In the late 1800s male Chinese immigrants were brought to the U.S. to work on the railroads and as agricultural labor on the West Coast; many also specialized in laundry services. Some came willingly, others were basically kidnapped and brought forcibly.

After the transcontinental railroad was completed and it occurred to white Americans that the Chinese workers (who, though providing a large part of the labor, weren’t allowed to be in the pictures taken at the joining of the east and west sections of the railroad) were still around and might compete with them for jobs, a wave of anti-Chinese (and, eventually, anti-Japanese) sentiment swept the U.S. Chinese men were stereotyped as degenerate heroin addicts whose presence encouraged prostitution, gambling, and other immoral activities. (Note: Since most Chinese immigrants were brought here specifically as workers, the vast majority were male; few at that time were able to bring their wives.) A number of cities on the West Coast (including Seattle in 1886) experienced riots in which Whites attacked Asians and destroyed Chinese sections of town. The Seattle riot resulted in practically the entire Chinese population being rounded up and forcibly sent to San Francisco. Similar situations in other towns encouraged Chinese workers scattered throughout the West to relocate, leading to the growth of Chinatowns in a few larger cities on the West Coast (particularly San Francisco).

The anti-Asian movement led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (see text here) and Gentlemen’s Agreement (with Japan) of 1907, both of which severely limited immigration from Asia (though the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed Japanese immigrants, overwhelmingly male, to bring their families over, so the male-female imbalance in the Japanese community was less severe after this point than in the Chinese immigrant community).

Here are some vintage “Yellow Peril” posters:

Found here. Notice the white female victim at his feet.

“Why They can live on 40 cents a day…and They can’t.” White families can’t possibly compete with Chinese workers because they need to support their moral families; the Chinese can work for less because they live in crowded, degenerate conditions and don’t have families to support (of course, whose fault was that?). Found here. This reproduction is for sale on ebay. The sellers warn, “Please note! The image presented here is very racist and is only presented for sale here in its historical context!” This brings up some of the questions I posed in this post about modern reproductions of old racist items.

All of the following images were found at the The History Project at the University of California-Davis.

Found here.

Found here.

This is a montage of a number of cartoons depicting the “Chinese wave,” found here.

Cover for the song sheet “The Heathen Chinese,” found here.

Found here. According to the History Project, it was called ‘Be Just–Even to John Chinaman,” and in the accompanying text,

A judge says to Miss Columbia, “You allowed that boy to come into your school, it would be inhuman to throw him out now – it will be sufficient in the future to keep his brothers out.” Note the ironing board and opium pipe carried by the Chinese. An Irish American holds up a slate with the slogan “Kick the Heathen Out; He’s Got No Vote.”

The following cartoon pointed out how immigrants from other countries were now working to keep Chinese immigrants out. The bricks they’re carrying say things like “fear,” “competition,” “jealousy,” and “non-reciprocity.”

Found here.

NEW! Slate writes:

This circa-1900 ad for a rodent-control product [below] called Rough on Rats doesn’t just exploit the then-popular urban legend that Chinese people eat rats. It also underscores the intensity of American xenophobia of the day… In the ad, “They must go” refers both to the rodents and the Chinese.


During World War II, attitudes toward the Chinese shifted as they became the “good” Asians as opposed to the “bad” Japanese. However, it wasn’t until the drastic change in immigration policy that occurred in 1965 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act that Asia (and particularly China) became a major sending region for immigrants to the U.S.

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