I found a list of articles in the D/Populations–Chinese reference section. These articles were not in the box containing my previous indexes’ materials. Instead, these articles were listed on reference cards. As my doc indicates, only some of the reference cards had the full article or notation on the card. All of them, however, are available in microfilm.

Using these cards as a starting point, I went to the microfilm room in the DPL. I tested out the machines and archives by trying to find one of the enlisted articles from the box. I found several of them in more or less a half hour.

Many of these articles (particularly those from 1873-1910) are in the “Sayings and Doings” section on the front-page news. They are small blurbs of “gossip” about people around town. The blurbs about the Chinese are wedged in between remarks about Italian vendors, eyewitness accounts of violent struggles between a man and his wife, funny jokes, and observations of passersby.

Most of this material is extremely weird to me. It’s like a reporter was either walking down the street and recorded a bunch of random thoughts about the people he saw, or a bunch of journalists sat in a room, turned on a tape recorder, and blabbed about their neighbors or what they saw on the way to do their errands. And all under the auspices of journalism, fact, and community value.

I don’t know when the news became widely printed and circulated. Still, it is interesting to reflect on the ways in which bits of information circulated, why those bits of information were deemed relevant or important, and how those bits of information fit in with bigger pieces of information then or now.

It is too easy to point a finger and squeal, “they’re all racists!” when reading the bits of information about the “Chinee,” “the Orientals,” the “Celestials,” or the “children of the sun,” as the Chinese were routinely named, in the Detroit News and Free Press. Instead, I am fascinated at how a vague pattern of schizophrenia seems to move reporters’ perceptions of Chinese people.

Articles scattered throughout the period of a year, or even within a single article, seem to alternate between inquisitive affirmations and shallow assumptions about Chinese customs, culture, behavior, or even the individuals themselves. The inquisitive affirmations surely arose from an acute curiosity of a people who undoubtedly looked and acted quite different from white and minority groups alike, though perhaps wrought with good intent, often appear to have ulterior meaning lurking inside. For example:

“The number of Chinamen in Detroit is on the increase, but the pigtails seem to be welcome.”– The Free Press, 1874

This statement, on the surface, is a statement of the facts, that is, that Detroit’s Chinese population is steadily increasing. It is also an affirmation that the community appears to accept the presence of Chinamen, whose identity is replaced by a type of hairstyle instead of the third-person pronoun “they” in the second clause of the sentence.

The nonchalant reference to a stylistic attribute of a Chinese man’s hair at the time may indicate the ease of such rhetoric in common language about ethnic immigrants, but it also signifies people’s opinion about the peculiarities of non-white standards of appearance and behavior. While the pigtails or queues, often worn by Chinese men at that time, may have been of fascination to the public, there is no question that the hairstyle was also regarded as exotic, foreign, or even deviant, as the Queue Ordinance of 1873 made wearing pigtails an offense in San Francisco.

Similar to the “her face is pretty” quip that people who are earnest to be polite amidst their wrenching hang-ups on body fat make when asked to evaluate a larger-than-normal (whatever “normal” means anyway) woman, this statement jests at something about a person or group of people deemed abnormal, while simultaneously trying to sound accommodating or even salutary. 

Likewise, other blatantly racial statements based on shallow assumptions about the Chinese are vessels for loaded commentary about assimilation into the “great American way.” Consider this posting in the “sayings and doings” section of the Detroit Free Press in 1875. 

“One of Detroit’s heathen Chinese has sacrificed his queue and taken to plug hats.”

Again, this statement is disguised as a fact. A Chinese man reportedly cut his hair (or tied it in a bun, as the article does not indicate the details) and now wears the hat more common in the American mainstream. Two other words in this statement, however, prompt more investigation into the cultural perceptions of the writers and, ultimately, the English-speaking readers of the newspaper.

The first, and perhaps the most easily targeted, shallow assumption about the Chinese is that their values, ideals, and customs are “heathen,” immoral, irresponsible, and uncivilized. Though attempts made by Reverend Logan H. Root to dispel the myth in 1942 may have enlightened Americans’ perceptions of our irreligious neighbors from the East, the Chinese were commonly identified with negative stereotypes derived from xenophobic and uneducated understandings of the immigrant labor pool of the mid-nineteenth century.

Second, this statement hinges on the verb “sacrificed,” referring to the action of the Chinese man relinquishing his beloved hairstyle, which was affiliated with the Han people in China and the national policies of the Manchu during the Qing Dynasty, to don a real American derby.

The word “sacrifice” is charged with the implication that not only was this particular Chinese man, and potentially others, trading traditional and non-conformist cultural customs for American ones, but that American customs and habits were better. This statement, like the one above, is at odds with itself.

The reporter who wrote this upholds the decision of the Chinese man as beneficial and preferential but criticizes the Chinese as a whole. To the most zealous whistleblowers, this statement could serve as the racist implication that Chinese people are so “heathen” it is a wonder that one was capable of recognizing what was good for him. 

I am intrigued to find, however, that despite the condescending or chastising remarks about the Chinese people in the U.S., newspaper reporters never failed to hail the “Great Empire” from which they came. Frequently, reporters described distinct national traditions of the Eastern regime, such as New Years Festival, funerary rites, and love of one’s country, as well as the Emperor and the Empress, using grandiose language about the color, music, art, folklore, or simply the tradition, embedded in the act(s).

Tradition, especially, was revered by the American people as many Americans practiced traditions of their own, whether religious, social, or familial. The Chinese, through hundreds of years of dynastic changes and expansion, were thought of as having the longest and perhaps most uniform way of life, a history of living that stretched over 2,000 years. Caught between the rotating arms of the majority in America–their fantasies about cultural continuity and strength in a place, ideas supported by the perpetuation of traditions, their inquisition of the exotic abroad, and their fear of “the rest” nesting in the “West”– communities of “yellow” people continued to grow in the United States, at times ushered “in” and at others, skirted “out.”

Detroit Free Press Archive