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Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco.

In Unbound Feet, Judy Yung traces and examines changes and continuity in the lives of Chinese women across generations in San Francisco between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Yung correctly points out, there has been a dearth of broad, scholarly studies on Chinese American women in the United States. Much of the focus has been on Chinese prostitutes in the western United States during the nineteenth century. Women's limited presence in the historical record has been attributed to two factors: the absence of written documentation and the relatively small population of Chinese women in the United States until the mid-twentieth century. As a result, the individual and collective experiences of Chinese women have been conspicuously absent in general social history texts.

Studies on the history of Chinese women in the U.S., however, have recently surfaced with the work of Yung, Sucheng Chan and Peggy Pascoe, whose works on Chinese women in the western United States have helped broaden the scope of inquiry beyond prostitution. Although Yung readily acknowledges that her study of San Francisco's Chinese women is not necessarily representative of the collective experiences of Chinese women in the United States, it presents a broader framework in which to understand the role of Chinese Americans in U.S. history. The richness of Yung's study can be attributed to the wide range of oral and written primary sources she marshals in order to construct the narrative. Her sources include oral interviews with Chinese women, Chinese and English language newspapers, manuscript census data, photographs, memoirs, and reports from Christian mission homes and community organizations. The use of such a wide range of sources enables her to present a broad study of the integral role Chinese women played in the social, economic and political life of San Francisco's Chinese community, which, until recently, held the largest population of Chinese Americans in the United States.

By positioning Chinese women as agents of their own lives who continually negotiated between resistance and accommodation to racism and sexism, Yung interrupts the popular stereotypes of Asian women as voiceless, passive victims of the double patriarchal system that existed in both the Chinese communities and in U.S. society. The degree to which they could successfully combat and/or work within the boundaries imposed by institutional oppression, however, depended to a large degree upon their socio-economic and generational status as well as upon larger economic and political events in the United States, such as the Great Depression and the Second World War. According to the author, these factors led to a progressive improvement in the lives of Chinese women in the U.S. Using the Chinese practice of footbinding as a metaphor for the subjugation of women, Yung argues that the first generation of Chinese American women, the immigrant generation, experienced a greater degree of racial and sexual oppression than did later generations, who benefited from some New Deal policies in the 1930s and the expansion of employment opportunities during the Second World War. Later generations also experienced a greater degree of mobility within their families and community as evidenced, for example, by the increased numbers of women who abandoned the practice of arranged marriages.

Yung also adopts a comparative approach in order to place Chinese women's experiences within a broader social context. Drawing comparisons and contrasts with native-born white, European immigrant, Black, and Chicano women results in a rich analysis of Chinese women's historical experiences and enables the reader to understand the similar as well as different ways in which systems of racial/ethnic, gender, and class oppression have historically operated in the United States.

Yung sees Chinese nationalism, Christianity, and acculturation as three important factors that influenced changes in Chinese women's views toward gender roles and relationships, particularly among middle-class women. The fact that Chinese women participated actively in support of Chinese nationalism, through the organization, for example, of the Square and Circle Club, belies the notion that Chinese women were secluded from and therefore uninvolved in political issues of the day. The Protestant churches and affiliate organizations such as the YWCA and rescue homes provided refuge and material support for many Chinese women across generations, while at the same time fulfilling a missionary role. Churches played an important role in Chinese American communities as vehicles of acculturation to middle-class Christian values and morality and gender conventions in U.S. society, which supposedly symbolized freedom from Chinese patriarchy.

As Yung illustrates, the path to acculturation was fraught with contradictions imbedded in the idea of assimilation, as Chinese American women confronted and mediated between racism and sexism. As she states in the introduction, resistance to multiple forms of oppression "exacted a heavy price from Chinese women, calling on them to put aside feminist concerns for the sake of national unity and to go against their cultural heritage in favor of Western values." (p.8) Although she encourages readers to view the history of Chinese American women as a complex interaction between opposing forces of resistance and accommodation, she stops short of a fuller analysis of the tensions and contradictions that accompanied this delicate and often painful process. Such an analysis would have complicated the story further and enabled Yung to problematize the oral histories she uses to illustrate the varying experiences with racism and sexism that San Francisco's Chinese women encountered.

Despite the fact that Yung could have taken her analysis further, this book is a major contribution to the history of women, Chinese Americans, and Chinese women in the United States as well as to the history of race and gender relations in the United States.

Shirley J. Yee University of Washington
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Yee, Shirley J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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