To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the Center for Women’s History is diving into the story behind a photograph from the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library collection of the Morning Star Mission in 1916, showing several tables of young Chinese girls sewing under the supervision of three white women. How, and when, did Chinese women come to live in New York City, and what were their lives like?
Located on Doyers Street in Chinatown, the Mission was founded in 1892 by white missionary Helen F. Clark and the Woman’s American Baptist Mission Society, according to religious historian Timothy Tseng. The mission occupied different spaces on Doyers Street during its tenure, sharing buildings with, among other things, a restaurant, a barber shop, a social club, and crowded tenement apartments.
When this photograph was taken in 1916, the mission was run by the Reverend Lee To, father of Chinese American suffragist Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. Mabel Lee advocated for women’s suffrage in The Chinese Students’ Monthly, gave speeches on women’s equality, and helped lead the 1912 suffrage parade in New York City. Lee’s mother and other women from Chinatown participated in the parade as well. Mabel Lee would study first at Barnard College and then obtain her Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University, becoming the first Chinese woman to earn a doctorate in the US.
Chinese women in New York and the growth of Chinatown
But when did Chinese women first arrive in the city? Afong Moy was the first recorded woman from China to arrive in New York in 1834, brought over as a visitor as part of a marketing ploy by American merchants. Her arrival was reported in newspapers, and New Yorkers went to see her in an exhibition space surrounded by imported Chinese goods, as scholar Tao Zhang has detailed. Over 2,000 visitors paid to view Moy in one week. After leaving New York, Moy toured as far south as New Orleans and as far north as Boston. In 1850, showman P.T. Barnum arranged for two Chinese men and two Chinese women to be displayed at his temporary Chinese Museum on Broadway. Much like Moy, Miss Pwan Ke-Yoo and her maidservant Lum-Akum became curiosities for Americans, who viewed them as exotic “others.”
Small numbers of Chinese immigrants began to arrive in New York in the 1850s, and more followed in the later decades of the 19th century. First primarily based in the mixed-race working-class seaport district of the Fourth Ward, Chinese immigrants increasingly resided in the Sixth Ward, which began to be identified as “Chinatown” in the 1880s according to Mary Ting Yi Lui. Chinese immigrants worked as everything from grocers to to merchants to boarding house operators to cigar makers. Despite the name Chinatown, the area included a diverse community of people: Chinese and non-Chinese residents, with both native-born whites and European immigrants. And the majority of Chinese New Yorkers did not live in Chinatown, although many relied on it as a source for Chinese goods as well as the base for many Chinese American social, cultural, and political institutions. By the 1890s, the neighborhood held a number of working-class nightclubs and saloons owned by both Chinese and white proprietors and serving racially-mixed clientele. A tourism industry emerged with restaurants appealing to white middle-class New Yorkers and tours offered by local white working-class men. These neighborhoods took hold within the city despite restrictive federal immigration laws.
The Page Act (1875), Chinese Exclusion (1882), and the Cable Act (1922)
The first waves of Chinese immigration to the U.S. consisted predominantly of men coming to work in the gold and silver mines in the American West and to construct the transcontinental railroad. Some would also work in the newly-established Chinese communities as merchants offering items from home, or would find work as laundry workers or domestic help. Once established in the new country, more brought their wives and children. However, anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in restrictive local, state, and finally federal laws culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned Chinese immigrants, except for those with elite status, and denied citizenship status to those already living in the U.S. and its territories.
Chinese women faced additional scrutiny from the 1875 Page Act. Passed seven years before Chinese Exclusion became national policy, the Page Act limited Chinese women’s ability to emigrate. Focused on human trafficking, the act prohibited involuntary immigration from Asian countries and also the immigration of Chinese women for the purpose of prostitution. Chinese women became a target for western social reformers and anti-Chinese politicians who saw them as symbols of “social decay and “moral and racial pollution in America,”as Erica Lee writes.
Some Chinese women did arrive through trafficking, as both indentured servants and prostitutes. Once in the U.S., marriage could ultimately provide a way out of prostitution or servitude. However all prospective female Chinese immigrants were treated as potential prostitutes, interrogated, and often unfairly detained or denied entry into the U.S. For example, a 1906 Compilation of Facts Concerning the Enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Laws assumed that “most if not all ‘wives'” would be sold into prostitution.
Immigration officials scrutinized women’s clothing, whether they had traveled first-class, and if they had bound feet, to determine whether women were of elite social status. Required to submit photographs of themselves along with their paperwork, some presented portraits that offered additional clues to their class, such as in this photograph of Chin Hong Sze, the wife of a New York merchant who operated a store on Mott Street.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act also affected Chinese women differently than men. Chinese women did not fit into most of the exempted categories of the Exclusion Act (merchants, government officials, teachers, and students). Women could attempt to enter the country as independent or dependent immigrants, but most entered as dependents. They relied on husbands or fathers to sponsor them, and then had to prove not only the status of the sponsor, but the validity of their relationship to him.
Although the 1922 Cable Act gained praise from white feminists as it offered most American women married to foreigners the ability to retain citizenship, the law did not apply to women marrying “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” Chinese American women born in the U.S. who married Chinese immigrants would lose their citizenship, hindering their ability to reenter the country if they left, especially if they became a widow or got divorced.
Women in Chinatown
According to the 1910 Census, around 5,000 men of Chinese descent lived in New York City, but only 201 women. By 1920, the number of men had basically stayed the same, but the number of women more than doubled. Despite that continued gender imbalance, Chinatown was not completely devoid of women: Many white women in both formal and informal interracial relationships resided in the neighborhood.
Unlike many western and southern states with anti-miscegenation laws, New York permitted interracial marriage. Chinese Exclusion limited the ability of Chinese laborers to meet and marry Chinese women, and many instead entered into relationships with white women. The 1900 census records, as analyzed by Lui, show that of the 133 marriages in Chinatown, 51 were between Chinese men and Chinese women, but 82 were between Chinese men and non-Chinese women. Most of the women in these interracial marriages were white, but a small number were Black. Forty percent of the mixed-race couples had children. By 1910, the number of interracial marriages declined, but still made up approximately half of the marriages in the neighborhood. Although contemporary newspaper coverage of the time often depicted a homogeneous neighborhood of single Chinese men, the reality was much more diverse racially and sexually. Over 60 percent of interracial families lived in buildings with at least four other mixed-race families. These families socialized together, but also participated in the larger communities of Chinatown.
White women in relationships with Chinese men were often depicted in newspapers as prostitutes, drug addicts, or morally weak, and their relationships treated as suspect. In 1909, a local police captain declared a “crusade” to remove all unmarried white women living in Chinatown. That same year, Elsie Siegel, a white Protestant missionary was found murdered in an uptown room rented by a Chinese man. The incident spurred more policing, both of white women in Chinatown and also of Chinese men outside of the neighborhood. The area became seen more in a stereotypical light as solely occupied by Chinese, mostly unmarried Chinese men and a few families of Chinese merchants with their Chinese wives. The photographs of the sewing class at the Morning Star Mission date to this period of transition—and challenge this perception.
Children and the Morning Star Mission
The Morning Star Mission offered not only religious services, but community activities from lectures to meetings of the Chinese Boy Scout troop to a kindergarten for Chinese children. A 1910 article about the kindergarten described two classes of approximately 40 children between ages three and six, and noted that while some children wore American-style clothing, others had Chinese-style dress of tunics and loose pants. The class was taught in English, though the teachers noted that most children spoke little to no English upon entering the school.
The teachers also expressed a desire to “Americanize [the students] in every particular” with American games, songs, history, and “deportment.” However, they also stated that they preferred to use the students’ given names, as opposed to the anglicized names many had adopted.
It seems likely that at least some of the sewing class students attended this kindergarten. Although most of the girls in the sewing class photograph appear to be wearing American-style clothing—skirts and blouses, or gingham dresses with cardigans and large hair ribbons—at least one seems dressed in a more Chinese-style, with a loose shirt or tunic, and possibly loose fitting pants.
The girls at the leftmost table in the original photograph appear to be sewing larger items, at least one in a gingham pattern, suggesting they might be making clothing, although the image below reveals that the table also holds drawstring bags, perhaps made to store sewing tools and half-finished work. Other lace trimmed smaller fabric pieces look more like decorative household items.
The girls might have had Christian parents who also attended the mission, or perhaps simply had parents interested in having their children learn to sew. They could have been the children of Chinese fathers and mothers, or have had Chinese fathers and white mothers. As Chinese and Chinese American girls living in New York, the girls would live with multiple cultural standards and expectations. And they surely varied in how they viewed themselves and their place within both Chinatown and New York. Their presence challenges the contemporary presentations of Chinatown as an immoral haven of opium smoking and corruption, and offer historians a more nuanced reflection of this community.
Written by Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History.