“Atlanta shootings: anti-Asian bias is not new”, Le Monde diplomatique
By Mari Uyehara, Paris, April Edition
The ideas claimed to be behind the Atlanta spas shootings have a long history, going back to the Page Act of 1875, which blocked Chinese female migration to the US for decades and stigmatised Asian women.
When a 21-year-old white male shot eight people at three Asian massage spas in Georgia on 16 March (1), the killings seemed to be the culmination of violence after a year of Covid-19, with its racist propagandising about the ‘China virus’ and ‘kung flu’ and a sharp spike in street harassment and attacks against Asians across the US.
The shooter, named as Robert Aaron Long, is accused of killing eight people, including two women of Chinese descent — Daoyou Feng, 44, and Xiaojie Tan, 49 — and four of Korean descent — Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51. A witness at one spa told South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo that before opening fire, the suspect shouted, ‘I’m going to kill all Asians!’ Only 4% of the population of Georgia are Asian, yet all three targets were Asian-owned, and the shooter drove 27 miles, approximately 40 minutes, to get from the Chinese-owned Woodstock spa to the two Korean-owned spas in Atlanta.
In a press conference, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County sheriff’s office, said the suspect ‘does claim it’s not racially motivated’, and had explained that he had a ‘sexual addiction’ and the spas were a ‘temptation’ he wanted to ‘eliminate.’ Baker noted it had been ‘a really bad day for [the suspect]’.
The way the law was written, you had to certify that you weren’t a prostitute. How do you prove a negative?Mae Ngai
That the shooter’s interiority and humanity 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 not without precedent. The pattern goes back to the arrival of Chinese migrants to the US, a violent anti-Asian movement, and a law that elevated and legitimised bigotry against Asian women.
The Page Act of 1875 was the first to restrict immigration in the US. While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 often gets most of the ink, the Page Act set exclusion in motion at the federal level by branding Chinese women as sex workers, then a prevalent stereotype, and barring them, as well as Chinese contract labourers, from immigrating to the US.
Chinese women debased
It helps to understand the world in which the Page Act emerged. At the time, only 4% of Chinese immigrants were women, but in their brief time in the US they had been hypersexualised and exoticised, and marked as sex workers and disease vectors, debasing forces on white manhood, morality, and health (2). This made them useful to the larger project of ending Chinese immigration. The passage of the Act furthered 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 (3). And it succeeded. In 1870 there were 13 male Chinese residents in the US to every female; that ballooned to 21 to one by 1880, and it didn’t dip below 12 to one until 1920. Many immigrant groups started with higher ratios of men, but the gender balance equalised over time, while the skew for Chinese Americans endured for a century, mostly because of the Page Act.
Chinese residents had come to the US in significant numbers since 1849, following the gold rush in California. They worked in mining camps, often as cooks or washing clothes, and later in railroad construction, agriculture and manufacturing. Violence in the frontier West was not rare, but violence against the Chinese was pervasive and political: lynchings, arson and bombings, stabbings, and shootings all in the name of establishing a ‘free white republic’, and often initiated by European immigrants — a pattern that extended to other Asian immigrants. At least 168 Chinese communities were driven out of the West in the mid-1880s, according to Beth Lew-Williams’s The Chinese Must Go!
In the 1830s, before the Chinese began to arrive, the tabloid press published lurid accounts of ‘bizarre Chinese customs’ and ‘sexual aberrations’, especially polygamy. Chinese women became the target of politicians and civic leaders dedicated to shaping a white Christian republic. Sex workers of many nationalities came to the West, but local authorities focused their attention on the Chinese; health professionals and moral leaders, with a growing body of pseudo-science, framed Chinese women as a unique danger, as temptresses and carriers of virulent venereal diseases. Gynaecologist J Marion Sims, president of the American Medical Association, warned that a (made-up) ‘Chinese syphilis tocsin’ was fuelling an epidemic.
‘Disease and moral death’
By the 1850s, the California legislature had begun trying to halt Chinese immigration and segregate those already there, 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 that the women ‘spread disease and moral death among our white population’.
The challenge for men like Cole was that the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868 between the US and China guaranteed free immigration between the countries, enabling all Chinese immigrants who were travelling of their own free will (not coerced or indentured) to enter the US. To get around this clause, Representative Horace Page crafted a federal bill to ‘end the danger of cheap Chinese labour and immoral Chinese women’.
‘The Page Act excluded contract labourers and so-called Mongolian prostitutes,’ says Ngai. ‘Contract labourers 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 voluntary immigrants not indentured labourers, the law did not prevent them from continuing to migrate, despite a widespread myth that Chinese men were slavish ‘coolie’ labourers. 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 US was asked by white male consuls whether she was a prostitute. Wives of merchants, and, later, women from other privileged categories could still migrate, but not easily.
The Act also banned citizenship for Chinese men and women who married white American citizens, building on the miscegenation laws directed at Black people. About half of male Chinese immigrants to the US were married, but popular media caricatured them as homosexual (perhaps because white male masculinity felt threatened by competition from foreign labour) or as predators on white women, and Chinese women as prostitutes who could reproduce with Chinese men (threatening the white republic) or white men (defiling blood lines).
‘Great demoralisation of youth’
Page claimed the women were ‘brought for shameful purposes to the disgrace of the communities where they settled. And to the great demoralisation of the youth of these localities.’ It never occurred to such men that women engaging in sex work were merely making a living by meeting an economic demand, driven entirely by paying male customers.
Such details as we know of the Atlanta shooting suspect fit the history. He has been described as ‘big into religion’; Asian women were deemed an existential threat to white Christian rectitude. He does not seem to have been able to see the dead women as human beings with families who loved them, and who worked so hard that some slept at their place of work for weeks at a time, barely seeing those families. From what has been quoted of his statements, he could only fetishise them as immoral abstractions.
As in the 19th century, the stigmatisation of sex work has cast a pall over working-class Asian women in general. With little real information about the victims’ actual jobs, some people recycled old, degrading jokes on social media, leaning on racialised and gendered tropes. We know a few facts: Hyun Jung Grant, who worked at Gold Spa, was a single mother of sons, Randy, 22, and Eric, 21; Xiaojie Tan, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Young’s Asian Massage, had one daughter, Jami, 29.
The civil rights era helped dismantle the absurdist laws that once prevented Asian immigrants from entering into American society. But Page’s spirit lives on in the bigotries that conceptualise Asian women as debauched and diseased, irresistible and spiritually corrupting temptations. In this view, saving the soul of a white American male remains a noble prerogative, while irredeemable working-class Asian women are considered a contagion to be removed.
(1) He started at Young’s Asian Massage in Woodstock, near Acworth, then drove to Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, across the street from each other in Atlanta.
(2) See Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: the Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, Random House, New York, 2007.
(3) 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, Princeton University Press, 2004.