Sinophobia, Orientalism, and the “perpetual foreigners”
Before I jump into all the historical atrocities the US has done to my people, I need to define some key concepts about the racism that Chinese people experience. These concepts are Orientalism, Sinophobia, and the “perpetual foreigner.”
Edward Said wrote a book called Orientalism in 1978. If you remember, I started reading this book before my trip to South East Asia and East Asia to open up my mindset and hopefully become conscious of some of the Western biases I have had towards Asia.
Orientalism informs much of how the West currently perceives the East. Orientalism is “a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness.” Said expands and says Orientalism “can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient.” In other words, the Orient was a system for constructing and portraying the Orient in a specific way to the West. It was a way to manage the Orient and rule over the Orient by inventing their own ideas about what the Orient was.
I must stress that Orientalism is not a neutral encompassing term to describe Eastern culture. Orientalism is what the West “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, and scientifically” imagined the East to be. The Orient was often the West imposing images of the Orient onto it. Chunjie Zhang writes that these images “had less to do with the reality than the rhetoric control and subjugation.”
Orientalism wasn’t simply about portraying the Orient in a specific light but was how the West could use that image to dominate, restructure, and have authority other the “Others”. Said expands on this saying that:
The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony, and is quite accurately indicated in the title of K.M. Panikkar’s classic Asia and Western Dominance. The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be – that is, submitted to being – made Oriental.
This means that Orientalism is a tool and a system to establish power dynamics of the West over the Orient. It created these images of exotic people, backward culture, exaggerated poverty, loose morals, and all the other dehumanizing ideas to justify authority and rule over the Orient. It was directly connected to the West’s hegemony that relied on upholding white supremacy. Here the Orient could be constructed as immoral and therefore unacceptable to have as the global hegemony. The Orient that the West created was used to example why white Europeans were superior and deserved to be the global hegemons.
The second term I need to discuss is Sinophobia. This is simply anti-Chinese sentiment which can be towards China the government, Chinese people, and overseas Chinese people. Sino comes from the Greek prefix “Sinai-“ which means Chinese.
Sinophobia often shows itself in racial slurs like Chinaman, ching chong, chink, Cheena, and others slurs that usually refer to other Asian ethnic groups but get conflated with Chinese people. Sinophobia manifests itself in the fear of rich (or poor) Asians coming to the West just to have anchor babies, of too many Asians getting into Ivy leagues college, of Asians taking over Silicon Valley and the tech industries, and of needy immigrants and refugees fleeing Burma and Malaysia.
Sinophobia is also the exaggerated negative depictions and feelings towards China. For instance, viewing China as immoral, stagnated, devilishly corrupt, or overtly totalitarian beyond the actuality is a form of Sinophobia that has been in practice since the 1700s. Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher, wrote extensively on how China was “the biggest failure in the course of history of humanity.” He said they were a stagnant mummy culture with no “organic drive [or] ability to innovate and improve [the] arts” and that “the Chinese are doomed to be a degenerated slave culture because, like the Jews, they avoid contacts and exchange with other nations.” This kind of Sinophobia is still prevalent today. China is often conveyed with negative depictions of cheapness, decadent materialism, totalitarianism, and immoral poverty.
While Orientalism and Sinophobia impact me usually in broader worldviews, the “perpetual foreigner” is a phenomenon I am much more familiar with. The perpetual foreigner is a stereotype that “posits that members of ethnic minorities will always be seen as the ‘other’ in the White Anglo-Saxon dominant society of the United States.” The stereotype means that members of ethnic groups such as Asian Americans and Latinx are often “innocuously denied the American identity” because “being ‘American’ is equated with being White.” Because American is often equated with being white, that means ethnic groups subjected to the perpetual foreigner are always seen as “somehow less American than European Americans.”
I have been subjected to this often. Asians, such as I, whether we are from the United States, Europe, or Australia, are always seen as perpetual foreigners. We are seen as not truly American in the West’s eyes. We are not seen as full persons to the extent that white people are.
We are seen as immigrants whether it was through recent immigration or through immigration generations ago, but nevertheless, a factor that means we don’t truly belong to this country. This is a contradiction seeing as the only people who are indigenous to this land are Native Americans. However, the Western hegemony created a false narrative that this land belongs to white people and so only white people are the true Americans.
This has manifested in many Asian Americans, Arab, and Latinx people being told at some point to “go back to where they came from.” It means many people, like me, get complimented on their English, are asked about their hometown with the assumption that it is not in the US, and get spoken to in non-English languages that the person assumes to be your native language. It also comes in the form of people assuming you grew up in a foreign country and thinking you are of that culture rather than being culturally American.
These three concepts and stereotypes will pop-up frequently in the history of Chinese people in the West. Often the racism we encounter comes from Orientalized perceptions and depictions of Chinese people, of Sinophobic attacks and rhetoric, and perpetual foreigner stereotyping.
From the beginning, we would always be inferior to the white people
Chinese people have resided in North America since the 1500s when the Spanish were ruling over the Philippines and sailing from the Philippines to Mexico. By the 1700s, Chinese people had settled in what is now California but then was still Mexico. Throughout most of the 18th century, most Chinese people in America were sailors and young Chinese boys brought over by American missionaries. The first major immigration wave for Chinese people wasn’t until the 19th century when the California gold rush hit, the First Transcontinental railroad needed labor, along with plantations in the south during the Civil War.
With the entry of Chinese migrants came a flood of racism and discrimination towards Chinese people that would come to be an ever-present reality for Chinese-Americans.
1853: People v. Hall
In 1853, the California Gold Rush was in full swing and Chinese migrants were immigrating to the US. George Hall, a white man, killed Ling Sing, a Chinese miner. The case was brought to trial and Hall was convicted on testimonies from Chinese witnesses. The California Supreme Court reversed the conviction on Hall that he was guilty of murdering Sing. This was on the grounds that testimonies from Chinese people are inadmissible in court. Specifically, the court cited that Chinese people are an “inferior caste of people who are non-citizens.” Mr. Ch. J. Murray delivered the opinion of the court stating that no person of color “shall be allowed to testify as witness in any action or aproceeding in which a white person is a party.”
This case is believed to be the root of the phrase “Chinaman’s chance” which meant little or no chance at all. The phrase referred to the fact that Chinese people had little chance of success in the American justice system. Chinese people were often targeted for murder because the murderers knew they would get away with it in court.
1871: Chinese Massacre of 1871
On October 24th, 1871, a race riot broke out in Los Angeles against Chinese people. An estimated 500 white men and women gathered in Negro Alley where a majority of the Chinese population in LA lived. That mob was nearly one-tenth of the entire Los Angeles population at the time. The mob quite viciously ransacked every Chinese building, hung dead Chinese people from roofs and wagons. After the night, there were seventeen dead bodies laid out in two rows in the jail yard. It was the largest mass lynching in American history at that point.
Of course, no one was charged with murder. There were 25 indictments of murder for the seventeen victims but only nine of the men stood trial. Seven of the nine were convicted of manslaughter with sentences from two years to six years. The charges were overturned though because of alleged legal errors in the paperwork and failure to produce evidence that one of the victims was killed. The defendants were never re-tried and so the massacre essentially disappeared.
1880: Denver Chinatown riot
I wrote about Denver’s Chinatown riot in 1880 in my post called Colorado Was Made White. Below is the excerpt on the riot.
The anti-Chinese sentiment in Denver reached a peak on October 31st, 1880 with Denver’s first race riot and “one of the worst anti-Chinese incidents in the American West.” It began in a pool-hall where two Chinese men were chased out of the saloon and assaulted. This led to a mob of 3,000, mostly Irish, workers burning down the businesses and homes in Chinatown and assaulting Chinese people.
The damage from the riot is estimated at $53,000, which is more than $1.3 million in today’s currency. The Chinese consul in San Francisco requested reparations from the government, but they denied the request. The violence also resulted in the death of Sing Lee which Mark R. Ellis describes here:
When the mob found Sing Lee, a laundryman, they pounced on him, kicking him as he lay on the ground. The helpless laundryman was dragged down the street with a rope around his neck and eventually was beaten to death.
On our tour, we walked in silence along the path that Sing Lee was dragged down. It was a long and somber path. Nowadays, the St. Patty’s Parade celebrates every year down the same street where the Chinatown used to stand, burned down by Irish workers. There’s a small plaque on the side of a bar that summarizes the events and names the few white Denverites who came to the Chinese people’s rescue. That’s all that signifies this history took place. On our tour, we paused at the sign but quickly left because someone had thrown up on the sidewalk in front of the plaque.
1882: Chinese Exclusion Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act is one of the more well-known anti-Chinese incidents in US history. It was the first time “federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities.” The act also barred all State and Federal courts from granting citizenship through naturalization to Chinese residents. In 1884, the act was amended “with a clarification that it applie[d] to any and all ethnic Chinese, regardless of their country of origin or citizenship.” This amendment barred anyone from the Chinese diaspora from entering the US. The amendment also barred Chinese wives from entering or re-entering the US and banned miscegenation.
The exclusion act was contested in court in 1889. In the case Chae Chan Ping v. US, the “Supreme court [upheld] the constitutionality of Chinese exclusion laws, ruling that all ethnic Chinese may be barred from entry into the US on the grounds that they [were] inassimilable.”
The act was set to expire in 10 years, 1892, but was renewed by the Geary Act. The Geary Act renewed it for another 10 years and also added that Chinese residents had to register and obtain a certificate of residence or they would be deported. In 1904, the Geary Act was amended so that instead of expiring in 10 years, it would continue indefinitely.
The Geary Act wouldn’t have to continue indefinitely though because, in 1924, the US adopted the Johnson Reed Act, or the Immigration Act of 1924, that focused on quotas to regulate immigration. While it may seem like the quota-based system would let a small number of Asian immigrants into the country, it didn’t because it only allowed immigration for people who were eligible for naturalization. Asians and all non-white immigrants were not eligible for naturalization because of the Naturalization Act of 1790. Therefore, the Immigration Act of 1924 still barred Chinese people from entering the US.
In 1943, Congress repealed all the exclusionary acts and set a limit of 105 Chinese people yearly for immigration to the US. It wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965 that the very strict regulation on solely Chinese people was lifted. But it wasn’t truly until the Immigration Act of 1990 that the immigration changed from quotas to more flexible family and employment-based standards.
1885-1886: Rock Springs Massacre, Tacoma, Seattle, Newcastle, and Issaquah
Throughout this two year period, anti-Chinese race riots broke out in Rock Springs, Wyoming and in cities in Washington. White miners killed 28 Chinese people in the Rock Springs Massacre and wounded 15 more. The US Secretary of State at the time, Thomas F. Bayard, responded to the incident and placed blame on the Chinese people saying they were “different” and “inassimilable.”
In many of the cities in Washington, white miners burned down the Chinese miners’ homes. In Tacoma, a mob of people including the mayor of Tacoma marched the Chinese people to the railroad station and forced them to board a train to Portland.
1898: United States v. Wong Kim Ark
In 1898, a twenty-one-year-old San Francisco-born Chinese American citizen, Wong Kim Ark, was denied re-entry into the US after a short trip to China. Under the grounds of the 14th Amendment, Wong was a US citizen because he was born in the United States. However, he was denied re-entry because customs claimed he was not a citizen. Wong brought his case to court and it went all the way up to the Supreme Court.
The lawyers arguing against Wong stated that “although being born in the city and country of San Francisco, state of California, United States of America,” because his mother and father are “Chinese persons and subjects of the emperor of China” and because “Wong Kim Ark being also a Chinese person” he was not subject to the jurisdiction of the US and therefore not a US citizen. In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court decided Wong was not a citizen. They declared that only children born in the US to foreign nationals are considered citizens if their parents are either foreign diplomats or “nationals of an enemy nation that is engaged in a hostile occupation of the country’s territory.”
This case set a precedent for “denying US-born Chinese reentry and citizenship on grounds of their ethnicity.”
1900: The turn of the century
Sinophobia in the US and Europe was at its peak at the turn of the century. Signs were posted around the US saying, “no dogs or Chinese allowed” and many caricatures of Chinese people in the media were proliferating. Europe described Chinese people as the “soldier-ants” of China and proclaimed how they were worried about an incoming “vast ant-heap.”
In 1913, California passed the first alien land law which prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” the right to own or lease land. This law was aimed at Asians, largely Chinese, immigrants. Arizona, Washington, Louisiana, Wyoming, Kansas, Florida, and New Mexico all passed similar laws. PBS states that “Florida and New Mexico still have alien laws written into their state constitution.”
And in 1923, Canada passed their version of the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned most Chinese immigration to Canada.
Anti-Chinese sentiment calmed down a bit as more racist attention shifted to Japanese Americans and China was an ally to the US in World War II.
1982: Vincent Chin
On June 19th, 1982, Vincent Chin was at a bar in Detroit for his bachelor’s party celebrating his wedding with his friend and best man, Gary Koivu. He was 27 years old Chinese American man who worked as a draftsman for an engineering firm. At the bar, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz approached Chin and said, “Because of little mother fuckers like you, a lot of Americans are losing their jobs.” The two white men, Ebens and Nitz worked in the auto industry which was experiencing layoffs. Ebens and Nitz attributed the layoffs to the rise in Japanese auto.
Later outside, one of the men went to their car and pulled out a baseball bat. They found Chin and started swinging the bat at him. Koivu recalled that the man “was swinging the baseball bat like he was swinging for a home run.” Chin’s head was cracked open and he died three days later. He was buried on the day he was supposed to get married.
Evens and Nitz “never denied the acts, but they insisted that the matter was simply a bar brawl that had ended badly for one of the parties.” The two pleaded to manslaughter and were sentenced to three-year probation and fined $3,000.
1989: Jim Loo
On July 29th, 1989, Chinese-American Jim Loo was shot at a pool hall in Raleigh, North Carolina. The two white men, Lloyd and Robert Piche reportedly shouted, “We shouldn’t put up with Vietnamese in our country” and said Loo was responsible for American soldiers’ deaths in Vietnam. Piche was sentenced to 37 years in prison and Lloyd was sentenced to 4 years in prison.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, Asians were discriminated against and revoked civil rights on the grounds that they were too foreign and different (Orientalism) or pests infiltrating the US (Sinophobia). They were seen as less than citizens and not afforded the same rights as white people. The murders of Chinese people were not seen as worthy of just trails and sentences. And the work they produced or simply their mere presence in the US was seen as a threat which justified terrible violent attacks.
Racism is a wheel
“The problem for citizens who are African American, Arab American, Iranian American, Latino or South Asian is that we have seen racism come in cycles — rise, then decline only to rise up again.”
What people of color have come to understand racism in the West, and particularly in the United States, is that racism is a circle. It perpetually turns on itself and while it may seem like the weight seems to lift and the racism lessens, the wheel will turn, and we’ll find ourselves back at what seems all too familiar. Miah pointed out in Against the Current magazine that “Japanese Americans were accepted for decades as ‘loyal’ – until they were interned during WWII.”
This wheel becomes all too transparent when incidents like when Carl Higbie, a spokesman for pro-Trump Great America PAC, said on Fox News that Japanese Internment camps set a “precedent” for the Muslim registry Trump proposed. Or when Trump stated in Time magazine that he did not know “whether he would have supported or opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.” And then on MSNBC refused to say “whether or not the internment violated American values.”
What people of color have come to realize is that we are often the scapegoats when the West’s white supremacy is threatened. When – in the global political order, the auto industry, the mining boom, labor, or oil – the white power is threatened by incoming people of color, we should expect to see a violent backlash.
“Xenophobia is not a trial to be endured, but a game of Russian roulette that could fall on any minority group at any time.” – Khoi B
That wheel is slowly turning again for Chinese people. The rise of China is threatening the white Western world order and, as has come to be expected, the slow uproar is beginning.
Current Hates Crimes
In 1996, the SF Gate reported that hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 17% that year. The article quoted Victor Hwang, director of the Asian Law Caucus, who said: “the statistics reflect increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in politics and in communities undergoing dramatic demographic shifts.” They cited an incident with Sylvia Kim who was attacked on May 4th of that year. Kim, a 62-year-old Korean woman, was reportedly “thrown against a wall and kicked by a clean-cut Caucasian man in his 20’s.” The man yelled “My mother is not Chinese, but I know you are!” at her. Kim had to be hospitalized for a week and get her hip replaced because of the attack.
The wheel turns to the report from the 2015 Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations that found hate crimes targeting Asian Americans tripled between 2014 and 2015. Although these statistics are predicted to be low because Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders underreport hate crimes and attacks because “they feel intimidated by law enforcement or are afraid of being seen as overly sensitive.”
John Yang, president and executive director of Asian American Advancing Justice, concernedly said, “We are seeing quite a number… higher than we have seen in the past, and disturbing in terms of the scope, geographically, and the types that we have seen.”
NPR highlighted one of the more recent attacks between an older white man and an Asian American woman in San Francisco. The man “pretended to hit her over the head with a book” and yelled “I hate your fucking race. We’re in charge of this country now.”
On December 12th, 2018 in New York City, a video clip when viral when 40-year-old Anna Lushchinskaya assaulted an Asian woman on the subway train. She yelled “fuck off” and started kicking the Asian woman, hitting her with an umbrella and keys. Then the woman started spitting on her and said, “fucking chink,” which made the whole train car erupt in anger. Lushchinskaya was arrested when she got off the train and charged with felony assault.
Of course, the hate crimes have been accompanied by racist rhetoric. During the 2016 presidential election, politicians were heavily defending their use of the word “anchor babies” to refer to the US-born children of undocumented immigrants. Jeb Bush and Trump proudly defended their use of the term and Democratic Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid, said he wouldn’t stop using the term.
Trump, along with saying China was raping the US, mocked Chinese and Japanese businessmen at one of his campaign rallies in Iowa. He characterized them using broken English which made his audience burst out in laughter. Along the campaign trail, he also said the Philippines was a terrorist nation and that “refugees from ‘terrorist nations’ should be barred from the United States.” Trump continued saying “We’re dealing with animals” in reference to the refugees from so-called “terrorist nations.”
During this midterm election, Gregg Orton, director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said “It’s campaign season again and disappointingly we find ourselves responding to more racism and xenophobia in political ads. This has to stop.”
Orton was referencing an ad from the West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship. Blakenship accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of “getting money from his ‘China family’ and getting jobs for ‘China people’.” McConnell’s wife is Elaine Chao who is the current Secretary of Transportation. She is the first Asian American woman and first Chinese American to be appointed to the President’s Cabinet.
John Yang from Asian American Advancing Justice is prepared for a continued increase in racial discrimination going into the future. He said, “Unfortunately, when there are trade tensions or any type of economic competition between countries, and this isn’t specific to Asia or China, but generally that causes similar tensions with respect to race and ethnicity.”
A case where Sinophobia is increasing rapidly in Canada. There, Chinese people are serving as a scapegoat to a housing situation that will have echoes of past historical anti-Chinese discriminations.
In Toronto and Vancouver, housing prices are high and residents are frustrated and looking for someone to blame. While some Canadians blame desirability factors and wealthy Canadians as the cause for high house prices, a large percentage are blaming foreign investors. Specifically, rich Chinese investors and migrants. The National Post cited a 2018 survey from the Angus Reid Institute that reported that 59% of Vancouver residents blame foreign investors and 42% of Toronto residents.
John Andrew, a professor at Queen’s University, said the blame is misplaced though and that residents are using foreign investors as a scapegoat. He said that the percentage of foreign investors “was never more than five percent and now that number has dropped to two and a half percent.” In 2017, Ontario implemented a 15% tax on foreign buyers which lowered prices temporarily. However, the prices rose again because, as Andrew said, “the [foreign investors] was never a significant factor.” Henry Yu, a historian, said that in this case, “blaming foreigners – blaming the Chinese is actually a red herring.”
Even though it’s been debunked that the rising housing market is not due to Chinese immigrants, that hasn’t stopped racially motivated attacks and threats.
A 2016 study from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada reported that 46% of Canadians thought the growing number of Chinese people was a “threat to the country’s values and way of life.”
In November of 2016, the organization Immigration Watch Canada distributed propagandistic flyers calling on Vancouver’s white people to “stop the ‘plundering of Canada’ by ‘recently-arrived tens of thousands of wealthy Chinese.’” While it may be tempting to pass off the flyers are meaningless, Ryan Schrivens, a Ph.D. scholar studying extremism and activism, said: “the flyers were significant as it was the first time in memory that a hate message had call the Chinese a threat to white Canada.”
On September 23rd, 2018, Winnie Wu received a racist threatening letter to her realty office. It was addressed to “Winnie Wu and all other Asian realtors in our cities.” The letter said:
You have invaded, infested and defaced Vancouver with your presence, systematically spreading uninvited into its neighboring cities. Including Coquitlam and beyond, like a sea of marauding ants. The citizens who belong here, who were here long before you people pushed your way in, have no use for you. There is hatred beneath the surface. Believe it… We are merely being ‘politically correct’.
Realtors reported feeling worried and concerned for their safety after the letter. This act was not alone either with a Crazy Rich Asian billboard being vandalized on August 1st. Constance Wu, the female lead had the words “stupid chinx” on her face and “money laundering thiefs” on her arm. Henry Golding, the male lead, had “pathetic” on his face.
All this has been bubbling to the surface because the white Canadian populace is feeling a growing threat from the new Chinese migrants. Importantly, it’s not a poor class of Chinese migrants, although historically there is an Orientalist stereotyping of poor Chinese migrants as dirty and foreign.
No, this new migrant class is more threatening because they are wealthy. Victor Wong, the Executive Director of the Chinese Canadian National Council said that “the new Chinese have upset many Canadian’s long-held image of the migrant who started life at the bottom. There is racism in some of that resentment.” As I mentioned in Part II, the migration of wealthy Chinese people is more of a threat because they are “infiltrating the wealth class that ‘de jure’ belongs to white Westerners.”
This situation in Canada can be seen as a petri dish of the larger shifting global system. The white West is feeling threatened by the rising wealthy Chinese populace. In response, the West doesn’t stop and reflect or try to think diplomatically but resorts to scapegoats, fear-mongering, and racism to try and protect their white Western hegemony. For denizens, the extreme violent culminations are physical attacks that sometimes end in death. In the realm of global affairs, the extreme violent culmination of the threats, the fear, and the rhetoric can be war.
The final section will be a shorter section. I’ll add my two cents on what I predict will happen in the next few years and end this series with concluding thoughts and advice on how to prepare for the future years.
Part V will be released on Sunday, December 30th, 2018.
 Edward Said, Orientalism, (Toronto: Random House, Inc., 1978), 3.
 Chunjie Zhang, From Sinophilia to Sinophobia: China, History, and Recognition, Colloquia Germanica 41, no.2 (2008): 97-110.
 Edward Said, Orientalism, 2.
 Que-Lam Huynh, Thierry Devos, and Laura Smalarz, “Perpetual Foreigner in One’s Own Land: Potential Implications for Identity and Psychological Adjustment,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 30, no. 2 (2011): 133-162.
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 Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract, (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1997), 81.
 Ibid., 114.
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