1900-1950: A world without women

Thursday, 23 June 2011 13:27 Amy Gwilliam
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We are used to reading that women were scarce in early Chinese immigrant communities in North America.  And yet in the 1850s through1870s a fair number of women emigrated from China to the New World.  In 1861-62, for instance, the female-male ratio of emigrants departing for the Americas from Hong Kong and Canton was 671:2503 (Note 1).  Considering that the emigrants came from sojourner communities, where men were expected to leave their wives behind when going to work overseas, a ratio of one woman to every four men was not so bad.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, however, the number of women in Chinese-American communities fell drastically.  No more were coming in, and many left who were already here.  By the early 20th century the situation had become critical.  The Chinese community was aging and, due to the shortage of women, not  able to reproduce itself.   Some Chinese-American women did indeed exist during this period.  We have many photographs of full Chinese families in Chicago, complete with mothers and daughters, from the 1900s and 1910s.  And yet those women were very few.

Trustworthy statistical information on gender ratios in the Chinese community is hard to get.  Government census data is particularly doubtful when the community involved was suspicious of the authorities and afraid of deportation.  A more credible kind of information, which has rarely been used in this connection, are death certificates.  These exist in relatively complete form in several states, and are quite reliable for data on gender and race.  It seems probable that death certificates were needed not only for all deceased Chinese who were buried or cremated in the U.S. but also for all those sent back to China for burial

In Illinois, a comprehensive tabulation of death certificates for the years 1916-1950 is now available on line, from the Illinois State Archives website.  A quick search of this data, choosing Chinese surnames that were common in the Midwest, shows us that there were indeed many fewer women than men in the Chinese community of the Exclusion Act period.  The overall gender ratio shown is 47: 818 or one Chinese woman for every 17 men. 

Note 1:  Williams, S. Wells The Chinese Commercial Guide, 5th Edition, p. 277.  (Honk Kong, A Shortrede & Co., 1863).  Williams included emigration to the Caribbean and Latin America (but not Southeast Asia) in his statistics