Cheung, Floyd. “Anxious and Ambivalent Representations: Nineteenth-Century Images of Chinese American Men,” The Journal of American Culture 30:3 (2007): 293-309.
Abstracted by Mary Horn
Cheung’s essay evaluates the ways in which Chinese American men were depicted by American sources, including 19th century political cartoons, an 1880 novel, and an 1879 farce. Through the examination of these images, and the realization that the depictions vary, Cheung claims that the 19th century idea of Euro-American masculinity was “ambivalent” (293). While working class men generally depicted Chinese men as threatening, capitalists portrayed them as docile and emasculated. These portrayals give insight into the desires and fears of both groups as they faced the issues plaguing 19th century America: class conflict, an international labor market, and an unstable masculine identity. Cheung analyzes three political cartoons from Harper’s Weekly and Wasp magazine. One shows a white “working man” punching a Chinese American man, another shows “feminine” Chinese males courting American women, and the last shows a Chinese man outworking white males in a factory. While the first two cartoons emasculate Chinese men, threatening aspects are also present, such as the furious Chinese face in the background of the first cartoon or the stealing away of American women in the second. These depictions reveal a Euro-American workingman’s threatened masculinity concerning his ability to maintain the role of breadwinner and possess American women. Cheung argues that American males often used Chinese men as scapegoats instead of confronting the real issues: low wages and a flooded labor market. Dooner’s novel, The Last Days of the Republic, illustrates the fear Euro-Americans felt concerning a fantasized Chinese invasion. This idea is shown in Dooner’s illustration “The War of the Races,” where Chinese forces defeat American soldiers, taking their women and land. Cheung argues that national anxieties about an evolving labor market led to scapegoat racism such as this. In The Chinese Must Go, Chinese men are demonized, “forcing” white men to cross-dress in their attempts to make ends meet among a flooded labor market. Cheung believes this cross-dressing reveals that a Chinese presence created an unstable Euro-American masculine identity. Cheung ends his essay by briefly addressing the dominance of China in contemporary times, and warning against the use of stereotyping to alleviate cultural anxiety. [350 words]