How the Exclusion Period drove Chinese American Men into Domestic Kitchens

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.

A grotesque octopus monster (left) working tirelessly in every industry, leaving the white men (right) jobless. (The Wasp, March 3, 1882 illustration from Yellow Peril!)

A grotesque octopus monster (left) working tirelessly in every industry, leaving the white men (right) jobless. (The Wasp, March 3, 1882 illustration from Yellow Peril!)

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.

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Bitch

Bitch Winter Issue

Bitch Winter Issue

This issue of the Portland-based feminist magazine tackles women’s food production and consumption roles. What is refreshing about this magazine is that many of its contributors take on a scholarly approach, calling on histories, data and stakeholders’ interviews to challenge the readers’ existing knowledge of the topics at hand. Yet the articles are not typical of scholarly papers—incessant and sometimes sleep-inducing. Most stories run only a couple of pages, an appropriate length for a casual read over a cup of coffee.

The piece that I find most intriguing is about a group of women who quit their jobs to collect, categorize and utilize coupons in the most efficient and tactical ways coupons can possibly be used. The larger issue revolving around couponing is that it challenges the age old idea of shopping as trivia and the women responsible for it as frivolous and wasteful. Full-time couponers demonstrate wisdom and economic muscle, no less than the working women, and as a result they save thousands on child care, commuting, and grocery bills yearly. Most importantly, couponing proves the economic value of household chores that is so often ignored by the tax-paying segment of society. How homemaking is different for these women compared to their home bound mothers and grandmothers is that it has become a financially viable choice as opposed to a duty imposed upon them. But what I wish the author had also discussed is the types of food discounts available on the coupons. My fear is that the choices are limited to nutrients-deficient processed food and that couponing further drives the domestic diet towards a high-in-sodium/fat one if modernity hadn’t already done that. In other words, couponing isn’t as empowering as it appears to be. Instead, it has given manufacturers and retailers more intimate control over where consumers spend their buck.

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