While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is usually cited as the first time the U.S. moved to ban a specific, nationality-defined, group of immigrants from entering the country, there was a curious piece of legislation the previous decade which shut the door on Chinese and most other Asian women.
The Page Act of 1875 barred undesirable immigrants, defined as “a person from China, Japan or any Oriental country coming to the United States to be a forced laborer, any East Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and all people considered to be convicts in their own country.”
On the surface this could be interpreted as an act of Protestant morality. You could even see it as an extension of abolition, an attempt to ban forced labor. But the comments of the bill sponsors and supporters suggest otherwise. As does the implementation of the law.
The legislation was sponsored by a California congressman, Horace F. Page, who called it an attempt to end “the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” It was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant who earlier had warned Congress about “the importation of Chinese women, but few of whom are brought to our shores to pursue honorable or useful occupations.”
There was at the time a treaty in force with the Chinese Empire, the Burlingame Treaty, which prohibited any restrictions on immigration. The Page Act is viewed by some as a way to restrict Chinese immigration without violating the treaty by focusing on criminals, coolies and prostitutes. There were a considerable number of Chinese prostitutes in California. That was true at the time in most immigrant communities. For most of the 19th century prostitution was legal in California and throughout the West, where working men far outnumbered women, prostitution was common. There were no federal laws against prostitution until 1910.
The enforcement of the Page Act almost exclusively came down on Asian, and particularly Chinese women. Many of the Chinese women who sought to migrate to the U.S. were indeed prostitutes. But perhaps just as many were seamstresses, cooks, servants and launderers.
Throughout every step of the immigration process, East Asian women seeking entry into the U.S. were asked to answer questions like: Have you entered into contract or agreement with any person or persons whomsoever, for a term of service, within the United States for lewd and immoral purposes? Do you go to the United States for the purposes of prostitution? Are you a virtuous woman? Do you intend to live a virtuous life in the United States? These questions would be asked repeatedly with the inquisitor keenly watching for any discrepancies in the answers.
The enforcement of the Page Act reinforced negative stereotypes about Chinese women. They were viewed as immoral, dishonest, promiscuous, dirty and transmitters of STDs. The American Medical Association went so far as to proclaim that the Chinese carried distinct germs to which they were immune, but from which whites would die if exposed. (One can’t help to notice the parallel to the Asian hate that was generated during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The San Francisco Examiner, on March 11, 1874, published this shockingly worded report under the title “Checking Immorality.” “The dock was crowded this morning with an array of Chinese women, who were arrested last night for being residents of houses of ill-repute. The ignorant creatures seemed to be entirely unconscious of their depraved condition, and laughed and chatted about the novelty of their changed position — at least we were so informed by those who were able to translate their language.”
Another example of local attitudes toward Chinese women is from the Merced Tribune on Dec. 26, 1874. “It is not only the privilege of the Government under the Constitution, but its duty, as well, to put a stop to this Coolie traffic, and shut down the gates forever against the flood of low, degraded Chinese women who come to our shores for no other purpose than to corrupt all with whom them come in contact.”
The Page Act and its enforcement had the desired effect. The invasive and humiliating procedures deterred many from even trying to migrate. Others couldn’t manage the heavy bribes that were necessary to make it past the consuls who were responsible for letting immigrants in. During one period of a few months in 1882, 39,579 Chinese entered the U.S., only 136 of them were women. This created a lasting problem in Chinese-American communities, making them substantially familyless.
While the Page Act was successful in stemming the flow of Chinese women into the U.S., that was hardly the end of the resentment and discrimination that was directed at the Chinese. They weren’t white. They weren’t Christian. And by living in their own Chinatown communities, they were resented for not assimilating. But most important of all, the 1870’s was witnessing the onset of a long depression and the competition in the labor market whipped up even more invective against the Chinese and resulted in one of the most racist pieces of legislation to ever emerge through Congress, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
(All images in this post are photos of the works of Chinese artist Hung Liu, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington)