Faces of Fear

Anti-Chinese Sentiments from a Global Perspective

Sören Urbansky

Though a well-researched topic, much of the existing scholarship on Sinophobic discourses and stereotypes tends to be rather one-sided and general, with little emphasis on the varying combinations of fear and prejudice that defined different contexts in which it became manifest. This project takes a novel approach in emphasizing specific locations and their impact on the story. Based on archival documents and printed materials culled from libraries and archives in eight different countries, the project questions the findings of discourse analyses and top-down studies. 

Hitherto neglected dynamics between xenophobic discourses and actual dealings in the public sphere can be explored best in a comparative analysis of cities with a high concentration of Asian immigrants. Though the “yellow peril” was established as a concept and an occidental fear that was not bound to urban ethnic ghettos, Chinatowns soon were regarded as breeding places of swirling tales of opium smoking, gambling, and interracial romance all of which had become synonymous with the presence of the Chinese and other Asian immigrants.

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

The translocal approach aims to identify similarities, continuities, and differences in anti-Chinese narratives in Vladivostok, San Francisco, and Singapore, three port cities on the Pacific that are particularly suitable cases for a contrasting study of local variations of the “yellow peril.” All three cities were densely populated urban areas, highly influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in the respective regions, and predominantly inhabited by male Chinese who worked as shopkeepers, restaurant owners, small traders, and hired workers. The Chinese residents maintained aspects of their native culture that were crucial for the construction of racial difference. Formal and informal efforts to marginalise the Chinese residents produced Chinatowns which quickly came to be seen as physical evidence of immutable racial characteristics: a potential source of contagion, disease, pollution, and, due to the high male population, moral vice.

The historical study proposed seeks to identify common causes and advocates of the “yellow peril” syndrome across the longue durée and localities. The research project is framed around a diachronic comparison of specific but similar inter-ethnic incidents in the three Chinatowns. By investigating selected occurrences, such as romantic love across the ethnic divide, murder cases, or the fear of economic domination, the project, firstly, tests the “yellow peril” phobia on the micro level, its influence on discourses of fear, and the impact of such discourses on official policies and other dealings on the ground as well. A second objective of this study is to analyse the regional variations and fluctuations of this concept. Thirdly, it seeks to identify the points and trajectories of decline in the perception of Chinese as a “yellow peril.” Fourthly, it explores how these narratives were received in the Chinese communities themselves. Fifthly and finally, it explores how people, ideas, laws and institutions moved within a wide Chinese diaspora, helping craft and respond to the “yellow peril” as a global historical phenomenon.