The Page Act of 1875, outlawing “lewd and immoral” Chinese women, codified the bigotry directed at Asian women from their earliest migration to the US to today.
Last Tuesday night, a 21-year-old white male went on a shooting rampage, leaving a trail of eight bodies at three Asian massage spas in Georgia. He started at Young’s Asian Massage in a strip mall in the suburb of Acworth, and then drove to Gold Massage Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, which are across the street from each other in Atlanta. The mass murder seemed to be the culminating point of violence in the year of Covid-19, a brutal spree acted out against a low thrum of racist propagandizing about the “China virus” and “kung flu” and the attendant sharp spike in street harassment and vicious attacks against Asians across the country.
In Georgia, the murderer injured one man, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, and killed Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, and Paul Andre Michels, 54. But of particular note was that he took the lives of six Asian women, of whom two were of Chinese descent, Daoyou Feng, 44, and Xiaojie Tan, 49, and the other four of Korean descent: Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51.
A witness at one of the spas told South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo that before opening fire, the suspect shouted, “I’m going to kill all Asians!” But in a press conference, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County sheriff’s office, relayed that the suspect “does claim it’s not racially motivated,” supplanting it with the peculiar explanation that he had a “sexual addiction” and that the spas were a “temptation” for him that he wanted to “eliminate.” Besides the mendacious implication that crimes of misogyny and racism are mutually exclusive, Asians make up only 4 percent of the population in Georgia, which assuredly includes an assortment of sex work locales—yet, miraculously, all three of the suspect’s targets were Asian-owned. He drove a full 27 miles, approximately 40 minutes, to get from a Chinese-owned Acworth spa to two Korean-owned spas in Atlanta. Baker went on to note that it had been “a really bad day for him.”
That the interiority and humanity of a white murderer were given space while the bodies of his victims, six of them Asian women, were reduced to empty vessels for his rage was contemptible. But it’s hardly without precedent. It’s in line with a pattern that goes all back to the arrival of Chinese migrants to this country, to an extremely violent and vicious anti-Asian movement—and to a law that elevated and legitimized that bigotry against Asian women.
That law was the Page Act of 1875, and it was the first act restricting immigration in the United States. While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 often gets most of the ink, it is the Page Act that set the gears of exclusion in motion at the federal level. It did so by branding Chinese women as sex workers, then a prevalent stereotype, and then barring them as well as Chinese contract laborers, from immigrating to this country.
To understand how the Page Act came to be, it helps to understand the world from which it emerged. At the time, according to Jean Pfaelzer in Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, women were just 4 percent of Chinese immigrants—hardly necessitating the hard work of legislation—but in their brief time in this country, they had been hypersexualized and exoticized. They had been marked as sex workers and disease vectors, debasing forces on white manhood, morality, and health. This, in turn, made them a useful instrument in the larger project of ending Chinese immigration to this country. The passage of the Page Act helped further that project, and with it the end of open borders.
“[The law] was using this kind of moral panic about prostitutes to stave off any kind of population accretion through reproduction,” says Mae Ngai, professor of History and Asian American Studies at Columbia University and author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.
And it succeeded. In 1870, the ratio of male Chinese residents to female Chinese residents was 13 to one but it ballooned to 21 to one by 1880, and didn’t dip below 12 to one until 1920. While many immigrant groups typically started out with higher ratios of men, the gender balance equalizing over time, the skew for Chinese Americans endured for a century, rather than decades, thanks in large part to the Page Act.
Prior to the act, Chinese migrants had been coming to the United States in significant numbers for a quarter-century, since 1849, following the gold rush in California. They first worked in mining camps, often as cooks or washing clothes, and later in railroad construction, agriculture, and manufacturing. Violence in the frontier West was hardly rare, but that against the Chinese was both pervasive and political: lynchings, arson and bombings, stabbings, and shootings, typically done in the name of establishing a “free white republic,” and often initiated by European immigrants—a pattern that continued against other Asian immigrants. Pogroms were quite common, with at least 168 Chinese communities driven out of the US West in the mid-1880s, according to Beth Lew-Williams’s The Chinese Must Go!
Even before the Chinese began to arrive, the 1830s tabloid press sensationalized them with “lurid accounts of bizarre Chinese customs” and “sexual aberrations,” in particular polygamy, then practiced in China, as elsewhere. Chinese women quickly became the target of politicians and civic leaders dedicated to shaping a white Christian republic. While sex workers of many nationalities came to the West during this era, municipal authorities focused their attention on the Chinese in particular. And health professionals and moral leaders, along with a growing body of race and germ pseudo-science, framed Chinese women as a unique danger, supposedly carrying exceptionally virulent venereal diseases and tempting otherwise pious white boys into sin. Renowned gynecologist J. Marion Sims, president of the American Medical Association, warned that a made-up “Chinese syphilis tocsin”—sound familiar?—was fueling a raging epidemic. (In a time of plague, it seems hardly coincidental that old attitudes about Asian women as carriers of contagion and immorality have been reactivated today.)
As early as the 1850s, the California legislature had begun trying to halt Chinese immigration and segregate those already here in a number of ways, including by levying heavy fines on steamship companies for transporting unmarried “lewd and debauched” Chinese women. In 1870, California Senator Cornelius Cole told the San Francisco Chronicle the women ”spread disease and moral death among our white population,” causing him to ask “whether or not there is a limit to this class of immigrants.”
The challenge for men like Cole was that a pact, the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868, already existed between the United States and China guaranteeing “free immigration” between the countries, and enabling all Chinese immigrants who were traveling of their own free will (that is, who were not coerced or indentured) to enter this country. To get around this clause, Representative Horace Page, a typically anti-Chinese California politician, crafted a federal bill to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women,” as he put it.
“The Page Act excluded contract laborers and so-called Mongolian prostitutes,” says Ngai. “Contract laborers and prostitutes were considered, by definition, to be not free persons and therefore did not fall under the treaty’s allowance for free immigration.” Since Chinese migrant men were actually voluntary immigrants, not indentured laborers, the law did not prevent them from continuing to migrate—despite a widespread racialized myth that Chinese men were slavish “coolie” laborers—and they continued to migrate unabated. But Chinese women were effectively banned.
“The way the law was written, you had to certify that you weren’t a prostitute,” says Ngai. “How do you prove a negative?” Any Chinese woman attempting to enter the United States was subjected to a humiliating interrogation about whether she was a prostitute by a white male consuls. Wives of merchants, and, later, women from other privileged categories, were still able to emigrate in smaller numbers, albeit not easily.
In addition to barring most Chinese women and contract laborers, the law also banned citizenship for Chinese men and women who married white American citizens, building on the miscegenation laws directed at Black people. It was part of a multipronged propaganda effort: While approximately half of the Chinese men who immigrated to the United States were married, popular media caricatured them as homosexual, perhaps to allay the sexual anxiety of white male masculinity destablized by their perception of labor competition. In this contradictory portrait of Asian deviancy, Chinese men were homosexual (or at other times predators of white women), while Chinese women were prostitutes who could reproduce with either Chinese men (thus threatening the white republic) or white men (defiling blood lines)—both a racialized sexual threat to the white Christian state.
“They are brought for shameful purposes to the disgrace of the communities where settled,” said Page. “And to the great demoralization of the youth of these localities.” Of course, it never occurred to such men that any women who were engaging in sex work were merely making a living by meeting an economic demand—one driven entirely by paying male customers of their own free will.
One hundred and fifty years, later, the story of the Atlanta shooting suspect comports rather neatly with this history. For the alleged shooter, whose acquaintances described him as “big into religion,” Asian women were deemed an existential threat to white Christian rectitude. That the women he killed, some of whom reportedly slept at work, were humans with families who loved them and hopes for their hard labor was invisible to the Atlanta shooter, who could only fetishize them as immoral abstractions.
As in the 19th century, the stigmatization of sex work has cast a pall over working-class Asian women in general; with little information as to the nature of each of the deceased’s vocation, some on social media cruelly recycled old degrading jokes, leaning on racialized and gendered tropes like “happy endings” and “love you long time,” while family members of the deceased scrambled for funeral arrangements. Hyun Jung Grant, who worked at Gold Spa, was a single mother of two sons, Randy, 22, and Eric, 21, while Xiaojie Tan, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Young’s Asian Massage, was a mother of one daughter, Jami, 29.
The civil rights era helped dismantle the absurdist matrix of laws once erected to prevent Asian immigrants from entering into American society. But Page’s spirit lives on in the toxic brew of bigotries that conceptualize Asian women as debauched and diseased, at once sinfully irresistible and spiritually corrupting—as temptations to be extinguished.
In this view, saving the soul of the good white American man, whatever his demands on the service economy or cruel misdeeds, is a noble prerogative—while the irredeemable, indistinguishable mass of working-class Asian women are a contagion that, once again, must be removed.