Walking a Fine Line: Publishing Chinese-American Stories in an Era of Xenophobia

Image from Old Chinatown: A Book of Picture, by Arnold Genthe, with text by Will Irwin. New York: M. Kennerley, 1913. Via HathiTrust / public domain. Link.

By the year of 1849, the California Gold Rush had begun, and people from all over the world flocked to the American West to get a taste of success.  However, as emigration boomed, so too did a culture of xenophobia.  Chinese immigrants, in particular, were targets of prejudice and misplaced fears.  People viewed the Chinese collectively as “unassimilable,” “passive,” “quaint,” “foreign,” and “exotic” (Cutter 260-261).   Hence, as a very stereotyped, marginalized group, Chinese Americans had little representation in fiction.  That is—until the writer Edith Maude Eaton stepped up. 

Edith Eaton was of Eurasian descent—born to a British father and a Chinese mother in the year of 1865.  Though she herself could have passed as a white woman, Eaton’s Eurasian ancestry made her sensitive to the Chinese-American experience and their treatment.  Around 1872, her family moved west, and by the time she was 23, Eaton had both started her career in journalism and been exposed to much of Western culture’s prejudices against Chinese people.  In 1898, she moved to the West Coast, and inspired by the untold stories of the Chinese Americans she met, Edith Eaton began writing Chinese-American stories under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far. 

Edith Eaton by Canada’s Early Women Writers. SFU Library Digital Collections. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada. 1980-2014. / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Sui Sin Far had a big task ahead of her: to establish the “Fundamental humanity of [the Chinese people] within an American context” (Cutter 260).  The “American context” here is key—as I read some of Far’s work, I began to recognize a few American stereotypes coming through in her stories.  Hence, in this post, I set out to analyze the ways in which Far’s work catered to the stereotyped American perception of Chinese Americans as well as the ways in which it subverted them.  My analysis will focus one of Far’s work in particular: “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu.”

“The Americanizing of Pau Tsu” appears in Sui Sin Far’s only collection of short stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, a publication which visually plays into the stereotyped view of the Chinese as “foreign” or “exotic.”  The cover of Mrs. Spring Fragrance is adorned with dragonflies and red and yellow coloring.  Dragonflies hold a place in Chinese folklore and are often associated with “harmony, good luck, and prosperity” (Sedgwick).  Red and yellow are also important symbols in China; they represent good fortune, happiness, and royalty (Mitra).  Additionally, illustrations of flowers, leaves, and Chinese characters underlay the story’s text, even making words on some pages very difficult to read.  Altogether, these ornate illustrations would have been successful in convincing a reader of the book’s “Chinese” content.  However, the only thing that readers would have known about these symbols is their relationship to the Chinese culture; hence, the symbols play the role of “exoticizing” the book—making it seem more foreign, of originating from a mysterious, far-away place.  In this way, Sui Sin Far’s work seemed to cater to an Americanized stereotype of Chinese culture.   

Cover (left) and the opening of “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu” (right) from Mrs. Spring Fragrance, by Sui Sin Far. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1912. Via the Internet Archive / public domain.

Additionally, aspects of the story “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu” itself feed into the stereotypical views of Chinese Americans—in particular, the conception of the Chinese as having a meek or passive disposition.  This is evident in the distinct portrayals of the story’s two main women characters, Pau Tsu and Adah Raymond.  Pau Tsu is a Chinese immigrant who has come to America to be with her husband, Lin Fo.  She is described as “a docile, happy little creature” (Far 135) with gentle, quiet tendencies.  She is also submissive in her relationship with her husband, as “It was seldom. . .that she protested against the wishes of Lin Fo” (135).  This description of Pau Tsu as meek and passive contrasts with that of the white, American character Adah Raymond, who is portrayed as more robust and assertive.  She is “frank of face and friendly and cheery in manner” (131); her conversations with Lin Fo are “bright and animated” (136), and the two appear as equals in their relationship.  Hence, this comparison between how the two characters are portrayed reveals yet another stereotype present in Sui Sin Far’s writing.    

Additionally, the very premise of “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu” caters to the idea that Chinese Americans were “unassimilable” into American culture.  Throughout the story, Pau Tsu’s husband continuously expresses his desire for her to adopt the “American way of life.”  He forces her to wear American dress, host American dinner parties, and learn English—all to Pau Tsu’s dismay.  Pau Tsu tries her best to appease her husband; however, it seems that she simply cannot assimilate.  By the end of the story, Pau Tsu has grown sickly and weak with her failed attempts, and she decides to leave her husband out of hopelessness.  Hence, this depiction of Pau Tsu as unassimilable into the American culture seems to fall in line with American stereotypes. 

At the same time, however, Sui Sin Far also manages to overturn stereotypical perceptions of Chinese Americans; one way she does this is by portraying the “need for their assimilation” as a harmful stereotype in the first place.  For example, Lin Fo’s attempts to “Americanize” his wife have destroyed Pau Tsu’s spirit and her hopes.  In a letter, she wrote to her husband: “[Pau Tsu] has tried to obey your will and to be as an American woman; but now she is weary, and the terror of what is before her has overcome” (141).  Upon reading this letter, Lin Fo is heartbroken and instantly ashamed of his attempts to force his wife to assimilate.  He reflects, “I will not care if she never speaks an American word” (144).  Hence, just as Lin Fo learns of the pitfalls of assimilation, so too does the reader come to realize that assimilation has its consequences.  Hence, by portraying assimilation in a negative light, Sui Sin Far outwardly rejects this American value and undermines its relevance to the Chinese-American experience. 

Sui Sin Far is also able to dismantle general stereotypes of Chinese Americans by giving her characters depth and emotional complexity—by showcasing their humanity.  One scene does this particularly well.  In the beginning of the story, Pau Tsu reflects upon being forced to eat with a fork and knife instead of her chopsticks: “why, oh!  why should she be constrained to eat her food with clumsy, murderous American implements instead of with her own elegant and easily manipulated ivory chopsticks” (135).  Here, Far garners readers’ sympathy for Pau Tsu, but moreover she gives readers a true understanding of Pau Tsu’s situation and how hard it must be to move to a new country whose cultural practices differ from your own.  Hence, by exposing readers to Pau Tsu’s emotional complexity, Far is able to display Chinese Americans as more than just a stereotype.    

In conclusion, Sui Sin Far had both stereotypical and non-stereotypical aspects of her works.  Many critics may be angered by Far’s somewhat ambivalent approach to her writing on Chinese-American life; however, it is also significant to note that these stories were revolutionary in their existence alone.  At a time when xenophobia was rampant in American culture and Chinese were seen as “unassimilable heathens,” Far would have been forced to walk a fine line between portraying Chinese Americans in an authentic manner and having a platform to do so at all.  Hence, though her stories were unradical and “interpreted . . . through the filters of American cultural prejudices” (Song 134), it seems to me that Sui Sin Far worked hard to reach audiences that she otherwise might not have and to give a voice to those who—for so long—had not had one.

Works Cited

Cutter, Martha J. “Sui Sin Far’s Letters to Charles Lummis: Contextualizing Publication Practices for the Asian American Subject at the Turn of the Century.” American Literary Realism, vol. 38, no. 3, 2006, pp. 259–275. JSTOR. Link.

 Far, Sui Sin. Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Chicago, A. C. McClurg, 1912. The Internet Archive. Link.

Library of Congress. “Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900: Chinese Immigration to the United States, 1851-1900.” Library of Congress. Link.

Mitra, Anusuya. “Lucky Colors in China.” China Highlights, 27 Apr. 2020. Link.

Sedgwick, Icy. “The Dragonfly in Folklore: Good Luck Symbol and Weigher of Souls.” Icy Sedgwick, 11 May 2019. Link.

Song, Min Hyoung. “Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far.” Legacy, vol. 20 no. 1, 2003, p. 134-152. Project MUSE. Link.

Xu, Ying. “Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far).” Oxford Bibliographies, edited by Ying Xu, Oxford University Press, 19 May 2017. Link.

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