At the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) Annual Meeting & Conference this month, I presented a paper on the feminization of the early 20th century Chinese men in America, and how it led them to accept the traditionally feminine task of domestic cooking. The following is an adaptation of my five minutes speech. I have added more information for a more complete picture of my research.
I have always wondered why in my family, it is my father and my grandfather who cook. Now, we are not Americans, we are Singaporean Chinese, but like the story of many Chinese in the United States, my grandfather and his kinsmen from South China sought jobs in a foreign land. Women didn’t tag along, so the men cooked for themselves.
I wondered if this was the case for the American Chinese. Indeed, this was what sociologist Rose Hum Lee observed in her 1956 study on the marital relations of Chinese families in San Francisco. She noted that the husbands brought home groceries and taught their wives cooking. This was unthinkable in a patriarchal Chinese society.
Well, the men in America were no typical Chinese. They came to the United States in their youth and reached adulthood without too much womanly concern for their welfare, until the US government loosened its grip on Chinese immigration in 1947. Prior to that, the Chinese were the most hated community in the United States, because of reasons illustrated in the following picture. They were perceived as economic enemies who monopolized the industries, leaving the white men jobless. The results were institutionalized discriminations that I argue attributed to the egalitarian division of labor in Chinese’s marital homes as observed by Lee.
In 1882, United States enacted the Exclusion Act to restrict Chinese immigration to the United States. Prior to that, the Chinese community was already a predominantly male society because Chinese female immigrants were thought to be prostitutes, and therefore denied entry. Married Chinese men had little chance to reunite with their wives, while the bachelors could not start a family. Because these men could not demonstrate heterosexual norms, there were doubts on their sexuality. The early Chinese immigrants in the United States sustained the image of lesser men.
This feminine stereotype was reinforced by the economic restrictions imposed on these immigrants. White laborers who felt threatened by the competition from Chinese workers protested against enterprises that employed the Chinese in preference to whites. Violent anti-Chinese riots forced the Chinese into low-end wage labor in restaurants, laundries, and garment factories. Since cooking, washing and sewing had prevalently been women’s work, the Chinese men in these professions were thought to be “belonging to a feminized race.”
Racist stereotypes of Chinese men found their way into trade cards. The following image is one of the many that feminized these men. Notice the laundrymen had rosy cheeks and lips, as if they had put on make up. They also have long and delicate fingers like women’s.
In the 1900, union leaders called for the preservation of “racial purity” and “western civilization” to spark anti-Asian legislation. They succeeded. American citizenship was granted exclusively to white males up until 1870, after which men of African descent could become naturalized, but Asian men were denied US citizenship up to 1952. Because the masculinity of a citizen was first inseparable from his whiteness, as the state denied the Chinese citizenship, it formally excluded them from the institutional and social definitions of maleness.
I argue that the Chinese men’s immigration to the United States produced what Raewyn Connell called a “contradiction within masculinity.” Hegemonic masculinity guaranteed Chinese men a dominant social position within their community, but subordinated their manhood to the white American males. To hang on to their masculinity and legitimize their professions, the Chinese reconfigured a manhood that was non-sexist and non-patriarchal. Lee’s observation that the “husbands enjoyed their protective roles and not a few declared they gained satisfaction in being accorded status,” proves that the men had not been strip of their manhood, but conceived a modernized gender relation.
Additionally, these men developed masculinity in an all-male institution that presented domestic cooking as a task appropriate for men. The 19th and early 20th century Chinese immigrants, like the men we see in the picture below, prepared their own meals. Men raised in such environment would consequently think it is normal to hold the cleaver at home.
The wives in Lee’s study on other hand, grew up in families that received financial support from their fathers and brothers who were working in the United States. Academics coined married women who were left behind in China the “separated wives”. Past literature show that the separated wives assumed total family governance during the prolong absence of their husbands. Having been raised by separated wives, I argue that the women in Lee’s study expected the same independence and power in their own marital homes.
When these women were finally permitted entry to the United States, they too were implicated by the restrictions imposed on their husbands. Because the standard of living in the urbanized society was high, and Chinese men were banished from employment in government and private sectors, the wives had to supplement their husbands’ income. Newly arrived Chinese women typically worked in restaurants and sweatshops for long hours, leaving them little time to fulfill their domestic responsibilities. The need to re-divide the household chores between men and their wives, coupled with their reconstructed gender expectations, would ultimately contribute to the unusual kitchen dynamics Lee observed.