chapter  1
16 Pages

CLEANSING MOTHERHOOD

Nineteenth century white politicians and social critics characterized Chinatown as an immoral bachelor society of dissolute men who frequented opium dens, gambling houses and brothels. In this transient working-class culture, Chinese single men lived herded together in bunkrooms and the few Chinese women who had immigrated were considered to be prostitutes. Their lives were represented as the antithesis of respectable domesticity and a threat to American morality and family life. Although in San Francisco many Chinese merchants had brought their wives and children from China, critics of Chinese immigration observed the absence of nuclear families as evidence that the Chinese had no commitment to permanent residence and assimilation to American society. Few critics addressed US immigration restrictions, or the violent discrimination and migratory labour recruitment which made it difficult for Chinese male labourers to consider permanent settlement or encourage reluctant wives and dependent children to join them. This gender imbalance persisted well into the mid-twentieth century, with females constituting barely 10 per cent of the San Francisco Chinese population until 1920.1

For Chinese immigrants, the achievement of American cultural citizenship rested on proof that Chinese women were engaged in respectable domesticity and motherhood. However, in the nineteenth century, Chinese women in San Francisco were perceived as either mercenary prostitutes infecting white boys with syphilis or as sequestered and uneducated merchant wives unable to further the progress of their families. Both images presented a reversal of the prevailing gender ideology which positioned women as domestic sanitarians, responsible for the care and defence of the home and of the moral and physical well-being of the family.