Life in California’s early Chinese communities was challenging and dangerous, particularly for women. Discriminatory laws made it harder for women to emigrate, leading to a severe gender imbalance in California’s Chinatowns.
Eve of Exclusion
Initially, the gender gap was a result of American employers’ perception that men were a more desirable form of cheap labor. However, the exclusion of women quickly became a mechanism for preventing Chinese communities from taking root in America. Yut Ho was fortunate to arrive before the Page Act of 1875, which severely restricted emigration of Chinese women by asserting that they were all prostitutes. This was the first US law explicitly restricting immigration and set the precedent for the Chinese Exclusion act.
In fact, most of the Chinese women in California were married and worked as laborers or business owners. According to the 1870 census, there were thirty-four women in LA Chinatown and more than half of them were married. (Zesch, The Chinatown War, 61)
Of those who were unmarried, many were actually prostitutes. This was a normal state of affairs in the wild west; prostitution was was one of few ways American women could make money in frontier towns. Some estimates say that there were over 50,000 prostitutes of all nationalities in the West at the time of the Chinatown Massacre. Frontier society was dominated by rough men and rule of law was a questionable proposition at best. Under these conditions, most women were forced to rely on men, either through marriage or prostitution.
Where East and West Collide
The descriptions of Chinese marriage customs in this episode are based on inside information. While Western portrayals of Chinese women are usually demeaning and disempowering, traditional family structures had an elaborate system of checks and balances between the sexes. This is not to say that Chinese society was immune to patriarchy; it’s just that it contained matriarchal elements as well. The most famous 19th century Chinese matriarch was the Empress Dowager Cixi, who came to power after the first opium war and ruled China until her death in 1908. She belonged to an ancient tradition of female rulers, which dates back at least to the Tang dynasty. On a domestic scale, family matriarchs are still celebrated to this day as in the case of the writer’s grandmother, Yi-Yin Huang, or the fictional “Nai Nai” in the film, Crazy Rich Asians. Gendered divisions of labor are fluid and hard to pin down. However, some polls indicate that women still control finances in the majority of households in China.
Yut Ho’s unusual marital situation is a product of the bizarre ways in which respectability politics shaped LA Chinatown. While many of the details are fictional, it is indisputable that Yut Ho and a number of other Chinese women played a major role in the struggle between factions who vied for control over Chinatown. Yo Hing and Sam Yuen were both fond of accusing their rivals of mistreating women in order to damage their credibility in the press. The strategy was very effective in shaping public opinion, which was crucial in the tight-knit community of LA Chinatown.
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