A 2005 Article on Chinese-Americans at the Fair

Mae M. Ngai, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, published an excellent article last year that shows she has been thinking along the same lines as we were when we first put this page on the Web.
She focuses on the fact that the Chinese exhibits at the Exposition were not sponsored by “European-American show businessmen and ethnologists,” unlike many of the other attractions on the Midway, but “were conceived, financed, and operated by local Chinese-American entrepreneurs.”

She is right about the importance of this.  She includes more information than we did about Hong Sling and other local entrepreneurs, and uses the Chinese-American case to challenge  the common idea that the Exposition represented solely a colonialist, Western viewpoint.  Non-Western participants often had their own agendas, she says, including the Chinese.

Dr. Ngai and we may disagree on one point, however.  She accepts an idea which we too used to hold, that the Chinese government refused to participate in the Exposition in protest against the Chinese Exclusion laws of 1882 and later years.  We are starting to have doubts about this as a general proposition, finding it hard to believe that the Imperial government cared that much about the fate of working-class Chinese in other countries.  Instead we suspect that the Emperor’s advisors were unhappy about U.S. immigration policies as applied specifically to Chinese of the official class like themselves.  If imperial representatives could be insulted at dockside in San Francisco or Tacoma, it might have been decided, there would not be an official Chinese presence in Chicago.

We are happy that researchers at local universities are taking an interest in  the subject. We hope that Dr. Ngai can be persuaded to contribute a short article to this website.

Ngai, Mae M. “Transnationalism and the Transformation of the “Other'” American Quarterly – Vol 57, No 1, Mar 2005, pp. 59-65