Anti-Chinese sentiment built up during the 1870s, pushed by Dennis Kearney, leader of California’s Workingmen’s Party, and others. In what some see as an irony, Kearney was himself an immigrant. He arrived in San Fransico from Ireland. When Kearney’s popularity faded in the late 1870s, others took up the campaign against Chinese immigration. Anti-Chinese cartoons and images were used to spread their ideas. One of the most troubling examples is the 1881 cartoon “A Statue for Our Harbor.” The image, drawn by George Keller, a Prussian Immigrant to the U.S., was published in the San Fransico Illustrated Wasp, a weekly newspaper. The very next year, the Chinese Exclusion Act became law. The intent of the act was to dramatically restrict Chinese immigration to the United States.
Below are ideas for using the image with students.
- Create a list of classroom norms with your students We have linked to a useful guide for discussing race and prejudice with students from Teaching Tolerance.
- You will be discussing a hateful image that is full of deeply prejudiced stereotypes. How do you expect students to respond when discussing the content of the image and the message the cartoonist sought to transmit. Make sure students know why you are engaging in this exercize. What questions do you want them to explore?
- Ask students to describe what they see in as objective language as possible. The goal is to develop a list of details that they will use in their analysis and interpretation of the image.
- Once you have collected a list of details, switch to analysis. It is sometimes helpful to begin by isolating a detail and asking them to analyze the artist’s intent. What did the artist hope to convey by including this detail? It can be helpful to tell students when and where the image was published. You might ask them to identify the intended audience at this point as well. Below are a few observations about the image from Michele Walfred and her website Thomas Nast Cartoons.
“No warm welcome from a copper French Lady Liberty here, immigrants to San Francisco’s harbor are welcomed by a menacing Chinese effigy. His clothes in tatters, this slimy figure, with his long queue wafting with the breeze, illuminates the American way for Asian immigrants. A few steamboats rest in the harbor, but a larger number arrive via antiquated Asian sail boats or “junks.”
The implication is clear. Modern European immigration has acquiesced in deference to an infiltration of backward, invading forces from Asia. A full moon with a Chinese likeness sneeringly supervises the scene. His celestial light bathes the night sky. Six beams of light emanate from the statue’s unseen torch or lamp.They illuminate the harbor with “Filth,” “Immorality,” “Diseases,” and requiring three beams,“Ruin to White Labor.” In the statue’s other hand is an opium pipe. The Chinese man‘s foot is triumphantly perched upon a human skull, presumably that of a white human, and behind the skull is a rat’s tail. The rodent has picked the skull clean.”
- Ask students to synthesize their descriptions and analysis into an overall interpretation of the image. It can be helpful to have students complete this step in writing before sharing with their classmates.
- As a final step, invite students to revise their interpretations based on their classmates’ observations.
Below are a few suggested questions to reflect on the bigoted ideas expressed in the image.
- What does Keller want people to know about Chinese immigrants? What are the stereotypes he employs? What is familiar about those stereotypes? What other groups have you heard the same stereotypes used against?
- Considering what you know about the context, why might some of these ideas have resonated with people in California?
- Both Kearney and Keller were immigrants. How do you explain their anti-Chinese prejudice?
- What is familiar with the anti-Chinese messages in this cartoon? What feels particular to the time. To explore this question, you might share this NPR Code Switch Article featuring Immigration Historian Erika Lee with students.
- Ask students to image they were asked to counter the messages in this image. What strategies would they employ?
To compare this image to other late 19th century anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant cartoons, consider using this lesson from our website.