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Historical Vermin and Extermination

And the tropes of pestilence and eradication are particularly chilling because there are historical parallels of this exact rhetoric against the Chinese. During the late 1800s, as Chinese immigrants were blamed for many problems ranging from unemployment to the economic depression itself, they were portrayed as vermin that lived on rats and thus were a sub-human race that should be exterminated to protect the American way of life.

The images below are taken from Iris Chang's book, "The Chinese in America", and are depictions of the Chinese taken from periodicals published during the late 1800s.


And indeed, there are well-documented mob lynching and massacres of Chinese immigrants. These were particularly prevalent in the period known as the "Great Driving Out".

Of course, the story of prejudice against the Chinese during the 1800s is far more complex and nuanced than stemming from just the laundry workers. And, of course, the parallel that I'm trying to draw isn't perfect. But the juxtaposition of this historical narrative with the much more recent narrative we typically tell about "Chinese" gold farmers reveals its disturbing metaphors and framings. The contemporary narrative starts to feel too much like the historical one - Chinese immigrant workers being harassed and murdered by Westerners who feel they alone can arbitrate what constitutes acceptable labor.

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Posted on January 2, 2006 | Comments (119) | TrackBack (0)

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