The Chinese Syndrome


Quimbo Appo was once the most famous Oriental in New York. The oddly named China-born sailor came to the city in the 1840s with an Irish American wife, joining a remarkably creolized port multiculture that thrust together, as one scandalized Bowery-touring minister put it, “a motley multitude of men and women, yellow and white, black and dingy.” Years later, Appo’s interracial marriage would command front-page press scrutiny, and after a series of sensational murder trials, he would end his days imprisoned in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, vilified as the “Chinese devil man.”

Still, as John Kuo Wei Tchen recalls in his fascinating history of the rise of orientalism in America, Appo first became prominent as a kind of 19th-century model minority. In 1856, another visiting minister found the industrious Appo ensconced in respectability as a tea merchant on Spring Street and declared him an “exemplary Chinaman.”

But Appo was no less an Oriental as respectable merchant than as notorious ruffian. In Appo’s early public guise, he exemplified “proto-Christian” virtues extolled by early American patrician admirers of “Mandarins”; in his denouement as “fiend in human shape,” Appo reflected the by-then national fear of the contaminating “heathen Chinee.” And Appo’s spectacular fall from grace, as Tchen puts it, “was not entirely of his own doing.” Like his fellow Chinese Americans, Appo’s life became increasingly fenced in by changing American perceptions of things Chinese. Indeed, New York Before Chinatown demonstrates how the Chinese were marginalized in America even as orientalism became more and more central to the shaping of American culture.

Beginning with George Washington’s odd insistence on having a proper set of Chinese porcelains in the midst of the siege of New York, Tchen meditates on the way fascination with Chinese things and oriental otherness was at the heart of the founding generation’s ideas about self and republic-not to mention a spark for the China trade, which helped lead to the rise of New York. But as actual Chinese began to arrive here, they encountered already powerful, though shifting, sets of notions about them.

The first Chinese woman to come here, for example, was “presented” to the public in 1834 by P.T. Barnum in an “emphatically Chinese” but dramatically inauthentic diorama. Surrounded by orientalesque bric-a-brac like a Middle Eastern latticed dome, she didn’t speak, but as her generic moniker-“the Chinese Lady”-suggests, merely performed “Chineseness.”

At midcentury, exotic images of the Chinese rocketed across the country’s developing commercial culture, from the penny press to yellowface minstrel shows. Tchen’s smart sense of the dialectics of this exploding universe of representations provides exemplary readings of pop culture’s social power. Indeed, living and breathing Chinese were hard-pressed to be understood as people, rather than “edifying curiosities,” a struggle reiterated in Tchen’s own difficulty in getting behind the representation of otherness to reveal the New Yorkers who elicit his empathy. Perhaps the most affecting chapters of this book are devoted to Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins,” for in their unusual case, Tchen is able to trace-through their own anguished words-their largely ignored revolt against exoticization.

As Chang and Eng showed, the Chinese could be seen as both genteel and monstrous, but their role as racial demon-and as catalyst for the consolidation of whiteness and the working class-intensified after Reconstruction. When Quimbo Appo, for example, was first tried (for killing his Irish landlady) in 1859, the trial became a sensational stage to rehearse racial roles then in formation. The hostile testimony of a group of Irish, whose racial status at midcentury was decidedly ambiguous, prompted newsprint about “low Irishwomen,” and a parade of respectable Protestants came to Appo’s aid.

But by the time Appo was arrested for stabbing an Irish man in 1876, the importation of Chinese workers to the East Coast had helped to kindle national hysteria over “the Chinese Question.” Irish American labor leader Denis Kearney had wed class struggle to white solidarity with the slogan “The Chinese Must Go.” Though Appo seems clearly to have acted in self-defense, he was convicted. Six years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

Tchen’s book makes a convincing case for the ubiquity of the Chinese question in the shaping of American culture, and his readings of overlapping orientalisms-through explications of, for example, the discordance between antiracist content and stereotypical form in Thomas Nast’s cartoons-are admirably dense. Still, there is something slightly dispiriting about this history. Though Tchen limns self-proclaimed multinational “heathen rebel” Wong Ching Foo, who blazed across the American scene in the 1870s tweaking racists and founding the first Chinese civil-rights organization, he avers that Wong “was not terribly effective.” One measure of the ultimate reach of orientalism may be the scanty evidence of resistance in even this sympathetic and sophisticated archaeology of New York’s multiculture.