The sexual and moral landscape of 1890s S.F.


DISCRIMINATING SEX: White Leisure and the Making of the American ‘Oriental’

By Amy Sueyoshi (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2018, 228 pp., $99, cloth; $26, paperback)

Amy Sueyoshi, professor and administrator at San Francisco State University, has long been a pioneer in tracing the intersection of Asian American studies and sexuality studies. Her first book, “Queer Compulsions,” revealed the sexual and racial border crossings of early Japanese/American poet Yone Noguchi.

Her new book “Discriminating Sex,” for all its brevity, sets out to chart a largely unexplored area: the sexual and moral landscape of 1890s San Francisco. Despite San Francisco’s historic “Barbary Coast” reputation as a wide-open sexual playground, as well as the city fathers’ self-proclaimed status as a land of racial tolerance, in fact Asian immigrants, like other non-whites, faced widespread discrimination during the turn of the century (for example, though the author mentions this only in passing, Chinese American schoolchildren were segregated in “separate but equal” public schools, and the school board’s attempt to enact similar discrimination against Japanese Americans led to international diplomatic conflict with Japan).

The author sets forth the ways in which sexual and gender stereotyping, in particular, shaped white American views of “Orientals,” and suggests that representations of hypersexualized men and women, whether of Chinese or Japanese origin, in mainstream media and popular culture contributed a climate of opinion in which nativist hostility and policing of Asian communities was broadly accepted by public opinion.

The work is divided into six chapters. In the first chapter, Sueyoshi examinees the different popular conceptions of Chinese and Japanese during this period. While Chinese were the targets of an entire battery of popular mythology and imagery (mostly negative), Japan and the Japanese people were barely known. The second chapter explores the nature of queer sexuality in San Francisco, bringing together and comparing and expressions of interracial and same-sex desire. The third chapter centers on the image of the “modern woman,” posing it against her discursive counterpart, the subservient Oriental geisha woman.

Similarly, chapter four deals with the proliferation of images of Chinese prostitutes, which dominated the Western male imaginary even as the actual presence of Chinese sex workers declined largely to extinction. Such images contrasted with the reality of more assertive and openly sexual white women. It must be said that these chapters in particular offers a historical grounding for understanding some of our current-day tropes of white male American (and Western) sexuality, in the sexual economy of men hostile toward feminism who seek romantic and sexual relations with Asian women (including sex workers) because they imagine these women will be “naturally” submissive.

Other chapters discuss the interpretations and prescriptive norms that Asian men faced, racial and gender masquerades, and moral panics associated with leisure activities among whites and their interaction with Asian sexuality. The author uses multiple newspaper clippings from elite newspapers, satirical journals, and the “yellow” press, plus court records and police reports, to present wonderfully juicy anecdotes and language.

In sum, her work allows the reader a compelling guide to the mixed social, racial, and sexual anxieties floating in the fog of turn-of-the-century San Francisco.

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