1900-1950: Early interracial marriages in Chicago

Thursday, 23 June 2011 13:34 Amy Gwilliam
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The death certificate data discussed in the preceding mini-article does not provide accessible data on Chinese women marrying men of other ethnic groups.  However, the death certificates do show that a number of white women (and a few black women as well) had Chinese surnames; presumably most of these were wives of Chinese men.  Other white women may have had Chinese husbands too: there is no way of telling from these records whether women classified as white but with surnames like Lee, Sing, and Toy  -- names also used by white families -- were married to Europeans or Chinese.  A few German-Americans were named Eng, but these seem to have lived mostly in Rock Island.  White female Engs in Chicago probably were married to Chinese.

The names of the two black women listed in the above table were Yee Sut Hong and Rose Chin.  Both were Chicagoans.  We do not know their stories, nor those of most white women who took Chinese husbands.   The few early Midwestern East-West marriages we know about were not always happy. 

We do not have much data on the ethnicity of the white wives.  A little information appears in the immigration records preserved by the Chicago office of NARA (the National Archives and Records Administration).  These records, as summarized by Peggy Christoff, include entries on women who requested documents allowing them to return to Chicago or another Midwestern city after planned visits to China.  Christoff lists a number of white wives and mothers of daughters with Chinese husbands or fathers.  The records date to the period 1900-1940.  The marriages in question involved women of the following national/ethnic groups:

German–6
Polish–3
"White"–3
Swedish–1
Irish–1

All of these families were wealthy enough to send wives and/or daughters back to China for a family visit or education.  Ordinary biracial couples probably could not have considered such an expensive journey and thus would not have come to the attention of the Bureau of Immigration.

As none of the women listed by Christoff were of British (that is, Welsh, English, or Scots) ancestry, it seems that wealthy Chinese men and British-American women rarely married each other.  Why was this?  There must have been as many British-Americans as German-Americans in Chicago.  Were the Germans less prejudiced?  We think that is unlikely.  They probably were just poorer.

A pattern of the poor marrying the poor, no matter what their ethnicity, had long existed in other big cities.  In New York, for example, there were cases as early as the 1850s of Irish and Chinese peddlers marrying each other::

"Of the many Chinamen in New York not a few keep cigar stands upon the sidewalks. Their neighbors in
trade are the Milesian [Irish] apple-women. Twenty-eight of these apple-women have gone the way of
matrimony with their elephant-eyed, olive-skinned contemporaries, and the most of them are now happy
mothers in consequence." (Harper's 1857)

It is possible that early Chicago witnessed a similar pattern.  The rich could marry their own kind.  The impoverished had to choose mates for reasons other than ethnicity.

[Interracial marriage has increased in more recent decades, especially among those born in America.  In a 2005 article, C. N. Le shows that in 2000, 19.3% of married American-raised Chinese males had white wives, while 29.9% of married American-raised Chinese females had white husbands.  Interestingly, American-raised Koreans and Filipinos both had even higher rates of marrying European-American spouses.]

Peggy Spitzer Christoff, Tracking the "Yellow Peril," pp 77-143 (Rockport, Maine: The Picton Press).  ISBN 0-89725-410-4.

Harper’s Weekly, October 3, 1857, page 630

Le, C.N. 2005. "Interracial Dating & Marriage: U.S.-Raised Asian Americans" in Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America.