There is no racial minority in America other than Asians ‘” especially the Chinese ‘” that suffered from such an economically and scientifically justified form of racism. While the plight of the Native Americans was justified on the basis of religion, that the plague they suffered was from a vengeful God, and while the slavery of blacks was viewed right due to the cultural and technological superiority of the European empires, the racialization and the discrimination of the Chinese was supported by the ideals of American labor unions and by medical knowledge of health and sanitation. Chinese, working for wages lower than what the white American public could barely fathom, were viewed as an economic threat and thus ignored, vilified, alienated, and attacked. They were viewed as health hazards, threatening white America with syphilis, tuberculosis, the bubonic plague and other diseases. Medical records and labor propaganda created an image of Chinese as filthy prostitutes and as opium-smoking slackers who all lived densely in a disease-ridden apartments, practicing leprous hygiene practices.
The extent of this racism is explored by Nayan Shah in his research book Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco Chinatown. Using the voice of white health inspectors and labor unions, Shah explores how the Chinese were depicted and treated by the white society of San Francisco. Writing with an authoritative tone that could be found in history textbooks, Shah tells his readers of how Chinatown in San Francisco was constantly under investigation by the California Board of Health and by the Public Health Service as it was viewed to be a “labyrinth [of] hundreds of underground passageway connecting to the filthy ‘˜cellars’ and cramped ‘˜garrets’ where Chinese men lived” (page 17). In fact, this view, that Chinatown was a filthy “self-contained and alien society in turn justified ‘˜recurring rounds’ of policing, investigations, and statistical surveys that ‘˜scientifically corroborated the racial classification.” In the reports of white health inspectors, the Chinese “were likened to a wide array of animals, including rats, hogs, and, cattle” (28) all the animals that loved filth and possessed inhuman qualities. Viewed to be so dangerous, hospital plans for the Chinese people were abandoned and ignored, garbage services were not provided, and working environments contained an air of insecurity since a Chinese could easily lose his/her job if there was a tiny hint of him/her being unclean. Shah though authoritative, satirizes these white medical perceptions by quoting them and his tone strongly implies how wrong and racist those perceptions were.
According to Shah, neglect was not the only form of discrimination the Chinese suffered from this label. When Chung Giag died in 1900 and the white physicians stated the cause of death as a result of the bubonic plague, the Public Health Service for the first time in history, quarantined all of Chinatown, letting only whites leave the sector. Bubonic plague was labeled as an exclusively Chinese disease and quarantine was based on racial sectors. Whites in the quarantined districts were unaffected. Even when white man and woman contacted the plague, “public health authorities tried to find a ‘˜Chinese connection’; the two most popular were proximity to Chinatown and physical contact with the Chinese” (149). Isolating the Chinese and not letting the Chinese get out of Chinatown by requiring a mandatory vaccination shot, this health labeling hurt not only the Chinese business but furthered the deaths of the Chinese and ultimately, the progress and the intensity of the plague. Though Shah doesn’t bring up any accounts and reports that oppose the claims of the white health officials (perhaps there wasn’t any?), by connecting the destructive causes and effects of such health methods, he shows how wrong it was to treat an epidemic on the basis of racial standards.
As Shah delves into the different ways the Chinese in San Francisco were labeled and treated, including how “campaigns on the Pacific coast by labor organizations and sympathetic newspapers to limit Asian Indian immigration” (190) led to the forced medical examination, diagnosis, and deportation of Asian immigrants in Angel Island, Shah repeatedly brings up his most important argument in the book: why such racialization occurred. As he explores the issue of the Chinese plight in white San Francisco, he tries to answer the question of why, unlike any other races and unlike any other classes, so much evidence was used to justify unjust treatments of an entire ethnic group. Shah argues that in the white middle class society where the nuclear family was considered the norm, “those who [did] not fit the model of Chinese family society ‘” namely, Chinese bachelors and female prostitutes ‘” [were] represented as threats and aliens to the American social order” (16). Asian immigrants were the only minority in America that voluntarily came from such a conspicuously foreign culture, ending up in apartment buildings without much familial ties, where men lived with men and women and children not connected by blood ate together.
Such “queer domesticity” went against the norms of the white middle-class society, which had defined roles for different genders. All the norms of the white society ‘” marriage, housewives, heads of households, obedient sons and daughters ‘” were violated by the Chinese, since the men didn’t marry, the children often worked, and the few women in America were involved in the business of prostitution. Shah repeatedly argues this point to tell his audience ‘” who are probably already well aware of Chinese plight in American history ‘” that the way Chinese were treated and labeled had much more to do than just race. Living in a time where homosexuality and deviant gender roles were scorned upon, the Chinese, by violating the norms of gender and sexuality, became to be seen as threats to the white social norms and thus racialized.
Taking Shah’s argument into consideration, it becomes crucial to see that the history of Chinese Americans in San Francisco and all of America had more to do the issue of fitting into the social norms than a simple issue of inherent racism. As the Chinese men lived together in dense quarters, they were viewed as homosexuals, deviants of the norm. The Chinese men existing as bachelors (though married back home in China) provided alternatives to white men and that was what was so threatening about this new sexuality role. Men were supposed to marry and become the heads of the households; they were not supposed to live in a unisex environment. This threat to the sexuality norm fueled the “racial coding [that] was shaped and transformed by the norms of class through discourses of respectability and middle-class and by the norms of martial heterosexuality through discourses of the nuclear female formation, adult male responsibility, and female domestic caretaking” (12). As for the Chinese women, working in sweatshops, instead of doing the accepted gender role of taking care of the children in the house, they endangered the existence of a social order that promoted the housewife image of the female gender and thus labeled as prostitutes, connecting the racist attitudes to the deviances of gender and sexuality. In this sense, the way the Chinese were treated by the whites exemplifies the discriminatory intersections of the three labeling identifications which are: race, gender, and sexuality.