Earlier Writings about the Chinese in the U.S.

    Before they colaborated on Ah Sin, MT and Bret Harte each wrote a number of times about the Chinese in Nevada and California. Though neither writer advocated that these immigrants should have the right to become citizens, and both often exploited the exoticism of the "heathen Chinee" for their own rhetorical purposes, they both attacked the anti-Chinese bigotry that led to both systematic and vigilante forms of exploitation and abuse.

    Harte's extraordinarily popular poem about a "heathen Chinee" named "Ah Sin" is available in the Roughing It section of the archive, along with MT's chapter in that book (essentially reprinted from his 1864 newspaper article on "Chinatown" for the Territorial Enterprise) and a sampling of other contemporary re-representations of the Chinese population in the West -- see MAPPING THE WEST IN WORDS & PICTURES.

    In addition, the way Harte opens his 1874 story about "Wan Lee, the Pagan," a "Chinaman" born in the U.S. who dies at the hands of a violent mob during anti-Chinese rioting in San Francisco in 1869, seems especially relevant to the issues raised by Ah Sin. Before Harte's narrator introduces his white readers to the tale's first Chinese character, Hop Sing, he tries to deconstruct his audience's stereotypical "idea of a Chinaman":

  Before I describe him, I want the average reader to discharge from his mind any idea of a Chinaman that he may have gathered from the pantomime. He did not wear beautifully scalloped drawers, fringed with little bells (I never met a Chinaman who did); he did not habitually carry his fore-finger extended before him at right angles with his body; nor did I ever hear him utter the mysterious sentence, "Ching a ring a ring chaw"; nor dance under any provocation. He was, on the whole, a rather grave, decorous, handsome gentleman. His complexion, which extended all over his head, except where his long pig-tail grew, was like a very nice piece of glazed brown paper- muslin. His eyes were black and bright, and his eyelids set at an angle of fifteen degrees; his nose straight and delicately formed; his mouth small, and his teeth white and clean. He wore a dark blue silk blouse, and in the streets, on cold days, a jacket of astrachan fur. He wore, also, a pair of drawers of blue brocade gathered tightly over his calves and ankles, offering a general sort of suggestion that he had forgotten his trousers that morning, but that, so gentlemanly were his manners, his friends had forborne to mention the fact to him. His manner was urbane, although quite serious. He spoke French and English fluently. In brief, I doubt if you could have found the equal of this Pagan shopkeeper among the Christian traders of San Francisco.

    There is no passage in MT's writings that confronts white readers' assumptions this directly, but here are two of the "Memoranda" he wrote during his year as a contributor to the Galaxy magazine. The first anticipates the issue of a child's "deformed conscience" that he'll explore so subtly in Huckleberry Finn. It also provides a fairly comprehensive and accurate list of the kinds of injustices regularly inflicted on Chinese immigrants, a theme he develops at greater length, and with a still more transparently ironic stance, in the three sets of letters he wrote as "Ah Song Hi"; these borrow from Oliver Goldsmith's Citizen of the World the idea of an inverse travelogue, in which the known world is depicted by a traveler from elsewhere.

  • "Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy" (May 1870)
  • "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again" (October 1870, November 1870, January 1871)

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