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  • Crossing America's Borders:Chinese Immigrants in the Southwesterns of the 1920s and 1930s
  • Philippa Gates (bio)

today, when we think of the film western, we think of a genre dominated by Anglo-American heroes conquering the various struggles and obstacles that the nineteenth-century frontier presented to settlers and gunslingers alike—from the daunting terrain and inclement environment of deserts, mountains, and plains to the violent opposition posed by cattle ranchers and Native Americans. What we tend to forget, most likely because the most famous Westerns of the last seventy-five years also forgot, is that Chinese immigrants played an important role in that frontier history. As Edward Buscombe confirms, "[g]iven the importance of their contribution, particularly to the construction of the Central Pacific railroad, the Chinese are under-represented in the Western" (86). In agreement, Hsuan Hsu writes that Asian Americans have been "written out of dominant narratives" of the West, and when they are included, "it is often through stereotypes such as . . . the laundrymen, prostitutes, and cooks that infuse western settings with 'local color'" (145). Surprisingly, Disney's critically derided summer tentpole film The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013) recently reminded us of that contribution. As Glenn Whipp suggests, The Lone Ranger "looked at the mythology of America's westward expansion with a progressive sensibility that you wouldn't expect from either producer Jerry Bruckheimer or the Walt Disney Co." (par. 9). More specifically, as French critic Jacky Goldberg noted in his review, the film suggests that "America was founded on the theft and unlawful killing of Indians, and the exploitation of Chinese immigrants" (par. 4).1

The nineteenth century saw an influx of Chinese immigrants, originally because of the gold rush in California and later to build North America's cross-continental railroads that would connect the untamed West with the settled East. Between 1848 and 1852, 25,000 Chinese immigrants came to California; by the 1870s, Chinese immigrants constituted 10 percent of the state's population; and by 1882, 110,000 Chinese immigrants lived in the United States, mainly in urban centers in California and other western states (Powell 41–60). The increasingly visible population incited social fears that Chinese immigrants would eventually outnumber Anglo-Americans and override "American" culture with their own. As Gary Okihiro argues, the "Yellow Peril" was a product of a rationalizing discourse linked to Western colonial expansion: "[t]he fear, whether real or imagined, arose from the fact of the rise of nonwhite peoples and their defiance of white supremacy" (138). [End Page 3]

The result was the attempt to control Chinese immigration with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and, later, prevent it altogether with the 1924 Immigration Act. The 1882 Exclusion Act excluded Chinese laborers but did permit a few select classes of Chinese merchants, students, teachers, travelers, and diplomats to apply for admission to the United States (however, it did exclude all Chinese immigrants from gaining American citizenship). The 1924 Immigration Act prevented further immigration by excluding all classes of Chinese immigrants and, as Mae M. Ngai confirms, was "the nation's first comprehensive restriction law" (3) that established "numerical limits on immigration and a global racial and national hierarchy that favored some immigrants over others" (27); in other words, Europeans/"whites" were welcomed, whereas non-Europeans/"colored races" were rejected. Even if only imagined, "Yellow Peril" fears were regarded as founded in reality, especially in the urban centers of the western states where the existing immigrant population was visible, and American film producers exploited this panic.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many films focused on the smuggling of illegal Chinese immigrants—whether men for work or women for prostitution. Although a topic for a handful of social dramas such as The Miracle Makers (W. S. Van Dyke, 1923), Speed Wild (Harry Garson, 1925), Let Women Alone (Paul Powell, 1925), Masked Emotions (David Butler/Kenneth Hawks, 1929), and Lazy River (George B. Seitz, 1934), as well as newspaper-crime films such as I Cover the Waterfront (James Cruze, 1933) and Yellow Cargo (Crane Wilbur, 1936), the smuggling of Chinese people was also common in Westerns. According to the AFI Catalog, Chinese characters and...


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