Facing President Trump’s controversial travel ban, hastily issued on 27 January and revised on 6 March, that temporarily halted immigrants from six Muslim majority countries, I was wondering what Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton), a mixed-race Asian North American writer at the turn of the twentieth century, would say about the issue. She probably would point out how the travel ban appealed to a similar rhetoric of difference that justified the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
At the peak of anti-Chinese sentiment in the second half of the nineteenth century, the rhetoric of difference conceptualizing the Chinese was popular in public speeches, political cartoons, state and Congressional hearings and debates, journalistic reports, literary work, and legal documents, contributing predominantly to contemporary’s racial knowledge of the Chinese. Chinese immigrants were represented as yellow peril, slaves, barbarous, canny, heathen, immoral, inferior, a threat to white workers and to stability of family structure, and hence ineligible for naturalization and justifiably excludible. The policing of the body of Chinese immigrants reflected the exercises of economic, political, and legal apparatus. For example, the Foreign Miners’ Tax of 1850 and 1852 and the Chinese Police Tax of 1862 used financial incentives to restrict Chinese immigrants. Two California state laws, the Anti-Kidnapping Act of 1870 and the Anti-Coolie Act of 1870, portrayed Chinese and Japanese women as presumptive “lewd and debauched” and Chinese immigrants as “criminal and malefactors,” consequently leading to later federal legislations: the Page Law of 1875 that literally banned Chinese and Japanese women and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that effectively halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens.
Sui Sin Far would tell us that we are repeating history. What was said about the Chinese is conveniently applicable to, with slight alterations, other “undesirable” immigrants: the Japanese, the Asian immigrants, the Jewish, the East European immigrants, the Mexican, the refugees, and now immigrants practicing different beliefs.
The eldest daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, Sui Sin Far lived in Britain, the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, exposed to and influenced by her cosmopolitan experiences. Subject to racial gaze herself and witnessing injustice done to the Chinese, Sui Sin Far decided early to redress the distorted image of the Chinese in her journalistic writing and literary work. She created vividly a wide range of fictive characters, from Chinese merchants, their wives, maids, servants, laborers, to American feminists and citizens who were capable of judgment and feelings in her short stories, most of which were collected in Mrs Spring Fragrance in 1912. She was especially concerned about the impact of immigration regulations and restrictions on families. One of her short stories entitled “In the Land of the Free” resonates with the fate of some immigrant families and travelers affected by the executive order of 13769.
Set up in the exclusion era of 1900s, the story opens with a scene of family reunion in the San Francisco port. Lae Choo, who went back to China to give birth to their baby there at her husband’s suggestion, returns to the United States with their two-year-old boy, the Little One. Hom Hing is excited to meet his son for the first time. The customs officers, however, do not allow the boy to go ashore because he does not have a certificate. Hing explains that when the travel documents were issued the baby was not born yet. He protests, “But he is my son.” The officers shrug their shoulders, “We have no proof, and even if so we cannot let him pass without orders from the Government.” The child is thus taken away from his parents and sent to a missionary school, while the parents have to go through an unexpected, expensive ten-month struggle to get an important piece of paper from Washington to restore their son. When Lae Choo is finally allowed to reclaim her son after a complicated legal process, she opens her arms in anticipation and cries, “Little One, ah, my Little One!” However, the boy, now renamed as “little Kim” by the missionary woman, avoids his mother and hides behind the women’s skirt. The story ends with the boy’s biding his mother to leave, “Go’way, go’way!” (101) In the end, the land of the free that the mother eagerly points to the Little One at the beginning of the short story turns out to be a land of suffering and separation. The reformation of “little Kim” was the inevitable outcome of “purging” undesirable elements of immigrants. However, no matter how fluent his English might be or how upright a citizen he would become (if he was allowed to be naturalized), the Little One/little Kim could hardly escape the fate of his parents if racism and hate crimes were normalized or even legalized. The internment of Japanese Americans during the World War II was but another example of demonizing and racializing immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent.
Of course, an identical scene depicted “In the Land of the Free” rarely happened in the airports; nevertheless, the Department of Homeland Security’s proposal to separate children from their parents caught crossing borders indicates that such a scene of horror and separation will soon reappear. It is not coincidental that the executive order, reflecting the same rhetoric of exclusion that banned Chinese immigrants and incarcerated Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans, depicts immigrants and refugees as dangerous and “terrorists,” dehumanizing them and reducing them to a few negative labels. On 6 February, the Association for Asian American Studies, among other organizations and groups, called out the nature of the travel ban:
The order, notwithstanding declarations otherwise, is guided by, and more importantly furthers, an overt anti-refugee, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant agenda. Such an agenda is bigoted in scope, Islamophobic in nature, and—as Asian American history has repeatedly shown—represents a “dark moment for the nation.”
In a dark moment like this, how do we keep the promise that this land is your land and my land, made for you and me?
I believe, at the time of the 152nd anniversary of Sui Sin Far’s birth this March, her advice in an earlier 1896 article, “A Plea for the Chinaman” (we could replace the subject with many other words, such as immigrants and refugees ) rings particularly true:
Human nature is the same all the world over, and the Chinaman is as much a human being as those who now presume to judge him; and if he is a human being, he must be treated like one…We should be broad-minded. What does it matter whether a man be a Chinaman, an Irishman, and Englishman, or an American. Individuality is more than nationality.
Featured image credit: Japanese-Americans in 1942 boarding a train to an internment camp. Russell Lee, Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.