Is It Right for a Chinaman to Jeopard a White Man's Dinner?

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Is It Right for a Chinaman to Jeopard a White Man's Dinner?

Editorial cartoon

By: T. Walter

Date: July-December 1885

Source: Walter, T. "Is It Right for a Chinaman to Jeopard a White Man's Dinner?" [back cover] The Wasp 15 (July-December 1885). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

About the Artist: Little is known of the career of T. Walter, the artist who created the 1885 cartoon published in The Wasp. The Wasp was a San Francisco satirical magazine published between 1876 and 1928. Its often graphic and topical cartoons were a mainstay of the publication.


In 1885, the city of San Francisco was at the epicenter of the debate that then raged concerning the position of Chinese immigrants in California society. Chinese laborers, known as "coolies," first began to arrive in significant numbers on the West Coast of the United States in the late 1840s, following reports of gold being discovered in California. Significant numbers of Chinese men worked on the construction of the American transcontinental railroad until its completion in 1869. The perception that grew into a belief on the part of the white majority in California into the 1870s was that the Chinese workers had taken away employment from the white laboring population.

In 1882, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that prohibited the immigration of Chinese persons for a period of ten years. The law was subsequently extended both in duration and to widen the immigrant population affected to include Japanese and Indian peoples.

In the vanguard of the media attacks upon the Chinese workforce in San Francisco was The Wasp, a magazine founded in 1876. The magazine regularly published both editorial cartoons and opinion articles that attacked the Chinese population in very blunt terms. The Wasp characterized the Chinese as not simply an economic issue in California, but as a threat to the stability and the social fabric of American society.

In the 1885 cartoon depicted here, the artist employed a number of symbols to convey his anti-Chinese theme. The Chinese figure is shown as a grasping, fearsome-looking individual, a threat to the white family seated at the dinner table awaiting the meal to be served to them by the goddess representing California. The artist has positioned California as barring the Chinese man from getting any closer to the table and the family, an image consistent with the function of the Exclusion Act.

The Wasp routinely depicted the Chinese through voracious and predatory symbols. "In the Clutches of the Chinese Tiger" (1885) is a multiple panel cartoon where the tiny tabby cat fed by a white family grows into a marauding beast. In 1897, The Wasp described the "heathen Chinee" and their lifestyle as being anti-American.

There were few journalistic influences to counter these sentiments in the latter portion of the nineteenth century in California. Journals such as Harper's Weekly were relatively balanced in their views in contrast to the invective of The Wasp, but even Harper's published a number of articles suggesting that in the 1880s in California, the Chinese workforce had crowded out an army of white labor.



See primary source image.


The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was a far-reaching and influential piece of legislation. It created an absolute bar to Chinese immigration to the United States for a period of ten years. However, from the perspective of the publishers of The Wasp and their large constituency in California, the Act did not address the continuing negative impact of the existing Chinese workforce on the ability of white laborers to succeed in the California economy of 1885. For the publishers of The Wasp and others, the best policy was the removal of the Chinese entirely from the state of California.

Chinese laborers often took jobs that were seen as menial or otherwise beneath the dignity of the predominately white population. This willingness to do jobs shunned by other laborers allowed Chinese workers to become established and successful in California and other western states. Industries such as domestic cleaning, cooking, and clothing manufacture had a significant Chinese workforce in California into the 1880s.

The sentiment of journals such as The Wasp did not so much stir public opinion as it reflected the majority view of the California population. The chief example of that anti-Chinese sentiment, the Chinese Exclusion Act, represents a turning point in the history of American attitudes towards immigration. Until 1882, the United States had permitted any race or ethnic group to immigrate. The Exclusion Act began a long period of American social policy during which significant immigration limits were placed upon Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian, and other minority groups.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act expired in 1892, it was extended for another ten years by the Geary Act. This act placed additional restrictions on Chinese residents of the United States by requiring them to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Without this certificate, any Chinese person residing in the United States could be deported. The state of California placed its own restrictions on the Japanese community in 1909. There was little lessening in the antipathy felt towards the Asian communities generally in California as World War II approached. Thus, the internment of Japanese and Japanese-americans during World War II occurred against a backdrop of over sixty years of various limitations directed against Asian people.

The designation of the Chinese as outsiders to mainstream California society was the chief stimulus in the creation of the San Francisco Chinatown in the 1880s. Chinatown became an enclave of Chinese culture that has remained vibrant to the present day.

In the midst of the significant anti-Chinese sentiment in San Francisco, a seminal immigration case was decided by the United States Supreme Court. In 1898, Wong Ark Kim, a twenty-two-year-old man born in San Francisco to Chinese parents, brought an action for a declaration that he was entitled to the full benefit of American citizenship. American government authorities had sought to deny Wong's re-entry into the United States when he returned from a trip to China. The Supreme Court ruled that notwithstanding the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of equality applied to Wong because he was born in the United States. There are modern implications to this precedent, since the prospect remains that individuals may illegally enter the United States to ensure that their child is born in the United States. Such children will automatically be entitled to both American citizenship and the collateral benefits of public education and health care.



Kwong, Peter. Forbidden Workers: Chinese Immigrants and American Labor. New York: New Press, 1998.

Lee, Erika. At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Web sites

Brechin, Gray. "The Wasp: Stinging Editorials and Political Cartoons." Bancroftiana, Fall 2002, 〈〉 (accessed June 5, 2006).

Library of Congress/American Memory. "The Chinese in California 1850–1925." 〈〉 (accessed June 5, 2006).

PBS. "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience." 〈〉 (accessed June 5, 2006).

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Is It Right for a Chinaman to Jeopard a White Man's Dinner?

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Is It Right for a Chinaman to Jeopard a White Man's Dinner?