Chinese Ethnicity and the American Heroic Artisan in Henry Grimm's the Chinese Must Go (1879)

Article excerpt

Henry Grimm's The Chinese Must Go appeared at the peak of the vitriolic anti-Chinese sentiment that broke out in California in the 1870s. (1) This racial drama touched on the national debate over "the Chinese question" and used theatrical performance as a persuasive ideological force to advocate exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the United States. According to David Roediger, this farce provided "a way for men to carouse after work" at the Anti-Coolie Club, a white working-class male "preserve for communal bonding." (2) Unlike most of the nineteenth-century yellow-face performances that distorted Chinese immigrants mainly for comic effect, Grimm's play enunciates rigorous dialectical criticism of the Chinese.

Drawing upon the work of recent scholars such as Yong Chen, James Moy, and Floyd Cheung, who have used Chinese language sources such as newspapers, letters, diaries, diplomatic writings, and Chinese government reports in order to explicate what was done to the Chinese and how the Chinese reacted to it, this essay examines the place of Chinese workers in a late nineteenth-century American ethnic/gender hierarchy. (3) I explore the issues concerning Chinese immigrants by assuming various perspectives along a spectrum from Euro-American to Chinese, arguing from such vantage points that ethnicity and gender play a significant role both in reiterating negative stereotypes and in complicating or resisting them. While James Moy claims that Grimm's farce indicates that the earlier American construction of the "deceitful" Chinese was required to rationalize a strategy that white Americans would later employ in their dealings with Asians, (4) I would suggest that Grimm's melodrama criticizes not only Chinese supporters but anti-Chinese agitators as well. The play's satire on white workers may partially explain why, in fact, there is no record of a performance of the play at any established theater in San Francisco, (5) while a later production at the Bird Cage Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, outside California where the play is set and the characters are satirized, is known to have received "thunderous applause." (6) Floyd Cheung maintains that Grimm's play articulates American racial stereotypes that waver between the frighteningly feminized and the menacingly masculine. He observes that the play's depictions of the Chinese as threatening reveal an underlying Euro-American anxiety about masculinity. (7) Cheung's reading corrects Dave Williams's assertion that late nineteenth-century American playwrights portrayed the Chinese only as effeminate, powerless, and comical, rather than as economically or culturally dangerous. (8) Yet Grimm's play manifests not only an ambiguous gendering of the Chinese, but an equivalent contradictory gendering of white workers. While seeming to be masculine in driving off the Chinese with violence, for instance, a white worker could be regarded as feminized because of his failure to compete legitimately for "respectable" work. In The Chinese Must Go, the contradictory gendering of both Chinese and white laborers stems not only from Euro-American gender anxiety, but from misconceptions of the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States.

I. Feminization of Chinese Laborers

Grimm's portrayal of Chinese workers appears to convey populist antagonism against the Chinese. The play depicts the Blaine family in San Francisco and their reliance on Chinese helpers for their daily housework. William, a tailor, and his son Frank blame Chinese labor for their financial tribulations and attempt to justify their ill treatment of the Chinese by claiming that they are deserving of punishment. Not coincidentally, their surname--Blaine--is likely to allude to a contemporary politician, James Gillespie Blaine (1830-93), a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, known to have strongly favored Exclusion Acts against Chinese immigration. (9) The title of the play, in fact, was borrowed from the slogan of the Workingmen's Party of California, a white labor union that sought anti-Chinese legislation. …