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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Legacy of Deviance: Historical Constructions of Chinese Immigrant Masculinity

  • Author(s): Lee, Albert J.
  • Matsumoto, Valerie
  • et al.

“[W]omen are…believers in muscular manhood. These lank, scrawny limbs…he was more like a woman than a man.”–1870

“What other men visit salons to get, the Asian gene pool provides for free…ladyboy fingers: soft and long.”–2004

Despite a difference of over a century in publication dates, these excerpts from popular periodicals evince remarkably similar imaginings of the Asian male body. This correspondence is indicative of the ways in which contemporary non-normative constructions of Asian American masculinity suggest a historical linearity rooted in early American conceptions of Asian immigrant men.

As the first group of Asian immigrants to warrant social visibility, an exploration of the social figuration of early Chinese immigrant laborers can serve as a basis for understanding this popularization of emasculation. Specifically, to the extent that this group also formed the foundational basis for a seemingly extant legacy of deviance today, an examination of how these pioneer Chinese men were descriptively bounded within popular spaces can expose both the parallels and points of departure from which we can more fully understand contemporary Asian American masculinity.

This paper analyzes the textual imagery of Chinese immigrant laborers as captured in popular periodicals and print media between 1850 and 1924. In exploring perceptions of Chinese masculinity during this period, the projection of deviance is examined through three lenses of Chinese male non-normative constitution: the diasporic attribution of otherness as non-White aliens, queer domesticity as defined by family and occupation, and most visibly within the perceived and material deficit of agency.

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