Faces of Fear

A Global History of Anti-Chinese Stereotypes

Sören Urbansky

Taking a diachronic and comparative approach that spans several cultural spaces, the study investigates the correlation between negative stereotypes and conflicts between Chinese and Caucasians of European descent in urban settings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the period, in other words, when pejorative attitudes toward the Chinese were most widespread in North America and among European colonial powers. In contrast to earlier studies, this research project goes beyond discourse analysis of intellectual and political debates and analyzes the social life of stereotypes over an extended period of time from a perspective combining global history and micro-history. It thereby recontextualizes hitherto regionally focused historical debates.

The geographic foci of the study are Singapore, Vladivostok, and San Francisco. At the turn of the century, these three Pacific port cities were among the most important destinations for migrants from China and other parts of East Asia. Chinese made up a significant portion of the population of each city, and most Chinese immigrants resided in their own communities spatially separated from other residents. Despite the extensive contacts between dominant ethnic groups and Chinese immigrants, residents of the three cities saw the segregated Chinatowns as threatening, amorphous, alien bodies within the urban space. Many feared that those districts were breeding grounds for disease, that dangerously unhygienic conditions prevailed in them, and that, given the predominance of male residents, they were hotbeds of vice.

“Faces of Fear” examines, first, the impact of Sinophobic discourse on interpersonal relations by analyzing selected events (such as incidents of inter-ethnic crimes) and phenomena (mixed marriages, for example) in the three cities from a micro-historical perspective. Second, it uses police and court records along with press reports to explore the impact of specific events and incidents on discourse. Third, Chinese archival sources are examined to analyze how Chinese migrants saw and responded to their situation; their perspective has scarcely figured in historical studies thus far. A translocal investigation of concrete example makes possible to trace, fourth, regional variations in xenophobic discourse and, fifth, the rise and decline of stereotypes. The study thus asks how negative stereotypes lose their power–how, in other words, the “Yellow Peril” fell out of fashion.

Vladivostok’s Chinatown “Millionka”, 1933 (State Archive of Primorsky Krai)