Printer Friendly

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

Unbound Feet tells the story of Chinese women in San Francisco's Chinatown from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of World War Two. But it is really the story of all Asian immigrant women's lives. What distinguishes the book from most historical accounts of this era is Judy Yung's use of new and original materials taken from unpublished manuscripts, private papers, oral histories and local Chinese- and English-language newspaper articles. At the same time, by including her own family's immigration history, Yung's generously documented social analysis becomes a personal search for her identity as a Chinese American woman.

Yung had always thought of herself as a second-generation Chinese American, and only learned through researching her family's history that she is actually fourth-generation. She notes that "[blow this came about is a history lesson in itself, a lesson that I believe offers insights into Chinese immigration patterns and different experiences of Chinese women from those of men." For the most part, she succeeds in answering the questions she poses in her introduction:

How and why did Chinese women come to America? What was their life like in America? How did their experiences compare and contrast to those of Chinese men, European women, and other women of color, and what accounted for the differences? If life in America was as harsh for them as it was for my great-grandmother and mother, how did they cope? What cultural strengths did they draw from, and what strategies did they devise to adapt themselves to this new and often hostile land? Were things easier for their American-born daughters? (p.4)

The Chinese immigrant women in San Francisco, Yung argues, even the ones who were not literally hobbled with bound feet, were metaphorically bound by traditional Chinese culture. She describes their experiences chronologically, each chapter focusing on a different time period, to show that the "groundwork laid by our foremothers" built up slowly, as women constantly readjusted their lives to contend with the many racist and sexist barriers placed before them. Yung emphasizes, however, that their situation was not "hopeless and pathetic." From prostitute to sweatshop laborer to defense worker to educated professional, these women managed to find "escape avenues," sometimes confounding simplistic assumptions about the effect of class and racial identity on gender roles.

I am especially grateful to Yung for uncovering stories about exceptional Chinese women whom few of us have heard of. We have read about young Chinese women and girls brought into the country in the mid-nineteenth century as prostitutes and indentured servants; but not about Mary Tape, who with her husband took the Board of Education to court for denying their daughter entry into the neighborhood school in 1884. The scathing letter she sent to the board reads in part:

I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out off the Public Schools. Dear sirs, Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn't God make us all!!! What right! have you to bar my children out of the school because she is a chinese Descend.... You have expended a lot of the Public money foolishly, all because of a one poor little Child. Her playmates is all Caucasians ever since she could toddle around. If she is good enough to play with them! Then is she not good enough to be in the same room and studie with them? (p.49)

We have heard of the small-looted, helpless Chinese wives who sat confined in their homes in Chinatown, but not about Sieh King King, an eighteen-year-old student who, one November afternoon in 1902, stood before a Chinatown theatre full of men and women and, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report of the meeting, "boldly condemned the slave girl system, raged at the horrors of foot-binding and, with all the vehemence of aroused youth, declared that men and women were equal and should enjoy the privileges of equals."

Not only Asian American women but all women should feel empowered by the knowledge that Mary Tape, Sieh King King and others rose up out of extremely restrictive social conditions. Even in the case of Wong Ah So, a woman sold into prostitution by her husband for $500 in the early 1900s, Yung gleans a certain determination and nobility of spirit. Wong's letters to her family in China are surprisingly open. She had a deep sense of filial obligation to her parents, who were expecting money from her; even under desperate circumstances, when she was too ill to work, she sent $300 to her mother with a letter of apology:

Every day I have to be treated by the doctor. My private parts pain me so that I cannot have intercourse with men. It is very hard.... Next year I certainly will be able to pay off all the debts. As long as your daughter's life lasts she will pay up all the debts. Your daughter will do her part so that the world will not look down upon us. (p.70)

Yung's use of first-person accounts such as this, gathered from letters and personal interviews - some previously published, others conducted by Yung herself with Chinese women now in their sixties and seventies - captures the human dimension behind the social and political forces at work in San Francisco's Chinatown. She often places these accounts in a global political context. As reported in local Chinese papers of the period, "Aware that the racial oppression and humiliation they suffered in America was due in part to China's weak international status and inability to protect its citizens abroad, Chinese immigrants kept nationalist sentiment alive, focusing their attention and energies on helping China become a stronger and more modern country even as they worked to change their unfavorable image and treatment in America."

Yung claims, convincingly, that a peculiar combination of this Chinese nationalism, the Protestant reform movement and Chinese women's entry into the labor market actually served "to advance the women's cause in San Francisco Chinatown." In the early 1900s, Chinese women were helped by white "female Protestant reformers" committed to "Victorian moral values." Wong Ah So, the woman sold into prostitution by her husband, knew enough to seek help from the Presbyterian Mission Home supervised by the intrepid Donaldina Cameron. Although Cameron's and other Christian women's mission was to eliminate prostitution because it was "immoral" - and to convert the "alien and heathen" Chinese - Chinese women found comfort in their presence.

Some historians have criticized Cameron for her "patronizing attitude." But Yung found, from a number of sources, that those who knew and worked with her generally held Cameron in high regard. The Christian women not only rescued prostitutes; they helped abused wives and provided acculturation classes for immigrant women and children. Their strenuous promotion of Western moral values, which some feminist scholars have decried, helped free many abused Chinese wives who had been trapped in their homes by their husbands. Since these Christian women did not consider Chinese arranged marriages legitimate, they found a new partner for the abused wife without any qualms. "While such intervention was likely resented by most Chinese in the community," Yung writes, "it did provide a way out for Chinese women in abusive situations."

More important, within a few years, Chinese women leaders emerged in Chinatown. Chinese women learned as early as 1913 the virtues of collective action under the leadership of Clara Lee, an educated middle-class woman who founded the Chinese Women's Jeleab (Self-Reliance) Association. The organization's statement of purpose, published by a local Chinese paper, declared, "Our goal is to cultivate self-reliance in each of us and, further, to promote and propagate this concept in China, so as to strip away the black curtain that has blocked our [women's] view of the sky for thousands of years."

By the 1920s, even though second-generation Chinese women were becoming more Westernized - many were now "allowed to choose" their own husband - Yung points out that "they found their decisions encumbered by discriminatory laws that discouraged their marriage to foreign-born Chinese and prevented marriage to white Americans."

In 1923, Florence Chinn Kwan, a US citizen by birth, discovered that her citizenship was invalidated by her marriage to a Chinese foreign student she had met at the University of Chicago. She'd assumed the Cable Act of 1922 (which stated that an American-born woman would no longer lose her citizenship if she married an alien) would protect her. Unfortunately, a section of the Cable Act also stipulated that "any woman citizen who marries an alien ineligible to citizenship shall cease to be a citizen of the United States."

More than fifty years later, in a 1977 in-review, Kwan still recalls her shock at learning she was no longer a US citizen. She lived in China for five years with her husband before returning to America, where she and her children were promptly detained on the boat by an immigration officer. Through personal connections, Kwan was able to enter the country again, but "[a]fter that, I said, I'm not coming back here any more." In fact, she did apply for naturalization in 1936 and finally regained her citizenship.

Yung presents a fascinating analysis of how, "ironically and in a strange way," Chinese Americans benefited from the Depression and World War Two. Chinese American women, whose lives had generally been confined within the borders of Chinatown before the 1930s, were liberated by their participation in the labor movement and war efforts. While their husbands and other blue-collar workers fell victim to the Depression, Chinese women, "survivors of multiple forms of oppression," continued to work in sweatshops, the "lowest rung of the labor market," in many cases becoming the main supporters of their families.

And the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 changed the social status of Chinese Americans overnight. While Japanese Americans were herded into concentration camps, Chinese Americans were now welcome as loyal citizens, To buttress the change in attitudes, the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, the Chinese were granted the right to naturalization in 1944 and other discriminatory barriers were lowered as well.

Yung who was born and raised in San Francisco, closes Unbound Feet by returning to her own family s story. During her early childhood, the Yung family moved to Chinatown so that her father would be able to work in the shipyards. Her mother labored in a Chinatown sweatshop during the. day and often brought sewing home to work on at night; influenced by the "male preference" culture of China, she gave birth to five daughters in rapid succession, only stopping when her son, the sixth child, was born. Yung's parents remained tradition-bound, stressing the rewards of education and hard work.

Soon the family "moved up" and out of the "safe environment of Chinatown" to the Bay Area suburbs. It was then, Yung writes, that "[t]he combined forces of race, class, and gender oppression hit us in the face." She remembers non-Chinese classmates who "sometimes made fun of our food and customs, called us names like 'Chink' or 'Suzie Wong,' and didn't hesitate to heat us up if they felt like it." Still, like so many of the women she chronicles in Unbound Feet, Yung and her four sisters rose out of an oppressive situation, eventually realizing, at least on their parents' terms, "the American dream." They became "part of the middle class, financially secure in our jobs, and living in two-car-garage homes outside Chinatown."

Yung credits the civil rights movement of the 1960s for shaking her out of her complacency: "Those of us attending college at the time reached a new awareness of racial and class oppression in our own lives and of its links to other Third World communities within and countries outside the United States." At the same time, she makes clear that the many social and political changes over the past three decades "have certainly made a difference for women like my mother, who today basks in her retirement...surrounded by pictures of her grandchildren who have finished college and have families of their own."

When I asked her if she was glad she had come to America, she first echoed Great-Grandmother's sentiments: "To me, life was a lot easier in Macao. Life was so hectic here with so many children born close together and no help. America was not the heaven I expected it to be." But on further reflection, she said: "I have since traveled around a bit, and to me, America is the best country to live in. Why? Because we have our freedom here, the weather's better than in China, and food is cheap and plentiful. No matter where I go, there is no place like San Francisco." (pp. 291-292)

Several times as I read this book, my mind flashed back to 1977 in Houston, where thousands of American women gathered for the First National Women's Conference. Speaker after speaker embodied the spirit of the women who had attended the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. As a Japanese American woman with the California delegation, I also claimed women such as Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth as part of "my" past.

At the conference, a small group of us met in the Asian American Women's Caucus room, but we were unaware that we had a history of our own to he proud of. Had we been armed in those days with Judy Yung's Unbound Feet, we would have had our own Asian Sojourner Truths to inspire us. Asian women have been invisible for so long to the larger world - including the white feminist world - but Judy Yung shows us a truer picture of ourselves as part of a political movement.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Old City Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Yamada, Mitsuye
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1996
Previous Article:Days and Nights in Calcutta.
Next Article:The Arc of Love: An anthology of Lesbian Love Poems.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |