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 It’s the most restrictive immigration policy the U.S. has ever had to date and wasn’t repealed until the early 1940s.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

 

Gibson Girls Gone Wild!

In February I will be boarding a plane for Manila. It will take me 24 hours airport to airport, and that will feel like a long time. I will probably complain about how tired I am, or how small airline seats have become. Both will be true.

But my Edwardian sisters—known as “Gibson girls” after popular illustrator Charles Dana Gibson—would be shocked by how spoiled I am. For them, a trip from Boston to the Philippines would have taken seven weeks. And they thought themselves lucky, since the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal had cut the trip in half. Their bargain ticket would have cost $120 in 1900—the equivalent of almost $3500 today. My ticket cost around $800.

I also have another advantage: knowledge. I know what the Philippines are like. Things may have changed in the last five years, as things do, but generally I know what I will find. But my three Gibson girls featured here—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish, M.D.—did not. These women either had no information or bad information about the Philippines. For example, a United States senator, John W. Daniel, from Virginia explained that “there are spotted people there, and, what I have never heard of in any other country, there are striped people there with zebra signs upon them.” To you or me such drivel is beyond racist to the point of being ludicrously stupid, but Senator Daniel thought this information important enough to pass along in the middle of a government hearing.

If travel to the Philippines was long, expensive, and potentially dangerous, why did women like Fee, Kent, and Parrish do it? Their reasons probably varied. Fee, a teacher, may have gone for the good salary; Kent wanted to prove that she could travel the globe alone; and Parrish was a medical missionary whose faith led her to the islands. But there is one thing all three women had in common: they were more adventurous than the average man of their day. And they were probably more intrepid than me.

From left to right: the cover of Mary H. Fee’s memoir (from the New York Society Library); a portrait of Annabelle Kent in China (from her book Round the World in Silence); the legacy of Rebecca Parish as seen through a nurses’ basketball team for the Mary Johnston Hospital in 1909 (print for sale on eBay); and the classic Gibson girl image on a music score (courtesy of the Library of Congress).
From left to right: the cover of Mary H. Fee’s memoir (from the New York Society Library); a portrait of Annabelle Kent in China (from her book Round the World in Silence); the legacy of Rebecca Parish as seen through a nurses’ basketball team for the Mary Johnston Hospital in 1909 (print for sale on eBay); and the classic Gibson girl image on a music score (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Let’s start with Mary Fee, principal of the Philippine School of Arts and Trades in Roxas City. Fee was one of the first teachers sent by the U.S. Government to establish a secular, coeducational, public school system throughout the Philippines. The Thomasites, as they were called, were sent all over the islands with their Baldwin Primers to read lessons on snow, apples, and George Washington—and none of the students knew what the heck they were talking about. Mary Fee realized that the point was to teach her students to read and write in English, not to have a comprehensive understanding of American meteorology. Soon she was one of four authors (including another woman) of a new Philippine Education series. The First Year Book had lessons about Ramon and Adela, not Jack and Jill. They learned about carabao, not cows. Stories included the American flag, but it was small and in black-and-white, not a full-page color spread. The women went to market for fish and mangoes, and they wore traditional clothing. In other words, the book made sense to the children who read it.

Two pages from The Baldwin Primer and two from The First Year Book, showing the differences in content for the Philippine audience.
Two pages from The Baldwin Primer and two from The First Year Book, showing the differences in content for the Philippine audience.

I relied upon Fee’s memoir, A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, for help in creating my character Georgina Potter in Under the Sugar Sun. I exercised artistic license, of course: Fee’s faithful description of the Christmas Eve pageant, for example, was turned into a courtship opportunity for my hero, Javier Altarejos. Though Fee would eventually return to the United States—not marry a Filipino sugar baron—I am happy to say that her spirit lives on.

In comparison to my careful researching of Mary Fee, I stumbled upon Annabelle Kent’s raucous description of arriving in Manila by ship. While everyone else had horrible seasickness, Kent thought the bumpy ride a blast. The ship bucked like a bronco, and she reveled in it. As I read more, though, I found Kent’s explanation for her sturdy sea-legs: she was deaf. She traveled the globe by herself without an ASL interpreter, and that took guts. It seemed to have started on a type of dare. Kent wrote:

A deaf young lady made the remark to me once that it was a waste of time and money for a deaf person to go to Europe, as she could get so little benefit from the trip. I told her that as long as one could see there was a great deal one could absorb and enjoy.

I knew right then that Annabelle Kent would be my model for a new character, Della Berget, in Hotel Oriente. At a time when American senators were postulating about people striped like zebras, Kent was getting a steamer and seeing everything for herself, including schools for the deaf in China and Japan. The book is the most joyful travel memoir I have ever read.

My final Gibson girl, Rebecca Parrish, was used to being a trendsetter. She was a doctor at a time when medicine was a possible career choice for a woman, but not a common one. And, in the Philippines, it was unheard of. One of her first skeptical patients asked, “Can a woman know enough to be a doctor?” Parrish had to prove herself a million times, by her own account, but she did.

Philippines stamp commemorating the centennial of Parrish’s creation, the Mary Johnson Hospital. Image courtesy of Colnect stamp catalog.
Philippines stamp commemorating the centennial of Parrish’s creation, the Mary Johnson Hospital. Image courtesy of Colnect stamp catalog. The hospital on the left was Parrish’s original, which was destroyed in World War II. It was rebuilt larger, as pictured on the right.

Parrish built a 55-bed hospital in Tondo, the Mary Johnston Hospital, that operated on the principle that no one could be turned away. The hospital began its working life fighting a cholera epidemic but transitioned into a maternity clinic with a milk feeding station. Today, it is a teaching hospital specializing in internal medicine, obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics. Parrish also opened a training institute for nurses. If the doctor seems like a busy woman, you are correct. She wrote: “Hundreds of days—thousands of days, I worked twenty hours of the twenty-four among the sick, doing all that was in my power to do my part, and hoping the best that could be had for all.” I get tired just thinking about it.

Maybe these Gibson girls—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish—did not go “wild” in the cheap DVD series kind of way, but by contemporary standards they were braver than Indiana Jones. My trip to Manila will be tame by comparison, but I will try to honor the memory of those who came before me…and pick the in-flight movie they would want me to see.

Featured image is “Girls Will Be Girls” by Charles Dana Gibson, found at Blog of an Art Admirer.

Sugar Sun series glossary term #14: Goo-goo

Part of me does not want to post this, but you’re going to see the word in the book, so…

It’s a terrible word. Don’t use it. If you are too young to understand how offensive it is, just trust me. This racial slur was used widely by American soldiers, politicians, and civilians to denigrate Filipinos—and later Koreans and Vietnamese in a slight variation (gook). The word apparently was meant to mock Tagalog speakers with their heavy use of the letter g. (G is four times more frequent in Tagalog as it is in English, and is the third most common letter overall in the language.) I read a different explanation in a children’s book of the time called Uncle Sam’s Boys, where it was claimed that the word came from Filipino revolutionaries pretending to be the “good” guys around American soldiers, and somehow “good-good” got shortened. (Yes, they used racial slurs in a children’s book. When I say that racism popped up everywhere in my research, I really mean it.)

Of course, no matter how the Americans came up with the word, the fact that they used it with such vitriol is all on them. This brings up a problem for my writing. How accurate should a historical romance novel be? Americans called Filipinos everything from the N-word to the G-word and more, and they published such language in their novels, memoirs, newspapers, and even bold newspaper headlines. I could have ignored the record, but sanitizing history does not help those who were oppressed. As I recently heard author Wes Moore say: “The worst thing we can take away from a tragedy is to pretend the tragedy did not happen.” If learning about how Americans treated Filipinos makes you angry, then good.

How blind were those Americans to their own small-mindedness? This may help you understand: the English language did not even have a word for racism yet. There was no single term to convey the idea that discrimination based upon race was wrong—not until 1903, and it was not widely used until the 1930s. There was a similar-sounding word, racialism, which was the pseudo-scientific study of traits according to race—as if eugenics was the most natural thing in the world. Yikes.

Therefore, my characters do not come to an epiphany about racial harmony because that would be wildly anachronistic. Georgie falls in love with a man based on his qualities as a man. Javier falls in love with a woman based on her qualities as a woman. That will have to be enough. In fact, Georgie’s relationship with Javier is more complicated than race. It involves class, too. Javier is more wealthy, more cultured, more connected, and more powerful than she is. Javier also has the edge on education and certainly on languages. They do not occupy the same social sphere, no, but it is hard to say whose sphere is higher. The irony of American “benevolent assimilation” (read: “civilizing mission”) is that many of the Yankees Javier meets are less “civilized” than he is. Sometimes he cannot help but point that out to them. (No, it doesn’t go well.)

The truly sad part of this all is that I borrowed the most outrageous insults straight from period sources. I found it distasteful to make these things up, so I relied upon distasteful people to do it for me. Maybe readers will mistakenly believe that I believe these things, but I hope not. Really, I did tone it down. The serious historian inside of me says this book is all unicorns and rainbows, but there is only so much my romantic side can stomach.

On Twitter recently, an author said that she received a two-star ratings on Amazon for NOT warning readers of a non-white main character. [Sigh.] Clearly, racism is still out there. I just hope people understand that accepting something is true to history does not make it the historian’s preference. (Cover photo from Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines.)