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The Perils of Home: Race, Gender, and Labor on the Pacific Frontier


In the early twentieth century, Chinese men and white women often worked in close proximity to each other in various intimate settings in the North American West— from the kitchens of upper class homes to the noisy cafés of the city. However, little has been said in the scholarship on the social and political significance of these encounters. Instead, this study centers on the different and connected ways in which intimacy shaped the North American West in the early twentieth century. As such, this work makes central and transparent the connections between the expansion of white women’s political and economic rights and efforts to exclude the Chinese in British Columbia and California. Thus, this study asks: How were changes in the status of white women and shifting notions of domesticity related to debates about Chinese labor and migration? Conversely, to what extent was the anti-Oriental movement and its calls for exclusionary measures informed and shaped by debates about gender roles? Last, how might a transnational analysis of these intersecting debates deepen our understanding of how such controversies shaped Vancouver and San Francisco as frontiers and gateways for Chinese labor migration and white settlement? If both Western Canada and the United States were primary sites for Asian labor migration and white settlement, did intimacy and affective labor play out differently in these two contexts?

By using primary source documents to analyze two murder cases involving Chinese servants and two legislative efforts regarding affective labor in the distinct but connected contexts of Western Canada and the United States, this study shows how white women and Chinese men working together in intimate settings became increasingly scrutinized and subject to rampant social commentary and governmental intervention as racial, sexual, and class tensions flared.

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