Chinese Prostitution in America in the Late 1800s & Social Perception in Regards to Cultural Attitudes and Filial Piety

In Chinese-American, Filial piety, Sex work, Sexuality, Social theory, Socioeconomics on 15 July, 2010 at 06:36

Filial piety describes a view common in Confucian and Buddhist thought of an overall respect,  love, and moral obligation to one’s parents. More specifically, it specifies “to take care of one’s parents;  not be rebellious; show love, respect and support; display courtesy; ensure male heirs; uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one ‘s parents; conceal their mistakes; display sorrow for their sickness and death; and carry  out sacrifices after their death.” It is a concept very much involved in the social  changes occurring within the Chinese population immigrating to the United States – specifically California – in the mid- to late-1800s, and the reaction of the population to a dramatically different social and cultural climate. It is this concept of filial piety that is discussed here in relation to the position of Chinese women – in particular prostitutes – inextricably intertwined in a male- dominated ethnic enclave within an overbearingly racist dominant society.

I. Traditional Attitudes and Filial Piety

Traditional Chinese societal values, contrary to popular opinion at the time, in some ways closely mirrored those of Victorian ideals. With a strong focus on the family, they emphasized close-knit, dedicated familial units. The most significant times in a man’s life were considered to be life, death and marriage – marriage held a significant position in one’s social standing, and reflected upon one’s own parents.  It was held that the purpose of men and women was in large part simply to procreate, and for men to uphold and maintain the family’s lineage by producing male heirs to carry the family name.

Women, however, occupied an inferior social status, whose purpose was to maintain their husband’s family, not their own; therefore they were less valuable to parents, and female infanticide was common. Women were considered property, a sell-able, trade-able luxury or commodity, owned by the overriding family patriarch. According to Confucian thought, “the boundary between the morality and immorality of prostitution was often determined in accordance with one’s social status… because of their abilities and there association with nobility, their occupation as [upper class] prostitutes was viewed as legitimate and socially acceptable. On the other hand, for the lower class, sex outside marriage was often suppressed by social mores and the authorities.” It is within this context that Chinese women were utilized by men in the United States to satisfy their needs, and within this social context that it was allowed to flourish and grow to such magnitude.

II. The Early Chinese Experience in America

It begs to be reminded that Chinese immigration to the US, particularly to California, occurred at a time of particularly intense poverty and social upheaval in China. Large numbers of men began immigrating without their families, misled through advertising by shipowners that California was a place where wealth was as easy to accrue as walking along and picking up gold along the ground. Hoping to become wealthy and return to their families in China with greater ability to support them, young Chinese men borrowed money or signed labor contracts and left the country in droves, seeking wealth.

Cultural values such as the filial responsibility to one’s husband’s parents, the prohibitive cost of transportation to California, and the lack of ability for women whose feet were bound to participate in manual labor were some of the elements preventing women to migrate with their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Therefore, few of them left voluntarily. One in California, anti-miscegenation laws and cultural prohibitions regarding sexual relations between Chinese men & white women created additional difficulty for a massive population of young, lonely Chinese men to satisfy their needs, and prostitution swiftly became a solution, however temporary, to the issue.

III. The Issue of Prostitution

The classification of women who were brought into the United States follows in three categories: merchant’s wives, a few working women and prostitutes. Some prostitutes were introduced into the sex trade by poor families, who sold their daughters to brokers or tongs (Chinese organized crime groups) to feed the rest of the family, often for $70-$150. Others were kidnapped or lured off of the streets, some with promises of being reunited with husbands and other male family members already in California, others married Chinese men, who once in California, sold the women to brothels. According to Symenski, many women (presumably the kidnapped) were shipped in padded crates billed as freight. A minority of women arrived in the sex trade knowingly, signing contracts for indentured servitude without or with minimal wages in trade for passage to California, a cost of $630 that few were able to completely work off. Some of the women in this category maintained filial piety as the men did on their claims and in mines, by sending their families back home a portion of what they were able to save, helping alleviate their condition.

Once in California, Chinese women were subsequently sold to San Francisco brothel owners by tongs and white business owners for $350-$1,000. The same white businessmen often were invested in the Chinese community, landowners holding buildings in which brothels were located and charging exorbitant rates much higher than would be acceptable to white tenants. The few women that were allowed wages made very little; at the bottom of the social ladder as a whole, they were often also at the bottom of the prostitution scale, making the least.

Some women were released from the sex trade by marriage to local Chinese men who could afford to purchase them out of bondage. Interestingly enough, re-entering normal social life at this point allowed women to renew their social status, and were no longer inferior citizens in the same sense as they were as prostitutes, although still inferior as women. Some prostitutes were purchased out of bondage from Christian missionaries, who fed, housed and educated the women, converting many in the process, and seeking to place them in services or marry them off. A few of these women, frightened at Western Victorian culture and customs, ran away from the mission houses to rejoin the familiarity of the brothels. Even fewer were able to repay their contracts and/or purchase themselves out of servitude, but several who did became madams themselves, further supporting the local sex trade and female prostitution practices. Many more died from venereal diseases. “Hospitals” specifically for diseased prostitutes were maintained, where dying women resided for a short time as their food and water allowances were slowly reduced until they wasted away; perhaps these were more fortunate than others who were simply left diseased and dying on the streets. Seeking to escape their position, many prostitutes then as now committed suicide or became addicted to drugs, namely the easily accessible opium. Some died by violence, beaten to death by their customers or owners; a frequent occurrence of one refused to work or perform what was asked.

IV. Dominant Cultural Attitudes

The Victorian view of Chinese prostitution, combined with the “barbaric” practice of foot binding still common among Chinese women at this time, increased hostility and the view of the Chinese as particularly foreign and alien; occurring at a particularly important time of increasing hostility against the Chinese for other reasons, the issue of Chinese prostitution exacerbated racial tension. In addition, Chinese women began to be seen as inherently dumb and gullible; enough so to be deceived and lured into the sex trade, which was oxymoronic, as they were also seen as “fatally beautiful and exotic.

Due to the vast majority of visible Chinese women being prostitutes (there were few merchant wives, and those that were present were kept indoors due to bound feet and cultural values), the entire population was seen as even more evil and un-Christian,  threatening to American values and family structure, as well as dangerous by contributing to interracial relations, the “main cause” for spread of venereal diseases. The prevalence of Tongs were seen as indicative of the Chinese incapability to live according to the law and overall deceitfulness of the “race;” highly publicized “gang wars” between tongs over possession of Chinese prostitutes became common, particularly as the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) served to increase Chinese prostitution by preventing women from entering US, raising the demand and value of prostitutes to the tongs.

In our luxury of retrospect, the most important factor contributing to racial issues surrounding the era’s misconceptions was the lack of recognition by the dominant culture of Chinese prostitution as indicative of the overall social climate, not of racial inferiority and depravity. Therefore, the emphasis on Chinese women as dumb victims, perhaps deserving of their fate, as corrupting fabric of Victorian morality was grossly misinformed and misinterpreted, preventing recognition of the similarities in familial structure and values due to racial and cultural blocks. Eventually, the segregation of Chinese and views of immorality and foreignness served to confine ever-present immoral activities to racialized ghettos with the least financial impact on underground white business, allowing prostitution in ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown to cyclically reinforce dominant cultural views of minority groups as inferior and hold near sole responsibility for such vices.

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