The Domestic and the Promiscuous: Forgotten Filipina and Chinese Women in Asian-American History
When thinking about my past history classes in elementary or high school, I realized that I was taught very little about the early Chinese and Filipina women who immigrated to or were born in America - both of whom are a part of my family’s ancestry. The most I knew of their communities and histories revolved around labor and war, two topics that were heavily male-centered during the 19th and early 20th century. Only recently have I asked myself, who and where were the Asian and Asian-American women? Through recent publications such as Erika Lee’s book The Making of Asian America: A History and KVIE, Inc’s documentary Little Manila: Filipinos in California's Heartland, I've been able to learn about some of the forgotten Asian and Asian-American women in America’s history. Not only have I learned about their narratives and immigration stories, I've observed how 19th and 20th century U.S. gender-based laws or trends have influenced the gender roles and constructions of Chinese women as the “promiscuous” and Filipinas as “domestic.” It is important to recognize that these social norms and gender constructs still carry on today. Through my studies and reflection, I have started to see where they play into my own life as well.
One of the earliest U.S. immigration policies that specifically mentioned Asian women was the 1875 Page Act which “barred Asian women suspected of prostitution as well as Asian laborers transported to the country as contract laborers” (Lee 67). The policy identified Asians as “undesirable” because of the common labor found within their communities: the “coolie” system (indentured servants) and prostitution. This kind of reasoning ignores the fact that their forms of labor were a direct reflection of how America was treating them as they immigrated to the U.S. While Chinese immigrants sought to come to “the land of the free,” they were either shackled as slaves or sex objects. These attitudes towards Asian women are still found today through how society fetishizes and exotifies them.
Although generalized towards all Asian women, the Page Act impacted Chinese women specifically because their form of labor was often prostitution. Their role was to satiate “men’s needs” of both Chinese and White men. Two demographics that illustrate the reasons for continued prostitution are: 1) 63,000 Chinese immigrants in the 1870s were majority male, and 2) The percentage of Chinese women immigrants was only 0.3% by 1880 (Lee 68). As a result of this uneven ratio, an immigration to prostitution pipeline encouraged male dominance and control over women. The Page Act was just the beginning of Chinese women being seen and treated as “promiscuous.”
Another act that created obstacles for Chinese immigrants, regardless of gender, was the first Chinese Exclusion Act. Passed in 1882, it “prohibited almost all Chinese migration to the United States. Only a few groups of Chinese were exempt from the law: they included diplomats, merchants and their families, college students, and travelers” (Pegler-Gordon 55). Although the act was not specifically gender-based, it impacted Chinese women heavily. Because the professions labeled as “exempt” from the act were exclusive to men during this time, women struggled to immigrate. Even if married, Chinese wives were also subject to gender biases. Carrying on the effects of the Page Act, U.S. officials would question the women on their morality directly. If they were approved into the country, they were issued a “certificate of good moral character” (Pegler-Gordon 56). Attitudes such as these reflect how Chinese women were seen and how America expected them to be - moral, not “promiscuous.”
In an attempt to change these attitudes, Chinese immigrants used photography to present themselves as they would have liked to be seen and not how the Page Act or Chinese Exclusion Act represented them. For Chinese women, they were “primarily concerned with presenting themselves as respectable, traditional, and chaste.” But “whether Chinese women sought entry as wives of merchants, as wives of native-born citizens, or as citizens themselves, inspectors typically assumed that most Chinese women were prostitutes imported for immoral purposes” (Pegler-Gordon 62). Ten years later, and the Page Act still impacted how people saw Chinese women. It is important to understand that the bias comes in three parts: racial, social, and gender-based. The questions of morality or assumptions that Chinese women were prostitutes were specific to the fact that they were Chinese women. The Page Act socially constructed what people said and thought about Chinese women. The Exclusion Act made it impossible for more women to immigrate to show that they are much more than prostitutes.
Another major trend to acknowledge is how Chinese men themselves began to view Chinese women as promiscuous. Because there was a policy that backed up these ideas, people believed them to be true - which impacted the treatment of Chinese women when they came to the U.S. They were shipped, sold off, and used as goods. They were dehumanized and their immigration became a form of trade. They were called “lougeui (‘always holding her legs up’) and baak haak chai (‘hundred men’s wife’). Chinese prostitutes were virtual slaves” (Lee 70). The rhetoric surrounding Chinese women reinforced the immigration to prostitution pipeline. They were still held to the standard and labels of being promiscuous and loose. Another unfortunate impact to the Chinese community as a whole was that these labels and attitudes contributed to the growing 19th century anti-Chinese sentiment that believed “Chinese immigrants came from a ‘degraded and inferior race’” (Lee 89).
It took over three decades for Chinese women to receive support for a better living and to start to escape their gender stereotypes. “Changing attitudes about gender roles and an easing of cultural restrictions on Chinese female emigration” (Lee 70) did not arise until Chinese prostitutes began to turn to Christian missionaries to escape prostitution in the early 1900’s. Missionaries were one of the few, if not the only, allies to Chinese women prostitutes.
Around the time Chinese women were beginning to change their image and gender roles, Filipina women were being placed in theirs. An act that began the overlooking of Filipina women was the 1903 Pensionado Act. It was a U.S. Government invitation that allowed the “first” Filipino men and women to come to the United States (Lee 177) - they weren’t the first, of course, as the first recorded presence of Filipinos in what is now the United States dates back to October 1587. They set sail to America on October 9, 1903 and studied at institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, and the University of California: Berkeley (Airriess 304). This act enabled Filipino and Filipina scholars to study in the United States and return home to the Philippines when their studies were completed. Although the act states both “men and women” were invited, the faces of the Pensionado Act were typically men. Even the list of names are majority of “pensionados,” the term used for the male scholars that came from the Philippines. Regarding the recipients’ experiences, the common narratives were predominantly surrounding male scholars. Their stories are described in works such as Carlo Bulosan's America is in the Heart. While acknowledging the pieces that recognize Philippine representation, it is noteworthy to think of how this can create the danger of a single narrative. When reviewing the images, list of scholars, and literary works around the Pensionado Act, the following question is presented: What about the pensionadas and Filipina women?
The answer lies in the trends of immigration. Like Chinese immigrants, Filipino men immigrated first. The men came as labor workers such as farmers or fishermen. Also similar to Chinese women, Filipinas were highly unequal to the number of men. With a total of 42,500 Filipinos in California during 1930, there were only 2,500 Filipina women. As recognized by Lee, “despite their small numbers, Filipinas played important roles building families, contributing to family economies, and keeping bonds of extended family strong” (179). This is the only mention of Filipina women in Lee’s sixteen page chapter dedicated to Filipinos in the U.S. Empire; highlighting the fact that the role of family life was vital to a Filipina’s life and immigration story.
Their role as a woman was clear to their counterparts and America: Filipina women were meant for the “casa,” the house. This would helps explain why there were a lack of Pensionadas. At the beginning of their American experiences, Filipina were taught to be domestic. They were needed to help keep the family together while the men traveled abroad to support them. As Lee recognizes, Filipina women had the responsibility and were expected to keep the families close. And even if there were Pensionadas who left the Philippines to study, they were still pursuing pink-collared jobs such as nursing and teaching. Being caretakers was normalized for these women and is a trend that is still found today.
Not only the family sphere was impacted by this expectation; their social life was also affected. Stockton, California was a common destination for Filipino and Filipina immigrants in the 1930’s. It was a prime place for workers to find jobs in farming. When Filipino and Filipinas were not working in the fields, they were dancing in the taxi-dance halls. These halls were the “primary institution which allowed Filipino men to interact socially with women” for ten cents a dance, specifically Caucasian women (Parrenas 241). Caucasian women typically worked in the halls and became the target dance partners of Filipino men.
The most that is mentioned of Filipina women in the Taxi Dance Halls is from Stockton Resident and former President of Filipino American National Historical Society, Anita Navalta Bautista in KVIE, Inc.’s documentary, Little Manila: Filipinos in California's Heartland. During her interview, she says, “I appreciated the role of the Taxi dancers and the ladies (female Caucasian workers) of the evening. Because they took the sexual drive of the Filipino men and kept it away from us. They treated us like relatives, you know. They would feel that our family was their family. And so, these gals, did us a favor. They saved our souls from damnation.” Like Chinese women, Filipinas felt that they must be chaste. If they did anything that was seen as immoral, they would be damned and demonized. Because there was a small number of Filipinas in Stockton, and California in general, they had to host themselves as “respectable women.”
Given another chance to present their moral characters in Stockton, there were also “Queen Contests” to be Miss Philippines. They served as a popularity contests and were used as a fundraiser. Here, women like Bautista would use them as a chance to provide for their families or to buy furniture for their family’s homes. The participants of the contests were also described as Mestizas, half Filipino and half Spanish or European. This would influence how Filipina women saw themselves. With social events such as taxi dance halls and pageants, Filipinas would feel that they had to achieve Whiteness in order to be American or liked by their counterparts. If what they saw was Filipino men dancing with White women and Mestizas winning first place, they would believe that their place was either to stay in the house or go and be like the majority.
When learning about Asian American History, it is important to be critical. Not only has race been a major influencer in the experiences of Asian immigrants, gender has had a key role for Asian women within Chinese and Filipino communities. As I analyze the connectivity of U.S. laws and social trends among these women, I better understand how history is intersectional. It is the multifaceted narratives of immigrants and women of color. My eyes have been open to how generations were treated before me and how I, a Pinay who also has Chinese roots, is being treated today. I have been sexualized for my body type, thick thighs and round hips; my sexuality assumed because I went to an all girls school; denied of my Pinayism because “your eyes are so small”; and told that my place is in the kitchen so I should go make a sandwich. I have no doubt that others have heard these things too. These stereotypes may be found in our past, but it is not our future. We are more than just promiscuous or domestic. We are more than what America has stereotyped us to be. We are rewriting history by breaking down the barriers that define us because history is also “her”story.
Airriess, Christopher A. Contemporary ethnic geographies in America. Second ed.,
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nepage&q&f=false.; Devlin, Dean, director. Little Manila: Filipinos in California's Heartland. YouTube, KVIE, Inc., 1 Oct. 2013, youtu.be/FNCZ8sGJs8I.
Lee, Erika. “Chinese Immigrants in Search of Gold Mountain.” The Making of Asian America: A History, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016, pp. 60–88.
Lee, Erika. “‘The Chinese Must Go!’ The Anti-Chinese Movement.” The Making of Asian America: A History, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016, pp. 89–108.
Lee, Erika. “‘We Have Heard Much of America’: Filipinos in the U.S. Empire.” The Making of Asian America: A History, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016, pp. 174–190.
Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. “Alliances Between White Working-Class Women and Filipino Immigrant Men.” Amerasia Journal, vol. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 115–134., doi:10.17953/amer.24.2.760h5w08630ql643.
Pegler-Gordon, Anna. “Chinese Exclusion, Photography, and the Development of U.S. Immigration Policy.” American Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 51–77., doi:10.1353/aq.2006.0032.
“The Pensionado Act of the Philippines genealogy project.” geni_family_tree, Geni, www.geni.com/projects/The-Pensionado-Act-of-the-Philippines/13372.
Jazlynn G. Eugenio Pastor is a performer, activist, and aspiring educator. Raised in Alhambra, California, the most she knew of her culture was through her family. Before discovering her Pinayism, she wrote poetry and danced Hip Hop competitively. She began to find her roots when she moved to San Francisco in 2014 to study at the University of San Francisco. Through Kasamahan at USF and USF’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, Jazlynn has connected to the Fil/Fil-Am community. She is currently following her passions for culture and the performing arts by serving as Kasamahan’s Cultural Director, an Asian Art Museum Intern, and a member of Parangal Dance Company. She hopes to one day bring her experiences to higher education curriculum.