Mogul and the Chinese Exclusion Act: An Interview with Joanna Shupe

Award-winning author Joanna Shupe writes the men of Edwardian era New York like no other. While some are born to the Knickerbocker Club set, others are self-made titans of industry. But whether they are from Five Points or Fifth Avenue, they are all swoon-worthy. In Mogul, one will battle a real historical injustice: the racist immigration laws of the late nineteenth century.

She never expected to find her former husband in an opium den.

Thus begins Mogul, Shupe’s last book in the Knickerbocker series. Calvin Cabot, the son of humble American missionaries in China, has grown up to become one of the most influential men in America. Even with his lucrative newspapers and powerful friends, though, can he find a way around one of the worst laws of the Gilded Age—the Chinese Exclusion Act—to reunite a friend’s family?

In this post, Joanna Shupe answers our questions about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how she came up with the idea to work such substantive history into the conflict of her novel.

Interview with Joanna Shupe author of Knickerbocker Club series of Gilded Age historical romance

What was the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how will it affect your characters?

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed into law by President Arthur, severely limited the ability of Chinese men and women to enter the United States. It’s the most restrictive immigration policy the U.S. has ever had to date and wasn’t repealed until the early 1940s.

So why were Chinese immigrants singled out? In the 19th century, America was undergoing a massive transformation. The Gold Rush and the railroad expansion led to the need for cheap labor, and many Chinese immigrants (mostly men) were able to find jobs here. Gradually, anti-Chinese sentiment increased, polarized by a few politicians who used the Chinese immigrants as excuses for why wages remained so low. Their solution was to call for the banning of any Chinese laborer, thereby freeing up those jobs for American workers.

Starting in 1882, no Chinese laborer could enter the United States—and it was nearly impossible to prove you weren’t a laborer. Only diplomatic officials and officers on business, along with their servants, were considered non-laborers, so the influx of Chinese immigrants came to a near standstill. They also tightened the rules for reentry once you left, which meant families were separated with little hope of ever reuniting.

How effective were the Chinese Exclusion Acts at excluding the Chinese? For the last half of the 1870s, immigration from China had averaged less than nine thousand a year. In 1881, nearly twelve thousand Chinese were admitted into the United States; a year later the number swelled to forty thousand. And then the gates swung shut. In 1884, only ten Chinese were officially allowed to enter this country. The next year, twenty-six.

— “An Alleged Wife:
 One Immigrant in the Chinese Exclusion Era” by Robert Barde, Prologue Magazine, National Archives, Spring 2004, Vol. 36, No. 1.

Mogul is set in 1889, and circumstances have separated the hero’s best friend from his wife, who is still back in China. His best friend is African American, so they decide to tell politicians and the government that she is really the hero’s wife. This presents a problem when the hero falls in love with—and impetuously marries—the heroine of the story.

Racist anti-Chinese cartoons from Australia and United States illustrating Chinese Exclusion in Joanna Shupe historical romance novel Mogul.
Racist illustrations from Australia and the United States.
This sounds like a pretty sobering piece of history. What inspired you to use the Exclusion Act as a central plot line in Mogul?

I started with this idea that my hero would be discovered in an opium den in New York City, so that was where my research began. I didn’t remember the CEA from my history classes, so I was floored when I discovered it. It’s tragic and racist, and yet seems still so relevant today.

As romance novelists, we love to find conflict for our characters. I thought the CEA might be an interesting way to drive the story forward. I wanted to both highlight the xenophobia of the CEA and use the forced familial separation to craft the plot.

Anti-immigration illustrations and cartoons about Chinese Exclusion Act for interview with Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance
From left: illustration of 1880 anti-Chinese riot in Denver; poster celebrating the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act; photo of Chin Quan Chan and family at the National Archives.
What kind of research did you need to do on the act itself and on the Chinese-American community in general? Do you have any sources that you recommend for students and researchers?

I read quite a bit online about the CEA and the effects of the legislation. The 19th century Chinese-American community was fascinating to research. A good friend of mine is Chinese-American, and I peppered her (as well as her family) with lots of questions about the language and culture. They were all very patient and helpful.

I used mostly archives of The New York Times for tidbits about Chinatown, opium, and the Tongs, which is how I saw a mention of the game fan tan and began researching that. As with most historical research, you can fall into a rabbit hole pretty easily because it’s all so fascinating.

Uncle Sam lodging house anti-immigration cartoon from Puck leading to Chinese Exclusion Act focus of Mogul by Joanna Shupe historical romance author
Centerfold of “Uncle Sam’s Lodging House” from 7 June 1882 edition of Puck, accessed at the U.S. Library of Congress.
In a genre that some claim is about “escapism,” did you encounter any resistance to using this real history as a conflict in your book—either from editors, publisher, or readers?

I didn’t receive any resistance about this storyline, per se, but I’ve had readers tell me that they won’t read any historical set in America. The reason given is they can’t “romanticize” it the way they can with British history.

While I understand what they’re saying—after all, we’ve lived and breathed American history in school since Kindergarten—I don’t agree. We can’t assume we know everything in our history so well that we can’t learn something new or enjoy a compelling story. There’s so much history that isn’t taught—or isn’t taught well—and looking into the past gives us the clearest view of where we are today.

The Gilded Age is one of our finest eras…but also one of our nation’s low points. In each of the Knickerbocker Club books, I’ve tried to highlight some of the issues and problems as well as the opulence and wealth.

Thank you to Joanna Shupe author of Gilded Age historical romance Knickerbocker Club

 

Iris After the Incident: Love Post-Scandal

We’ve all been there. Or have we?

In the last twenty years or so, “Cringe humor,” with its “painful laughs,” has become a popular genre of television. Think The Office, especially the British version. We watch our favorite and least favorite characters embarrass themselves for our amusement. Wait—“amusement”? Some of these shows used real people and their real names. Time Magazine said of the Da Ali G Show: “The way Baron Cohen incorporated real people into his cringe-comedy was mean and unfair, but if it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have been so revealing—or so funny.” I imagine for those people captured on camera, though, it was not just social awkwardness they felt afterwards. It was humiliation.

Where’s the line? We all have our little embarrassing moments we would like to forget. Many of us were socially awkward at one time or another. Maybe even outcasts. Growing up is hard. But what happens when our greatest humiliation comes in young adulthood, the time of life when we are supposed to be getting our act together? How do we go on? How do we find love? This is the reason why I was originally hesitant to read what you might call “cringe romance”: romance where one or both main characters must overcome a very public shame. But these stories need to be told. I am going to review one. And I ended up writing one, too.

The Chic Manila series and more can be found at Mina’s website.
The Chic Manila series and more can be found at Mina’s website.

Mina V. Esguerra’s Iris After the Incident

Writing about humiliation and redemption is hard. It is a rare subject in romance because even if readers want their heroines to be “identifiable,” who wants to feel the humiliation of the main character so acutely? (Unless it is “humiliation kink,” which, yes, is a thing, and no one writes it better than Tamsen Parker in True North.)

I finally picked up the latest in the Chic Manila series after listening to Mina V. Esguerra talk about it on the Book Thingo’s podcast. Esguerra is the leader and pioneer of the #romanceclass group of Filipino writers who innovate and entertain at the same time. I have read others in her Chic Manila series and have loved them. Because kilig (feels). I love that Esguerra is not afraid to make heroines out of her previous antagonists—like Kimmy Domingo, the anti-heroine of Love Your Frenemies. And, yay, Kimmy is in this book, too!

But Iris is not just rough around the edges, like Kimmy. She is not a difficult person. She is quite nice, actually. She has a good job helping young women get scholarships for math and science degrees. She works hard and seeks little credit for it.

But she is broken all the same. She has been utterly humiliated on a worldwide scale. Worst of all, the family who shuns her for shaming them were complicit in making her shame public. It is a real Charlie Foxtrot, as the book blurb says:

Whether she likes it or not, Iris’s life has been divided into two: Before the Incident, and After the Incident. Something very private was made very public, and since then life has been about recovering from being shamed, discovering her true friends, and struggling to find a new normal.

The “something very private” is revealed less than ten percent into the story, but if you do not want to know what it is, stop reading here.

No, really. If you don’t want to know, you need to stop reading now.

Okay. You want to know. Yes, it’s a sex tape. But that sounds more sordid than it really was. Let Iris tell it:

I had sex with my boyfriend.
And we took a video.
And it accidentally got out on the internet.
People saw it.

When Iris says “accidentally,” she really does mean it. It should not have happened. But it did.

And in the beginning, it was still an anonymous sex tape. Life could go on—until a certain member of Iris’s family tried to “clear the air” and blew the lid right off the scandal. Iris’s humiliation is especially acute in the context of Philippine society. To be “walang hiya”—shameless or unconscionable— is one of the worst insults in the Tagalog language. Because Iris’s scandal becomes the whole family’s scandal, the family blames Iris for their collective misfortune.

The character Pascalle West of New Zealand’s addictive show Outrageous Fortune uses public nudity and a sex tape to launch what she hopes is a Kardashian-sized career.
The character Pascalle West of New Zealand’s addictive show Outrageous Fortune uses public nudity and a sex tape to launch what she hopes is a Kardashian-sized career.

The full scope of Iris’s mortification may be hard for non-Filipino readers to understand. In the New Zealand television show Outrageous Fortune, a young woman named Pascalle sets up and leaks her own sex tape in order to encourage notoriety. In the United States of Real Life, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and Rob Lowe made (or remade) careers out of this kind of “fame.” But for Iris Len-Larioca, the heroine of Esguerra’s novel, her sex tape is The End of Days. And she does what you might expect: she hides.

No, she really hides. She moves out of her family home into a small one-bedroom apartment, works a graveyard shift to avoid people in the office, and takes a demotion so she can cower behind a computer instead of wooing clients in person. For a while, she makes her own baking soda toothpaste to avoid the local convenience store.

Surprisingly, though, this broken woman still has a great sense of humor. She retells her own story as if she is writing a grant application—because her job is evaluating grant applications. Bitter sarcasm, self deprecation, and witty rejoinders abound. Iris’s voice is very Bridget-Jones-meets-Jessica-Jones. For example, in a particularly embarrassing scene on a cable car in Tagaytay, she shocks everyone with her honesty: “I’d opened the can of worms, anyway,” Iris thinks to herself. “Worms all over the place.”

The cable car at Tagaytay Highlands. You would not want to be trapped in here with your worst enemy—or your boyfriend’s ex.
The cable car at Tagaytay Highlands. You would not want to be trapped in here with your worst enemy—or your boyfriend’s ex.

Esguerra has made Iris real. And unique. While her voice can be funny, it is also determined, level, and self-aware:

Sometimes I wished that I could be that person that no one singled out, that no one used as an example or a cautionary tale.
Good luck.
We could only move forward.

And Iris tries to move forward. The real story is, in fact, a romance. She tries to move forward with a man just as broken as she is—and for similar reasons. Gio Mella’s sexual skeletons were plastered all over the internet, too. He is also hiding, but in a different way. While Iris wants to know everything said on the internet about her—she has even set up email alerts—Gio has no internet and no phone. The Philippines is the twelfth largest cell phone market in the world, so that essentially makes Gio a unicorn. The lack of phone provides both conflict and wonderful feels in the resolution of the book.

You should know, though, that this book is not plot heavy. No one is kidnapped. No commandos storm the compound. A little bit of scholarship and cosmetic business is conducted—great alternatives to the typical billionaire romance trope—but all of these minor adventures merely serve to put two recluses into closer and closer contact with the world. And we get to see how they fare.

And there is sex. Wonderful, hot sex.

As Sue of Hollywood News Source wrote on Goodreads: “Iris After the Incident is the most feminist & empowering romance book I’ve ever read.” This book is sex-positive. Because the sex on Iris’s tape was consensual, sex itself is not ruined for Iris—just trust. Iris will have to learn to trust Gio, but she knows that she wants to have sex with him—and how. She and Gio have chemistry. Literally:

What I liked about him being on top was I got to watch him. Watched the tension in his arms, his shoulders, the way his hips, his torso, his entire body worked for his pleasure and mine. It was hot, and one of the best ways to cap an hour-long discussion on chemistry, in my humble opinion.

Obviously, there is a future for this couple. If I called it “happy for now,” that would be accurate, but it would minimize the strength of the relationship. “Happy for now” is “happily ever after” for people like Iris and Gio. “Ever after” is too much to think about. Now is the victory. They have now, and I know they will keep having now for many, many nows in the future.

My only quibble with the ending was that Tita Ara did not get vanquished in some spectacularly vivid fashion. I am not usually a mean-spirited person, but there it is.

Iris After the Incident takes on a devastating challenge, but it wins our hearts. It is both a cautionary tale—for my students who put private information on the internet all the time—and an encouragement to persevere.

Tempting Hymn, novella 1.5 of the Sugar Sun series

The heroine in my upcoming book, Rosa Ramos, goes through struggles similar to Iris, but in a very Edwardian era sort of way. Her mistakes were not broadcast on the internet, of course, because it is 1904. But that also means Rosa cannot hide away in the anonymity of modern society. Everyone in Bais knows her story—and if you’ve read Under the Sugar Sun, then you do, too. Rosa was left not only with a soiled reputation, but also a child to support. Adding to her problems—and everyone’s problems, really—are the issues of class and race in the American colonial period.

Character board for Tempting Hymn.
Character board for Tempting Hymn.

My hero, Jonas Vanderburg, is broken, too—but in a very different way than Gio, Iris, or Rosa. This Midwestern missionary’s entire family died in Manila during the cholera epidemic of 1902—an unexpected sacrifice that Jonas has no intention of surviving alone. But Rosa, his nurse, needs to heal him so that she can support her son and redeem her professional reputation. Neither of them want a marriage of convenience, but you can’t always get what you want.

I look forward to sharing this story with you next month. Stay tuned for news. And, until then, read Iris After the Incident, the whole Chic Manila series, and the rest of the #romanceclass collection. I will leave you with a poem:

I will leave you with this poem by Barbara Jane Reyes, “To Be Walang Hiya.”
Poem by Barbara Jane Reyes.

Featured image is a trilogy of sorts: Iris After the Incident builds upon characters introduced in Love Your Frenemies, which in turn redeems a character you love to hate in My Imaginary Ex (pictured here in a three-book set).