cheetahstripes wrote in little_details

Treatment of half-Chinese child/teenager in 1890s "Western" setting?

I've been trying to focus on one of my characters' backstory lately and am having a hard time figuring out the finer details. He grows up during the American Wild West era; his father was Chinese and his mother was a white woman. I need to work out the finer details of how his parents even met but I've been puzzled with how he would be treated during childhood and as an adult.

So basically his father dies shortly after he was born (sometime around 1885), so he's raised by his mother and his disapproving grandfather, and the family owns a ranch and are pretty well-off. His mother dies when he's about 7 so the grandfather has to take over and treats him very roughly. I am having a hard time finding any sort of general information how mixed race children would be treated by small-town American society at large, also considering that he's born out of wedlock.

Almost everything I've found when looking for cases of mixed race people from around that era is for black/white mixed children or relationships, I have found nothing on any kind of Asian parentage. Everything I've found for taboos on interracial relationships are aimed at black/white relationships. I have looked thru articles and the Ask Historians subreddit about Chinese immigration to the US and laborers. So far this dissertation is the best thing I've found, and while it does answer some of my questions it seems to be aimed at people who lived in big cities. And while I can find lots of examples about how normal Chinese immigrants were treated (poorly) — along with how they typically only stayed around each other and established camps and Chinatowns and such — I can't find anything that could fit my character well enough (speaks only English, raised among Caucasian people). Would he be able to attend school and/or church, or would he have to be taught at home?

There was a thing I dug up the other night — and of course now I can't remember where I was looking at it — saying how around the turn of the century or early 1910s and onward, Chinese people were treated almost like white people, or Chinese women essentially had honorary status if they were married to a white man. Now that I'm looking through the page for "Anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States" and it kind of stops after it gets to 1905 and mentions how "yellow peril" fears shifted to Japan instead.

Any help on this would be appreciated. He ends up "dying" around 1910 and becomes a vampire so I'm not really going for cold hard historical realism here, but I like to try and base some of my stuff in reality.


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While I can't comment on the specific time period, taking into consideration the variables you mentioned the boy will be treated very badly by everyone. Especially his grandfather since his daughter got herself pregnant by a Chinese man. The amount of slurs and insults the boy's mother would have gotten would be something.

Taking into account the conservative attitudes at the times, the boy will grow up abused and ostracized. I can't imagine him publicly going to a school or mingling in "respectable society". No offense but I feel sorry for this character and what his hypothetical future would entail.
Well, because of such wonderful things like the Chinese Exclusion Act and general American xenophobia and bigotry, he would have been treated quite poorly by anyone who cared to do so. I'm not sure what thing you dug up saying any Asian-American was given 'honorary' white status - no one who was Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or India-Indian (or Native American or Black) could testify in court, nor could any Asian-American person claim citizenship or even become a naturalized citizen. Any immigrant hand to have a pass they carried, and they only got it if 'vouched for' by a 'reliable' white person.

So - depending on where this ranch is (boonies?) he would most likely not been allowed at school or, if the grandfather made a stink and he was, he would have been ostracized by the kids, and possibly by the teacher. It's also possible the grandfather wouldn't want his 'half-breed' grandchild out and about, 'shaming' him, so he might just keep him at home and school him (or not) there.

Unless you're going for a total AU, there are generally quite a lot of assholes around who delight in making life hard for anyone. As for him being illegitimate - that's something that may or may not be 'common knowledge' - if the woman told no one she wasn't married, or pretended she was (bought a ring), or her grandfather said she was, then people would generally believe it. Did the mother meet the father in the area of the ranch, or on the coast? If she met him elsewhere, even easier for her to lie about it.

As ugly as it is, watching how the Chinese immigrants are treated in the series 'Deadwood' is extremely accurate.

I also found these, which go into the laws/rules a little more, and might give a better overall view.


May 29 2020, 15:28:15 UTC

As far as treatment like whites -- blacks were eligible for naturalization from the Reconstruction. Chinese were not until 1943, and the Act to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts.

Indeed, prior to the Reconstruction, Chinese could not testify against whites in California courts. After it, they could not testify against blacks, either.
You really need to nail down a location, beyond the Wild West, to interpolate what the culture around the characters was.

Given that most Chinese were laborers brought in to do things like work on the railroads or support miner's camps (see Deadwood for a fairly recent television example) the mother would likely be shunned by all respectable people for associating with someone from a lower class.

On the other hand if she is from a family of chancers who made good, they may or may not treat the kid poorly, depending on to what degree Granddad is a social climber. If he is, he might pack the kid off somewhere out of sight (back to China perhaps, for the father's family to deal with. If he's not, he might give the kid a fair shake, and depending on how much power he wields, demand others do the same.

In short, you need to work out more details because while it's true society as a whole was relatively intolerant, individuals are a case by case basis.

I agree on nailing down a specific location. The OP can then take advantage of historical resources in that area. Local history is pretty fascinating!

For example, the play Cafe Daughter is a look at a First Nations-Chinese woman's life--

Saskatchewan’s 1912 Female Employment Act made it illegal for Chinese business owners to hire white women (because, racism). Chinese businesses hired women from reservations for their businesses. Sometimes the men married First Nations women or their employees and started families.
Another thought, location dependent: Granddad could send Jr to a mission school or other religious enclave. As a priest or novice, the kid would have greater community standing than he might otherwise.
At this time your character would be more likely to have a Chinese mother. White women of that era, even the whores, looked down on Chinese men. A Chinese woman would have had no choice if she was forced into prostitution, or assaulted by whites.
+1 to the sentiments that white woman/Chinese man would be much less acceptable than the other way around. I find it interesting that 1920s Japanese-American movie star Sessue Hayakawa was considered an idol by many women, but anti-miscegenation laws still barred him from interracial romance even in fiction.

But it's not like the "wild west" is known for respect for the law and standardized moral codes... Especially since you're not going for complete historical realism, you could probably find a reason to justify any treatment short of outright positive acceptance. Could be anything between "socially/legally a non-person" and "slightly embarrassing open secret". Maybe he's lucky and his community just happens to have more tolerant/apathetic individuals. Maybe they simply don't want to offend the grandfather. Another option is for the character to be white-passing and his real father is covered up outside the family. Go with whatever fits best for the major characters and then build around it.

If I may go on a tangent, I've been reading Killers of the Flower Moon, and while it's about Osage rather than Asians, I thought the factual portrayal of late "wild west" race relations and interracial families could be relevant to you. It's a very interesting book either way.