reappropriate

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Workingmen Dear

We have been known by many names: Celestials, Chinee, Orientals, Chinamen, Chinks, Gooks, Charlies to name a few. We have endured countless stereotypes: the coolie, the clown, the rapist, the prostitute, the spy, the castrated, the hypersexualized, the kung-fu kicker, the mystery of the Orient, the enemy, the victim, the model minority. But if there is any part of our story that has remained constant, it is our close ties to issues of class, poverty and labour -- one that is frequently overshadowed by other contemporary issues in the Asian American politic.

The very entry of many Asians into the American landscape was tinged with issues of labour. Following Emancipation, White plantation owners looked Eastward for a cheap source of replacement labour, and found a number of willing, able-bodied Chinese men willing to embark around the world for a chance at a better future, attracted by promises of gold in California. Brought over through contracts that would render them indentured servants to those who paid their passage for years, by 1870, nearly 25 percent of California's work force consisted of Chinese (and only a third of them were miners; most were scrabbling as labourers for White owners, unable to raise enough capital to strike out on their own).

Chinese labourers were initially praised by White Americans. In 1852, the Daily Atla California excitedly wrote, "quite a large number of the Celestials have arrived among us of late, enticed thither by the golden romance that has filled the world... scarcely a ship arrives that does not bring an increase to this worthy integer of our population... the China boys will yet vote at the same polls, study at the same schools and bow at the same altar as our own countrymen". Between 1865 and 1869, over the Central Pacific Railroad built the first transcontinental railroad, hiring 12,000 Chinese labourers, which represented roughly 90% of the workers. CPR president, Leland Stanford, described the Chinese workforce as, "nearly equal to white men in the amount of labor they perform, and are much more reliable," saying also that we were "quite, peaceable, industrious, economical -- ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work".

Despite the initially glowing perspective of Asian American labourers, feelings towards our community quickly soured as White miners and labourers began to view Asian Americans as infiltrators, taking the jobs and money reserved for White Americans. Mistrust and intolerance of Asian Americans were triggered not just by xenophobia, but of fears that Chinese were replacing Whites in the workforce, and many lynchings of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers occurred in labour camps where tensions between White and Asians frequently boiled over (often furthered by White supervisors to keep workers distracted from banding together and striking). Yellow Peril fears mounted as Chinese labourers continued to enter this country, and White workers viewed themselves as being forced into poverty. One popular song of the 1870s documented the feelings:

O workingmen dear, and did you hear The news that's goin' around? Another China steamer Has been landed here in town. Today I read the papers, And it grieved my heart full sore To see upon the title page, "O, just 'Twelve Hundred More!'" O, California's coming down, As you can plainly see. They are hiring all the Chinamen and discharging you and me; But strife will be in every town Throughout the Pacific shore, And the cry of old and young shall be, "O, damn, 'Twelve Hundred More.'"

Plantation owners took advantage of the Chinese labourer who suffered from few legal protections, who was not considered a person under the Constitution and incapable of petitioning for citizenship, and who was frequently an indentured servant so deeply in mounting debt from their passage to America that they had no alternative but to accept work without question. Even with one of the most notable achievements of Chinese labour -- the transcontinental railroad -- we see lengths of railroad drenched with the blood of thousands of labourers. Chinese labourers were hired over White workers because the law did not require Chinese labourers to be paid board and lodging; Chinese labourers were paid a mere $31 dollars a month, cutting costs by a third. The life of the Chinese labourer was cheap: further determined to increase profits, the Central Pacific Railroad company forced the Chinese labourers to work through the winter of 1866, and many were buried alive in snowslides. Their frozen corpses were not found until the spring thaw, still clutching their shovels. Still other labourers were assigned the dangerous duty of taking sticks of dynamite deep into the sides of mountains to bore tunnels through them so that the railroad could continue its course; many labourers were killed in these mountain explosions.

With the intricate connection between the budding Asian American community and labour comes a history of Asian Americans fighting for their rights as workers. Contrary to the contemporary model minority myth which presupposes Asian Americans as quiet, unobtrusive and obedient workers (as Stanford would describe them), Asian Americans established a history of struggling for better treatment. In Hawaii sugar cane plantations, labourers from around Asia found away to combat language differences by creating a language called "pidgin", and communication laid the foundation for unification against the mistreatment by the White plantation owners. Following the winter of 1866, 5,000 Chinese labourers struck against the Central Pacific Railroad company, demanding an increase of wages from $31 dollars a month to $45 dollars a month and an eight-hour day -- the same treatment that White workers already received. Unfortunately, as American media called the strike a Chinese conspiracy, the CPR quickly broke the strike by cutting of the Chinese labourers' food supply. Starvation forced the Chinese to surrender their demands.

Until 1900, striking was a dangerous business for Asian Americans -- most were indetured labourers who had signed contracts to work for a certain number of years and could be arrested for refusing to work. In 1891, 200 Chinese labourers struck to protest unfair wage deductions in Hawaii and were greeted with a lynch mob and armed policemen who beat them with whips, dragging them from horses by their queues. Still, this did not quell Asian American demands for fair labour treatment, and by 1900, the contract-labour system was abolished, allowing Asian American labourers to strike more readily. That year, over 20 strikes were documented (arising out of ethnicity-based unions, since Asians were denied entry into the larger, more influential unions comprised of White workers), many led by Japanese workers and some involving workers of multiple Asian ethnicities banding together to demand fair treatment, despite the practice by plantation owners of hiring "scabs" of another ethnicity to break a strike.

One of the most important interethnic strikes occured on January 19, 1920. The previous year, the Japanese Federation of Labor and the Filipino Federation of Labor indepedently petitioned the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association for increased wages, eight-hour days, a retirement fund, and paid maternity leave. Both were denied, and the two labour unions soon decided to join forces. Pablo Manlapit, leader of the Filipino Federation of Labor, said, "This is the opportunity that the Japanese should grasp, to show that they are in harmony with and willing to cooperate with other nationalities in this territory... We should work on the strike shoulder to shoulder". By January 26, 1920, both unions declared a strike, and 8,300 Japanese and Filipino workers refused to work, denying the planters 77% of the entire workfoce on Oahu. Though the strike was eventually broken by the import of Korean workers, it represented one of the most important interethnic strikes in Hawaii and showed the power that workers of different ethnicities could wield by cooperating.

Filipinos were highly influential in maintaining the labour movement as Asian American workers transitioned from plantations to small farms. Filipino labourers travelled throughout the country as temporary workers, being hired as manual labour to harvest fruits and vegetables when their seasons came. Filipino farm workers were quick to form unions and strike against unfair treatment or poor wages, even in these temporary jobs that might last no more than two weeks. In the 1930s, Filipinos in Stockton and Salinas formed the 4,000 member Filipino Labor Union, which led several local strikes to demand better wages and end racial discrimination against its workers. In an effort to get local planters to recognize the union, the FLU struck in August of 1933, eventually winning a wage increase to $0.40 an hour along with union recognition. Asian Indian immigrants were also important in the labour movement involving farm workers: most Asian Indian immigrants arrived trained as farmers and were forced into the agricultural industry where they quickly replaced Chinese and Japanese workers denied entry via the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen's Agreement. Asian Indian workers were paid $0.20 to $0.25 less than other Asians, but soon interethnic cooperation was initiated between these two groups and they worked together to improve treatment of all labourers.

State and federal governments passed several laws aimed specifically at Asian miners or workers, disenfranchising them from fair treatment and work (including but not limited to taxes on foreign miners and the 1920 Alien Land Law preventing those who could not naturalize from owning land). Still, Asian Americans were able to scrabble together a decent life in the Gold Mountain. Many were eventually able to own farms by putting the land deed in the names of their American-born children or becoming tenant farmers. On Feburary 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was passed, interning coastline Japanese Americans in in-land internment camps, displacing them from their homes. Though the action was publicized as within the interest of national security, the federal government was heavily petitioned by White California farmers, interested in removing Japanese farmers from California land and claiming it for themselves. The Japanese American community suffered huge financial loss as a result of this loss of land.

The racial intolerance of Asian Americans in this country has long been connected to labour issues, and strikers were frequently treated with racially tinted treatment, including signs that read, "This is a White Man's Country. Get Out of Here if You Don't Like What We Pay." Even the hate crime that galvanized the Asian American community in the 1980's -- the murder of Vincent Chin -- was triggered by fears that Asian companies were putting White carmakers out of business.

Post-1965, the Asian American community has been re-defined as bourgeousie, middle-class, wealthy and well-educated. We remain resistant to speaking out, complacent in our role as the "model minority". We remember those distinctly Asian adages, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered" and forget the history that our community has with labour movement and struggles for workers' rights. Racial intolerance continues to plague our community, and we still face severe, racially-motivated mistreatment in the workplace, a finding documented in the classical study by Cabezas and Kawaguchi in 1988. Ronald Takaki cites the study in Strangers From a Different Shore:

Actually, in terms of personal incomes, Asian Americans have not reached equality. In 1980 the mean personal income for white men in California was $23,400. While Japanese men earned a comparable income, they did so only by acquiring more education (17.7 years compared to 16.8 years for white men twenty-five to forty-five years old) and by working more hours (2,160 hours compared to 2,120 hours for white men in the same age category)... Income inequalities for other men were m,ore evident: Korean men earned only $19,200 or 82 percent of the income of white men, Chinese men only $15,900 or 68 percent, and Filipino men only $14,500 or 62 percent...

The patterns of income inequality for Asian men reflect a structural problem: Asians tend to be located in the labor market's secondary sector, where wages are low and promotional prospects minimal. Asian men are clustered as janitors, machinists, postal clerks, technicians, waiters, cooks, gardneres, and computer programmers; they can also be found in the primary sector, but here they are found mostly in the lower-tier levels as architects, engineers, computer-system analysts, pharmacists, and schoolteachers, rather than in the upper-tier levels of management and decision making. "Labor market segmentation and restricted mobility between sectors," observed social scientists Amado Cabezas and Gary Kawaguchi, "help promote the economic interest and privilege of those with capital or those in the primary sector, who mostly are white men."

Asian Americans still face a glass ceiling denying us management-level positions, and many (frequently undocumented) Asian Americans are still trapped in "sweatshops" where they labour for mere pennies. Asian American women represent a wide range of incomes, with many clustered in extremely low-wage jobs. According to a recent study, the mean income for Asian American women is roughly $33,000/year, 25 percent less than White men (a second study by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance confirms this finding). The APALA also found that, across the board, non-unionized workers of all colour and creed are paid less well than unionized equivalents.

It is not in our nature to tolerate these inequalities. Looking back at the history of Asians in America, it is not outside of our nature to fight for better treatment. In fact, if history is to offer any lesson, speaking up and speaking out against any injustice against our people, is a surprisingly Asian American act.

(This post relied heavily on resources and information found in Ronald Takaki's Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, an extremely good, comprehensive history of Asian Americans. I highly recommend it to any student of Asian American Studies. There are other books, but unfortunately, I didn't bring them with me to work today. If you are interested in further information regarding Asian Americans and the labour movement, please check out the APALA website.)

Cross-posted: APA for Progress

12 Comments:

Anonymous jay said...

Very good article, Jenn. Tell this to a white person, though, and most of them will try to deny it or make up excuses to absolve themselves of any responsibility. Or deflect the blame onto us, or distract attention away from the topic.

Speaking of which, here: http://www.nd.edu/%7Ermcveigh/reap/Bonilla_linguistics.pdf

The paper above outlines alot of the tactics used to deny racism exists.

8/02/2006 10:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Carmen Van Kerckhove said...

Jenn, you continue to astound me with your great insights and excellent analyses. I sincerely hope you keep blogging and writing -- you're a shining star! :)

By the way, as I was reading your post I was struck by the many parallels (as I have been before) between the turn-of-the-century Chinese laborers and the current undocumented Latino workers. The same positive stereotypes (quiet, hardworking) coupled with the gradual rise of fear and resentment. I think we're entering an age of brown peril. Of course, that's not to say yellow peril is not still well and alive, as can be seen by just about any article on scary ole China.

Keep up the great work, Jenn! :)

8/02/2006 10:51:00 PM  
Anonymous philly jay said...

"By the way, as I was reading your post I was struck by the many parallels (as I have been before) between the turn-of-the-century Chinese laborers and the current undocumented Latino workers. The same positive stereotypes (quiet, hardworking) coupled with the gradual rise of fear and resentment. I think we're entering an age of brown peril. Of course, that's not to say yellow peril is not still well and alive, as can be seen by just about any article on scary ole China."

I can understand this if you are referring to legal immigrants because that so of feeling does exist.However, if you are talking about illegal immigrants then.....no.

8/03/2006 12:16:00 AM  
Blogger Sly Civilian said...

Very interesting...i like to think that i know a little history, but i'd never heard about these labor movements. Chavez usually gets painted as the first organizer of color...

Stories like this are always are so bittersweet...reading about the courage shown, but still knowing that the crush of capitol would eventually decimate organized labor. I don't know how it goes in Canada these days, but down south the unions are hanging on by a thread. Backbiting of all kinds sets us against each other...but the racial and nativist stuff is infuriating.

Thanks for this.

8/03/2006 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger Cocacy said...

Wonderful post. Your frequent recounting of histroical events is one of the reasons while I visit your blog so much. Keep up the excellent work! :)

8/03/2006 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Jay, thanks for your comments! Unfortunately, I can't access the paper you linked -- could you forward me a copy of the file at jenn@reappropriate.com?

Carmen, I think the parallels are very easily drawn. The kind of nativist, somewhat xenophobic fears being voiced by some who rail against undocumented immigrants sound exactly like the kind of sentiment our community heard three generations ago. We still hear the same initial excitement, a willingness to accept "foreigners" as our maids, gardners, laundrymen and coolies, but the minute the economy turns sour, our excitement turns to racist intolerance of a "coloured invasion" of our borders. We see the same entitlement syndrome with White workers imagining that THEIR jobs are being taken, that THEY are being disenfranchised by the immigrant labourers. Let us not forget also that for a significant portion of our history, Asians of all ethnicities entered this country illegally, via the phenomenon now known as "paper sons". It's this reason that I think our community should be the first in line to embrace the undocumented immigrant issue -- while Mexicans represent the largest group of undocumented migrants currently in the country, we represent the second largest group and entering this country, legally or illegally, is part of our history -- in no small part because of the racism of immigration law during the turn of the century.

Phillyjay, thanks for your comments! (see above for why I disagree)

Sly, yeah, strangely, many of the introductory AA studies classes I've taken gloss over our participation in the labour movement, and how we were there at its very nascence. It's only when you take in-depth AA history courses that you start to hear about how closely tied labour is to our history. I think it's disappointing that it doesn't represent a greater part of current APIA political thinking, and I'm not too sure I can speculate as to why we've seen a distancing of our community from that history.

Cocacy, thanks very much for your comments! I try not to write too many historical pieces because they're pretty boring to most audiences, and I thought this one sort droned on a little, but I appreciate that you enjoyed it! BTW, this was a pseudo-requested piece from APA for Progress, to launch off a second post from APALA.

8/03/2006 05:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

Sorry, the file should be http://www.nd.edu/~rmcveigh/reap/Bonilla_linguistics.pdf. The URL parser sometimes does this. It's a very good read.

8/03/2006 06:33:00 PM  
Anonymous jay said...

I seem to be having issues with the site right now. I can't access the document (403) and I forgot to save it...

8/03/2006 06:51:00 PM  
Anonymous philly jay said...

Phillyjay, thanks for your comments! (see above for why I disagree)

Ok here we go :)

"I think the parallels are very easily drawn. The kind of nativist, somewhat xenophobic fears being voiced by some who rail against undocumented immigrants sound exactly like the kind of sentiment our community heard three generations ago."

How.Seriously, how are they comparable to todays standards?I've read your explanation, but I still don't see it.


"We still hear the same initial excitement, a willingness to accept "foreigners" as our maids, gardners, laundrymen and coolies, but the minute the economy turns sour, our excitement turns to racist intolerance of a "coloured invasion" of our borders."

If this kind of attitude is directed at perfectly legal immigrants, then yes I can agree with that.But I think it's perfectly fine for people to be worried about illegal immigrants.Especially in todays climate.

"We see the same entitlement syndrome with White workers imagining that THEIR jobs are being taken, that THEY are being disenfranchised by the immigrant labourers."

This sort of thing is NOT limited to white people.Plently of blacks feel the same way.


"Let us not forget also that for a significant portion of our history, Asians of all ethnicities entered this country illegally, via the phenomenon now known as "paper sons"."

That was then.This isn't the 1800's or early 1900's.This this 2006.

"It's this reason that I think our community should be the first in line to embrace the undocumented immigrant issue -- while Mexicans represent the largest group of undocumented migrants currently in the country, we represent the second largest group and entering this country, legally or illegally, is part of our history -- in no small part because of the racism of immigration law during the turn of the century."

Ok here is my main problem with with the whole immigration issue.It's not about immigration itself.It's illegal immigration.Let me repeat that: the problem is ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION.Being against it does not make someone a racist, or against immigrants in general like some people whould have you believe.Honestly why is being against illegal immigartion a bad thing?Can anyone answer this question?Is illegal immigration good?Or bad?

8/04/2006 01:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Jay said...

Phillyjay,

I'm not sure this is directed at "illegal immigration" only, even if that's how the debate is framed.

People don't only become illegal immigrants by crossing over the Mexican border (or being smuggled in by boat). There's a significant minority of people who have expired student or work visas. These people are still illegal, but nobody notices them because a lot of them are white.

If you think this is about illegal immigration, I believe a lot of white Vancouver residents do feel similarly about Chinese immigration, and all those immigrants are legal. It's hard for me to believe this is about legality.

8/04/2006 06:18:00 PM  
Anonymous philly jay said...

Jay:
I notice the expired student or work visas myself.And I still feel the same way.And yes, I do know that some people will feel the same way towards legal immigrants (I said so in my first post) but I don't like it when any argument against illegal immigration is outright dismissed.

It's like anyone who is anti-ilegal immigration is labeled as disstrustful of immigrants in general( like legal and illegal immigrants are the same thing) at best, or seen racist at worse.

8/05/2006 01:10:00 AM  
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