The Missing Images of Chinese Immigrants


Arts & Culture

Still from The Curse of Quon Gwon (1917)

The first known Chinese woman in America was nineteen-year-old Afong Moy, who arrived in New York City in 1834 on the steamship Washington. Three weeks later, she was put on display as part of an exhibit called the “Chinese Saloon.” For fifty cents, New Yorkers could purchase a ticket to gawk.

Afong Moy sat from ten A.M. to two P.M. and then three P.M. to five P.M. daily. She performed for the crowds by using chopsticks and speaking in Chinese. Eventually she toured up and down the East Coast, and by 1848 was performing as part of a P. T. Barnum show. Then, her popularity eventually waned, and by 1850, she’d been replaced. There are no more records of what became of Afong Moy. All that remains is a black-and-white drawing of her performance that appeared in a newspaper. She appears as a tiny, round-faced woman seated on a large chair in the middle of her exhibition space, surrounded by paper lanterns and other artifacts of chinoiserie. 



The 1869 photograph The Joining of the Rails at Promontory Point, taken by Andrew J. Russell, features nearly a hundred white men carefully arranged around two black steam engines. Railroad baron Leland Stanford commissioned the shot to commemorate the completion of the first transcontinental railroad when the two lines, the Union Pacific from the east and the Central Pacific from the west, joined in Promontory, Utah. There are two white engineers positioned in the very center, shaking hands, while in the background white men raise glasses of champagne. Missing from the picture are the thirteen thousand Chinese workers who had made up the majority of the workforce on the Central Pacific line.


Andrew J. Russell, Joining of the Rails at Promontory Point, 1869


The Golden Spike National Historic Site, as it is now known, offers tourists an opportunity to re-enact the staging of the photograph. This curious communal, repeated act of mimesis occurs twice a day on Saturdays and holidays during the summer tourism season, according to the website, with a “dedicated team of volunteers” who dress in period costumes and recreate the golden spike ceremony. There is also a downloadable script for use by schools, two versions for both grades fourth through sixth and seventh through ninth, in which children may also participate in this bit of historically sanctioned whitewashing.

In 2002 and in 2012, groups of about two hundred Chinese Americans, including descendants of the first railroad workers, gathered for their own re-enactment in Utah, replacing every figure in the historic photo with a Chinese person. It was a symbolic act of resistance to a symbolic act of erasure.


Arguably, the most famous nineteenth-century images of Chinese people in America were taken by white photographer Arnold Genthe. The black-and-white photographs were taken of San Francisco’s Chinatown between 1895 and 1906, the year in which the original Chinatown was leveled in the San Francisco earthquake. He later published two anthologies, Pictures of Old Chinatown (1908) and Old Chinatown (1913). An immigrant from Germany, Genthe said he was inspired to photograph the neighborhood after reading one of the many guidebooks written by white men who claimed it was dangerous, seedy, and a must-see. As Genthe would later write in his memoir, “A sentence saying, ‘It is not advisable to visit the Chinese quarter unless one is accompanied by a guide,’ intrigued me. There is a vagabond streak in me which balks at caution. As soon as I could make myself free, I was on my way to Chinatown…”


Arnold Genthe, Chinatown, c. 1900 (Library of Congress)


At first, Genthe’s photographs seem invaluable for their depiction of the buildings and alleys and fashions. However, historians have shown that Genthe’s photographs were far from objective documents. Genthe staged some scenes and heavily edited others. He removed anything that detracted from the exotic image that he wanted to convey: cropping out images of white people, English-language signs, telephone poles, and even electrical wires.

He labeled his photographs, too. The photo of a Chinese woman standing on the sidewalk: “The Street of the Slave Girls.” A Chinese man walking away from a stove is captioned, “The Devil’s Kitchen by Night.” Even a shot of random Chinese men in crowds on the street, smoking, talking, walking, is ominously labeled, “The Street of Gamblers.”

After the original Chinatown was leveled in the 1906 earthquake, Chinese businessmen raised money to rebuild the neighborhood, in an intentionally lighter, airier, and more “beautiful” manner, with pagoda-esque elements added to buildings to attract tourists to the local restaurants and small shops. Genthe declared the new Chinatown too commercial and declined to take new pictures.


With the rise of motion pictures, the superficial representation of Chinese immigrants increased although the use of actual Chinese actors did not. White actors were cast instead. I remember the first time I saw D. W. Griffith’s 1919 silent film Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl. It was broadcast on public TV when I was in elementary school. It caught my eye because I’d never seen a movie before that depicted an interracial couple in which the man was Chinese and the woman was white, like my parents. However, it took me a while to realize the man was only supposed to be Chinese. He was played by the white actor Richard Barthelmess in yellowface, with taped eyes and a fake braided wig.


Still from Broken Blossoms (1919)


He was among the first of many white actors playing Chinese, including Warner Oland and Sidney Toler as the detective Charlie Chan; Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, and Tilly Losch (as Wang, O-lan, and Lotus respectively in The Good Earth); Katharine Hepburn (Jade Tan in Dragon Seed); and even Emma Stone (playing the mixed-race Chinese American Allison Ng in 2012’s Aloha).

I once showed The Good Earth in a creative-writing class I was teaching at Amherst College. My students were mostly Asian American and we laughed at the broad stereotypes portrayed by all the white actors in yellowface. Afterward, one Korean international student in the class stood up; he was shaking. “It’s so-so-so exaggerated!” he managed to say.

Seeing his distress, I realized I had forgotten what it felt like to experience erasure for the first time, to see the unfamiliar features of the actors, Paul Muni’s ridiculous, corny overacting as he prepares for his wedding day, the wide-eyed look of dumbfounded oppression on Luise Rainer’s face. As an adult I’d been acculturated to such images. I had forgotten how I’d first felt, when I realized Richard Barthelmess, with his freakish taped eyes and stupid wig, was supposed to be someone like my father, my grandfather, like my family.


What would it have been like to grow up in a country that had shown images of Chinese made by Chinese? While Crazy Rich Asians’ record-breaking box office revealed the pent-up desire of Asian Americans to see reflections of their diasporic identity, films from a century earlier offered their own attempt at cultural restoration. In 1917, two years before Broken Blossoms, a Chinese American woman in Oakland, Marion E. Wong, wrote and directed The Curse of Quon Gwon. The melodrama starred Marion and her sister-in-law, Violet, in a love story about two Chinese American sisters and their suitors.

It received no distribution. No movie theater would show it.


Still from The Curse of Quon Gwon (1917)


Years later, Violet’s grandson found three reels of the movie in his grandmother’s basement and paid to have them transferred to 16mm. Although incomplete, the film was eventually restored professionally and, in 2006, it was added to the National Film Registry. The Curse of Quon Gwon was finally screened theatrically in Oakland in 2015, ninety-eight years after it was filmed and nearly a half century after the director’s death in 1969.


Wayne Wang’s 1982 debut, Chan Is Missing, addresses directly the sense of erasure and the efforts at recovery of Chinese American identity. Like a palimpsest built upon these missing, elided, cropped, staged, caged, and erased images of Chinese immigrants, Wang’s black-and-white film captures the loss but also offers resistance.


Still from Chan is Missing (1982)


In a subversion of the Charlie Chan trope, a local Chinatown cabbie (Wood Moy) plays a would-be detective searching for his long-time friend who’s identified only as Chan. The cabbie interrogates old friends, strangers, and colleagues only to find that each describes the missing man in a different, often contradictory light. As the title suggests, there will be no Charlie Chan images, no yellowface, but instead an exploration of the complexity of Chinese American identities.

Sitting in the flickering light of my college campus theater, I could not put into words what I felt the first time I saw Wang’s film, the surprise that someone else had felt this way and could articulate it so subtly and brilliantly. It gave me hope. And it planted the tiny seed in the back of my mind that storytelling was important, that art could fight erasure, that maybe someday, I could do this work, too.

At one point, Chan’s daughter named Jenny (Emily Yamasaki) also disappears. The cabbie looks for her in the restaurant where she works, but the hostess has no idea who Jenny is until Jenny walks into frame. “Oh, her,” the hostess responds. “Her name is Shao Lui, not Jenny.”

In this scene, Wang captures the idea that a person could be lost as easily as that, slipping into the crack between languages, the way the paper trail for many immigrants has been lost between the transliteration of one’s Chinese name or paper-son name or Angel Island name. Like Afong Moy, like thirteen thousand Chinese railroad workers, like women and men turned into slave girls or gamblers, one’s real self could be erased so quickly from the record of America.



May-Lee Chai is the author of ten books, including the memoir Hapa Girl, the novel Tiger Girl, and, most recently, the story collection Useful Phrases for Immigrants