by Sucheng Chan
The word “labor” is a fraught one in Asian American history because it has distilled and encapsulated complicated and sometimes strident normative debates over the nature of Asian labor in the United States. How Asian labor has been used and treated by white employers and how that use has been denigrated, condemned, and opposed by white workers, their labor union leaders, politicians, and large segments of the public have been important issues not only in Asian American history but also in U.S. history more broadly. A central theme in the anti-Asian movements that persisted for almost a century was the allegation that “cheap” and “servile” Asian labor was a new form of slavery. Moreover, white workingmen, it was said, simply could not compete against people who could survive on so little sustenance and bodily comfort. Asian female labor was likewise castigated: immigrant Chinese prostitutes were accused of introducing venereal diseases and debasing and corrupting white American manhood while immigrant Japanese women who worked alongside their husbands on farms and in stores and boarding houses, especially if they did so on Sundays, were said to demean the ideals of domestic nurturance and moral uplift embodied in white American womanhood.