How does “Ross Alley” demonstrate the history of the Chinese Exclusion era?
The world would have never changed, and America would have never become America if it were not for the immigrants. The Chinese were one the largest immigrant groups in the New World in the XIX-XX centuries. Their contribution to the development of socio-economic and cultural well-being of the young state is truly invaluable. Oddly enough, the Chinese people became the object of the most violent discrimination in the American society. Before becoming one of the biggest and most influential modern US communities, the Chinese had come a long and tragic path full of obstacles and humiliations. Arnold Genthe’s vast legacy of photos of the old San Francisco Chinatown represents the most troublesome period for the Chinese immigrants with explicit realism and subtlety. Looking like a simple depiction of a crowd of workers, “Ross Alley” turns out to be the reflection of the phenomena of Chinese isolation and triumph over their oppressors.
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The photo shows us the crowded street of Chinatown, Ross Alley or Stouts Street (“The Street of Gamblers”) as the author himself called it. From the first look, one may suggest that just another busy day is captured here. The Chinese workers all look similar but at the same time different; some of them are smoking, others chatting, arguing or just observing. They are wearing similar traditional Chinese tunics and shoes, combining them with Western hats and pants. The photographer is looking at them from the Jackson Street (Genthe and Tchen 63). But if to delve more deeply into the preconditions of the depicted phenomenon, it will turn out that those people are on the street not by their will but due to the historically established unfavorable conditions.
Arnold Genthe, a German doctor of philosophy, came to San Francisco in 1895 to work as a tutor for some aristocratic family. Once he visited the Chinese quarter, the traditional unique atmosphere and characters of the people captivated him and motivated to document his impressions (Genthe and Tchen 3). However, Chinatown of that period was not some bright fairy tale, but a “home of tens of thousands of Chinese who, because of a tidal wave of racist hostility, were forced to live in a segregated section of the city” (Genthe and Tchen 3).
The upsurge of Chinese immigration to the United States in the second half of the XIX century was caused by the failure of the Chinese authorities to establish order in their country. Chinese people sought for better living and headed off to the New World. America was a very attractive place because during the “golden rush” there was a big number of jobs in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The majority of Chinese people were engaged in labor-intensive work such as railroad installation and mining. When the major railway connections were finished, Chinese people became engaged in agriculture supplying local markets with food products (Genthe and Tchen 5-7).
While the Chinese immigration of the 1840-50-s was met relatively calm, gradually the situation changed, and Americans started to blame Chinese workers for stealing their jobs and draining American budget. The Chinese immigrants agreed to work for miserable wages, the general level of wages, thus, was reduced, and white workers were deprived of their jobs (Genthe and Tchen 7). The Chinese became “the scapegoats for social problems” (Genthe and Tchen 7) and the matter for politicians to gain more votes. It may look rather strange for a nation comprised of the immigrants from all over the world not to accept the representatives of another race. Perhaps, the issue here was in that the Chinese were more than just a race – they tried to preserve their nation within a newly formed American nation.
The period between 1895-1906-s, when the photos were taken, was the rise of the era of Chinese Exclusion from the American Society. A range of anti-immigration and anti-Chinese laws were adopted. Chinese people were prohibited to marry the whites, to unite with their families and to participate in the political life of America. Their economic and welfare situation aggravated dramatically. They no longer had a stable work and made for living on some seasonal low-paid positions (Genthe and Tchen 61). “Ross Alley” is a depiction of one of such cases. It was the time before the New Year when thousands of Chinese seasonal workers were dismissed and left strolling idly by the streets. One may note traditional Chinese garlands above the doorway (Genthe and Tchen 63) – even in the hardest conditions people managed to feel happy and welcome the feast. The people in the photo may look gloomy in their dark robes but behind all those robes there are unique characters, unfairly oppresses underestimated as equal human beings and citizens. Tchen emphasizes that Genthe’s second name of the photo, Stouts Alley, is not justified. There indeed was many Chinese gambling houses on the Ross Street, the worker spent their precious leisure hours there, but this name somehow “unfairly ascribes a sinister quality to these men” (Genthe and Tchen 63).
Perhaps, the closest mood to the one reflected in the “Ross Alley” has the photo named “Old Longgang Temple lanterns”. In may even seem to be the continuation of the events depicted on the “Ross Alley”. Here one will see almost empty night street full of the bright light of traditional Chinese lanterns adorning the porches. The people are walking and smiling, perhaps, they are welcoming the New Year. The remaining people from the day crowd may be now sitting somewhere in bars or brothels, playing mahjong and discussing the better days. The clothes on the people are the same as in the “Ross Alley”. However, here one may see another important element of the Chinese culture, a traditional queue. It was not just a peculiarity of Chinese style but also a symbol of affiliation to the Motherland that had “important social and political implications” (Genthe and Tchen 23). Perhaps, the people on the “Old Longgang Temple lanterns” might have had a desire to spend their New Year Eve in some other place of the city rather than in Chinatown. But in any case, they seem to be grateful for what they have and enjoy the moment.
Both photos show us the striking adaptability of Chinese people to the hostile environment. They wore their traditional clothes, saved traditional outlooks and at the same time never tried to impose their values on the receiving society. The high level of unity during the hard times of exclusion helped the Chinese to avoid assimilation. In response to the biased attitude and persecution, the Chinese created isolated societies within the society, which were reflected in their Chinatowns. The everyday life of people in Chinatowns was very simple and even austere. Because of daily exhausting work, the Chinese spent very little time at home. More than ten people were supposed to share a single room; they could not get accommodation elsewhere because whites refused to sell or rent their estate to the Chinese (Genthe and Tchen 61). Chinese people founded their schools, printed their newspapers and visited their operas. Wherever possible, they tried to build business and trade relations primarily with each other.
The Chinese workers depicted on the photos created district and family associations or guilds organized according to the areas where they lived in China. Those organizations performed the functions of recruitment agencies, assisted in finding housing, were involved in dispute resolution, and sponsored socio-cultural activities. They also organized the shipment of the deceased back home. The workers’ guilds were characterized by a high level of cooperation and care for the need of each other. Tchen aptly notes that in Chinatowns “The hostility of the outside world was met with a countervailing solidarity from within” (62).
All things considered, it can be seen that Arnold Genthe’s photos “Ross Alley” and “Old Longgang Temple lanterns” show us that the internal strength and spirit of an ancient nation cannot be destroyed even by the most severe immigration regulations. Thanks for the unity and mutual assistance, the life of American Chinese had not changed much during the Exclusion era. Chinese immigrants were not affected by acculturation and assimilation; they created a sub-society in one big and diverse American society. The Chinese phenomenon reflects the ability of a single national minority to preserve its culture without bothering the receiving society.
Genthe, Arnold, and John Kuo Wei Tchen. Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1984. Print.