize and erase the existence of Asian performances in literature and media. Although they were suppressed, the vaudevillains couldn’t be completely erased and their determination would make them role models for later Asian performers such as Anna May Wong or Bruce Lee.