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Positive Spin: Yung's Descriptions of Women in Unbound Feet
Michael N. Escobar
Professor Kerwin Klein
October 6, 2004
When Al Gore saw his bid for the presidency in 2000 was faltering, the way he chose to alter his campaign strategy was to adopt a harder-hitting and more "folksy" approach. He gave speeches in which his voice rose to a gravelly shout reminiscent of an evangelical preacher, and one of his key lines was, "I'm gonna fight for your families!" For many reasons, the "family" is a key element in American political rhetoric. It has ever been thus: in ancient Rome, the wife of the chief god was in charge of the cult of domesticity (Juno), and the pater familias was a key figure in Roman society. Then, as now, the family was a key component of the society's economic life. In J. Yung's Unbound Feet (Berkeley: U of California P, 1995), significant effort is spent on describing the role of the family among Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, to explain how that group was able to survive and maintain its cultural and social integrity. In fact Yung wishes to applaud the ability of the Chinese, as a group, to achieve success in a California whose dominant culture was Anglo-American; this accounts for certain textual and evidentiary flaws in the work.
Yung seems to have a prior commitment to paint a positive picture of Chinatown life. This contrasts with, for example, Michael Gold's great and grim novel of the New York Jewish ghetto, Jews Without Money. Yung consistently writes a positive spin on the events and forces she describes, and when faced with something that cannot be spun on its own, she shifts the blame elsewhere. Thus, in comparing the experience of Jewish and Chinese sweatshop workers, she writes "Chinese immigrant women, lacking the same language skills and political consciousness and further hindered by racism, often could not avail themselves of the same opportunities" to win promotion, work outside of the ethnic enclave, or organize amongst themselves for better conditions (89). However, it is undeniable that Jews (especially in the early 20th century U.S.) also suffered from racism and discrimination, and many Jews came to America without knowledge of English (speaking Russian, German, or Yiddish). It is also contradictory for Yung to attempt to explain Chinese women's failure to organize in the workplace due to their lack of political consciousness, since further on she writes about their participation in the Chinese Women's Jeleab, the Chinese YWCA, and various activities connected to the Revolution of 1911.
Yung also relays certain contemporary documents which serve her argument by painting a rosier picture of the situation at hand, when in fact these documents evidence racism or prejudice on the part of their authors. Hence, the Industrial Welfare Commission report of 1922: "Most of the women drift into the factory from ten to eleven É There was a stoppage too when a worker felt the need of a cup of tea" (emphasis added) (91). Yung relies on this report to allege that work in the sweatshops was unstructured and congenial to housewives who had obligations outside the factory. She also quotes another study which "pointed out" that "it is apparent that some go to work in factories merely for a pastime so that they can mingle in groups and pass the time away quicker" (92). The italicized words in the first citation above show a certain disrespectful attitude on the part of the IWC investigator, which fits in with established Occidental views of Orientals as lazy and decadent (tea being a "decadent" Eastern luxury). In general, the "official" view of industrial work in the US prior to the 1930s was positive: workers ought to work hard and be frugal, while their employers (the "captains of industry") were rightfully deserving of their gains; thus it was right for the Pinkertons and the Army to break strikes and persecute organizations such as the Knights of Labor. This is the attitude evidenced by the author of the second quotation above. While it may be true that sweatshops then were different from sweatshops now, Yung's description is not convincing because of its weak handling of the evidence which backs it up.
Treating the role of women in the family, Yung does a little better. Breaking the husband-wife relationship down into terms of interdependence is a nuanced view which to a limited degree acknowledges the subaltern position of the woman and also gives the proper weight to her role as bearer of culture and traditions and as the "ruler of the home" (82). However, she goes on to engage in a fair amount of unsupported storytelling when she claims that "immigrant wives .. were taught to É rule [the home] with an iron fist" (83). If she grew up in such a household then it is perhaps a plain fact for her which needs no substantiation, but to convince a non-Chinese reader further evidence is needed, or else she is merely appealing to the "knowledge" we all have contained in stereotypes. She writes that "what counted" between a wife and husband was the "adequacy of overall family income" as opposed to social equality (83). This is reminiscent of certain arguments made by the Chinese Communist Party, that "economic rights" (i.e. industrialization and modernization) take precedence over democratic civil rights. It is perfectly legitimate to say that poor people worry more about adequate income than about social reform and the advancement of society, but she uses this fact to argue against an objective social-science description of the life of these women as oppressive, citing Heidi Hartmann (82). She is in the wrong on this point, because the perceptions and attitudes of individuals are separate from what an outside analyst may conclude about the social reality of their position. Similarly, although a mine worker might not "feel exploited" by his employer, that would not make Karl Marx's Wage Labor and Capital any less valid. Here Yung's intent, to positively spin the quality of life in San Francisco Chinatown, is clear.
There are two other good examples of unsupported storytelling: describing the fate of abused wives and the behavior of wives in general. "With few exceptions they were hard working, frugal, tolerant, faithful and respectful to their husbands, and self-sacrificing toward their children," she writes (79). How does this jive with ruling the home "with an iron fist"? Yung cites no evidence for this idealized description. Then, for women who were married to abusive husbands, they "found new avenues of resistance through the help of Chinese reformers, Protestant missionary women, and É the American legal system" (83). She tells us nothing about how many wives chose to keep quiet about domestic violence, although we probably can assume that the percentage was even higher among Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century than among American women in general today. To cite editorials which inveighed against the subordination of women (84) does not support an argument that battered women had wide access to remedies for their situation (how many of these people were literate?). Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that such women were a minority at most, since the actual primary sources which Yung cites are all from women whose stories are relative successes: Law Lo, Ah So, Jane Kwong Lee and Clara Lee.
So it is clear that Yung chooses to serve her prior commitment to rehabilitating the image of the Chinese in San Francisco by carefully selecting positive supporting evidence, as well as spinning evidence that is less-supportive on its face. By definition, reformers and activists are always in the minority when they begin their work. Yung's overall thrust seems almost to suggest that the "firebrand speeches" she mentions in favor of equality and modernity were representative of the overall sentiments of the community. In fact she is sugarcoating an immigrant experience which was at least as difficult as that of any other group which immigrated in large numbers to the US in the years before the New Deal. The intellectual and political advances won by feminists, civil rights militants, and social historians in the middle and late 20th century are historical products of those times, and one must be careful when searching for historical antecedents, because otherwise one may devalue those accomplishments of Foucault, de Beauvoir, Dr. King and others. It was not always thus.
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