Originally brought to the United States as a form of cheap labor during
the Civil War, Chinese men entered at the bottom rung of the social and
economic ladder. Chinese laborers were viewed as cheap, expendable, slave
labor - intended to serve as an alternative to African American slaves,
which Maxine Hong Kingston addresses in her novel, Chinamen. The
images of lowly Chinese that prevailed during the mid- 1850s were used
as justification for the low status Chinese in the American racial hierarchy.
As different Asian groups immigrated into the United States, this subordination
was extended to include all Asians.
To maintain the idea of the racial hierarchy, stereotypes of weak and effeminate Asian males were also common in American society during the 1850s. These stereotypes stem from physical differences which white American society has exaggerated to further subordinate Asian men. The image of weak Asian males came from the focus on the smaller size of Asian males. To further this stereotype, the appearance of the Chinese male was used as an indication of the effeminacy of all Asian males. For example, Chinese men were ridiculed for their long queues, which were viewed as the ponytails occasionally worn by white women.
The reach of this stereotype quickly turned into a stigma for all Asian and Asian Americans in the United States. Economic and employment limitations became placed on Asian men as a result of their emasculation. Early Asian immigrants who sought to branch away from hard cheap labor often sought employment in areas of skilled employment. However, white American society allowed little opportunity for Asians, leaving them jobs that were seen as “women’s work.” White working men sought to maintain their “superiority” by limiting Asian men to less “masculine” forms of work. Laundry, cooking, and cleaning were among the main alternative occupations that Asians were allowed to enter, hence the large number of Chinese laundries established along the West Coast during the early 1900s.
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