1903: White prostitution in eastern Chinatowns

Thursday, 23 June 2011 13:44 Amy Gwilliam
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Historians of Chinese America as well as early West Coast newspapers often note that many of the Chinese girls brought to this country in the 19th century were prostitutes.  The late Iris Chang was one such historian.  She told tragic stories of young girls forced into prostitution by criminal gangs, occasionally to be rescued by public-spirited Europeans like the courageous Donaldina Cameron of San Francisco and sometimes to find husbands among their Chinese-American (or European-American) customers.

But it is rarely noted that Chinese-American prostitutes were much less common in the Chinatowns of the eastern U.S.  There, most prostitutes were European-Americans.  As Lee Chew wrote in 1903,

"In all New York there are only thirty-four Chinese women, and it is impossible to get a Chinese woman out here unless one goes to China and marries her there, and then he must collect affidavits to prove that she really is his wife. That is in [the] case of a merchant. A laundryman can’t bring his wife here under any circumstances, and even the women of the Chinese Ambassador’s family had trouble getting in lately.

"Is it any wonder, therefore, or any proof of the demoralization of our people if some of the white women in Chinatown are not of good character? What other set of men so isolated and so surrounded by alien and prejudiced people are more moral? Men, wherever they may be, need the society of women, and among the white women of Chinatown are many excellent and faithful wives and mothers."

When he writes about women who "are not of good character," Lee Chew means prostitutes.  It is interesting that he feels obliged to add that not all white women of Chinatown were like that.  That a rather conservative Chinese immigrant like Lee Chew could affirm that some white women made excellent wives and mothers shows, first, that he was conscious of the need to be diplomatic (he was writing for a European-American magazine, after all) and, second, that in the early 1900s biracial marriages were not so rare.

Lee Chew, “The Biography of a Chinaman,” Independent, vol. 15 (19 February 1903), pp  417–423.

Iris Chang, The Chinese in America, 2003,  pp 84-98 (New York, Penguin Books).