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 It’s the most restrictive immigration policy the U.S. has ever had to date and wasn’t repealed until the early 1940s.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

 

New Year’s 1900: Y1.9K

Do you remember when New Year’s Eve 1999 was dominated by Y2K fears? (I know, it seems so naive and innocent, in retrospect.) Was there a similar Y1.9K crisis? What were Edwardian era fears? Thanks to the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America catalog of historical American newspapers from 1690 to the present, I was able to take a peak into the past. Through a search of front pages on New Year’s Eve 1899 and New Year’s Day 1900, I found both more and less than I expected.

In terms of hard news, the concerns were much as any other day, and any other year: war, terrorism, natural disasters, fires, religion, disease, health care, and politics. I did not keep track, but the most prevalent story seemed to be the Boer War in South Africa. And, no, the Americans were not a party to this conflict, but that did not mean Americans did not have opinions. (Do Americans ever not have opinions?) The war was a part of Britain’s attempt to annex two gold- and diamond-producing Boer Republics, where descendants of Dutch colonists lived. They wanted to stitch them into a British-federated South Africa—and they would eventually be successful. But, at the end of 1899, the Boers were winning. The Boers had besieged three cities and won several significant battles against the underprepared and undermanned British. In the United States, sentiment was generally unfavorable to British—especially in areas of large Germanic or Dutch settlement in the American Midwest, where newspapers depicted the British as mired in a “densely stupid policy.” According to the New York Sun, the American Irish also gave widespread support for Boers, based upon their hatred for British. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And so it goes.

The Boer War was a guerrilla insurgency similar to the Philippine-American War—which was happening at the exact same time—and generally the papers who were critical of British efforts to “pacify” the Boers were maybe a little more honest about the difficulty of “pacifying” the Filipinos, too. One way they could do this was to cover an attempt by Filipino partisans to launch an assault on the funeral of General Henry Ware Lawton, the only American general to be killed in action during the conflict. The Americans caught wind of the plan and found a stash of four bombs meant to be dropped from the rooftops, along with five hundred rounds of ammunition and a few firearms. Other papers, interestingly enough, did not mention the “diabolical plot” at all. Instead they gave detailed coverage of the people at the funeral and the new cabinet planned by Governor Leonard Wood.

In Hawaii, the Pacific Advertiser welcomed the new year with an illustration of sugar cane, banana trees, and palm trees.
In Hawaii, the Pacific Advertiser welcomed the new year with an illustration of sugar cane, banana trees, and palm trees.

Some papers were admiringly local in their coverage. Both Hawaii papers (The Hawaiian Star and The Evening Bulletin) were devoted to either island news or, at their most global, Pacific Rim events. One such story was the Black Plague outbreak in China. The Tombstone Epitaph reported on local weather and wedding announcements on the front page. Both Richmond (VA) papers were darned near full of advertisements—for the city itself. The Richmond Dispatch reported on “A Year of Great Prosperity” and that the “Future [Would Be] a Brilliant One.” The Times (of Richmond) proudly proclaimed that “Everywhere in Virginia People Busy and Happy.” How nice. The Brownsville (TX) Daily Herald was an odd little paper.Their front page was devoted to vignettes and humorous stories collected from other papers. One revealing piece applauded how the people of Leadville, Texas, ran two law-abiding Chinese (“celestials”) out of town.

“M’Coy Won in Five Rounds” because “Maher was outclassed.” Even in 1900, sports dominated some papers. From the New York Evening World.
“M’Coy Won in Five Rounds” because “Maher was outclassed.” Even in 1900, sports dominated some papers. From the New York Evening World.

And, of course, some papers did not cover hard news at all. The New York Evening World’s front page was dedicated to the results of the McCoy-Maher boxing bout. Pugilism mattered to the readers of the Daily Inter Mountain of Butte, Montana, as well.

The Ocala (FL) Evening Star and the Morning Appeal of Carson City, Nevada were all advertisements. One product featured in the Carson City paper was one of the biggest patent medicines of the turn of the century: “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription for the relief of the many weaknesses and complaints particular to females.” This gave a “fountain of health for weak and nervous women.” The nostrum was a botanical mix of many relaxants designed mostly to help with menstrual pain—though no one would say such a thing, of course. It was just a “weakness” or “complaint.”

An advertisement and bottle of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
An advertisement and bottle of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Y1.9K did have some technological fears, especially centered around the newest invention of the day: the horseless carriage, or the automobile. There were no alarmist articles about how motorized transport would lead to lazier Americans, more fractured and transient communities, suburbs, and eventually mechanized weapons. Nope, the sentiment was more subtle, as captured in a political cartoon of Father Time saying: “They want me to try that. Guess I’ll stick to wings.”

Cartoon from the St. Paul Globe.
Cartoon from the St. Paul Globe.

I am not sure what I expected when I began this search, but I think I wanted the papers to seem a little silly. A little quaint. (And Dr. Pierce’s medicine was both of those.) In the end, the biggest surprise may have been the optimism of some of the papers. At first I snickered, but now I realize that this positivity is the very reason I write romance. After being the cynical, hard-headed history teacher all day long, I love the idea that love can triumph over all. Maybe not “everywhere,” but at least somewhere people can be “busy and happy”—even if in my mind. May your New Year be full of happily-ever-afters.

New Year’s wishes from the Houston Daily Post.
New Year’s wishes from the Houston Daily Post.

Featured image banner is from the Richmond (VA) Dispatch.

Find Jen at the Edwardian Promenade

I am thrilled to announce that I will be posting biweekly on Evangeline Holland’s magnificent website, the Edwardian Promenade. Established in 2007, this site is the #1 resource for readers, writers, and students alike for everything Edwardian. As years have passed, the site’s focus has widened beyond 1900-1914 Britain to include global society between 1880-1930. While you are there, take a look through this fantastic, rich site, and check out what Evangeline has been up to, both scholastically and artistically (including her own novels).

I will be cross-posting here, too, so you will not lose any content from this site. To see my introductory post, click here. Since I cut my hand unloading the dishwasher last night, now have eight stitches in my left hand, and am typing this post one-handed—only me!—I will keep it short. Happy reading, everybody!