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October 11, 2002

Depicting Otherness: Images of San Francisco's Chinatown

Isaiah West Taber, Dupont Street, Chinatown, San Francisco, n.d.

"They're a perk of the job," says Associate Professor of Art Anthony Lee, smiling as he scans the hundreds of art books lining his office walls. He chooses one and flips to a glossy print of Edouard Manet's Olympia to help illustrate another perk of teaching at Mount Holyoke—diverse students who allow diverse interpretations of art. "At Mount Holyoke I don't have to defend analyzing a painting in terms of gender or sexuality when I show a work like this," says Lee, pointing to the portrait of a reclining white prostitute being served by a black maid. "Gender analysis is accepted as a perfectly viable form of interpretation, and it's also not assumed to be the only form. Students will also see an opportunity for race and class analysis here. They give me a tremendous amount of room to analyze modernist works as not a closed story but one that is always being rethought."


Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Anthony Lee

For Lee, rethinking modernist works means approaching them as historical representations that express the values of particular cultures, visual things that have a relationship with "such seemingly unaesthetic concerns as radical politics, immigrant societies, and organized labor." Lee's most recently published book, Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco (University of California Press, 2001), explores just such "unaesthetic" concerns—namely the economic, political, and social needs, fears, and desires of those who observed and depicted the Chinese community in San Francisco from about 1840 to 1950.

When Chinatown first developed, "few were willing to accept the possibility that the Chinese would actually stay," writes Lee. "Chinatown's value lay in its being possessed at some future date." The earliest photographs, created during the 1860s, reflect that perspective, capturing the land and buildings of the quarter, not its Chinese immigrants. Photographers presented the quarter as if for a government survey, focusing on the arrangement of streets, the dimensions of buildings, and the topography of the landscape.

By the end of the century, San Franciscans could no longer ignore the permanence of the Chinese in San Francisco. They needed good relations with Chinese officials, who were important for profitable trade agreements and, at the same time, desired tight control over Chinatown's laborers, who (despite harsh legislation intended to control and silence them) were becoming increasingly vocal about economic and political reform in the United States and China. To achieve both ends, outsiders insisted on assigning qualitative differences among the Chinese, attributing all laudable traits to members of the merchant classes, all wickedness to the laborers. Photos of the day reinforced these stereotypes, says Lee, pointing to works by avant-garde photographer Arnold Genthe: "His many pictures of lavishly dressed Chinese women and children were almost always separated from his pictures of Chinese working men, as if the two groups could not possibly be conceived together when he went in search of the ‘right' image. He even cropped them for publication when reality happened to intrude."

Artists who depicted a more insightful, less stereotypical Chinese population didn't fare very well. Lee points to early-twentieth-century journalist and photographer Louis Stellman, whose pictures and writings presented a positive picture of Chinatown's laborers and activists as valuable, ethical businessmen who could help rebuild San Francisco, which had been devastated by earthquake and fire. Publishers rejected Stellman's images, writes Lee, their audience preferring the non-Western Chinatown pictured by Genthe, "a Chinatown following Qing manners, where the Chinese were required to wear queues as a sign of obedience to authority, where Confucianism guided daily behavior and family decorum, where dynastic rule brought visually silken forms of worship and pageantry, and where benevolent associations spoke on behalf of the otherwise silent masses."

Genthe and publishers were not alone in stereotyping Chinatown's residents and distancing them from American culture and citizenship. Underground Chinatown, an exhibition organized (without Chinese input) for the "Joy Zone" amusement section of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, presented another overly simplistic picture of the quarter. Inside the "hovel-like settings" of this popular exhibition, Lee writes, "the visitor met with shrieking hatchet men, bleary-eyed addicts, bookmakers with singsong voices, and, most popular of all, prostitutes ‘imported' from China who called to customers from behind prison bars."

From the work of San Francisco artists and experiments by the Chinese Revolutionary Artists' Club, to commercial representations for tourists and dance productions at San Francisco's risqué "Forbidden City" nightclub, Lee shows a consistent pattern of "Orientalizing" Chinatown, a pattern that Edward Said described as a way of "dominating, restructuring, and having authority over" the place. Lee challenges us to look "in the fissures, emphases, ellipses, and obsessions" of those images to see glimpses of the true lives of Chinatown's residents.

On October 16, Lee will present the lecture "Orientals and Orientalists in the American Scene" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which recently named him fourteenth winner of the annual Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art. The prize, sponsored by the patrons' support organization American Art Forum, recognizes Picturing Chinatown as an "outstanding study of the visual, social, and political culture of San Francisco's Chinatown."

The author of a previous book about San Francisco's art and culture, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco's Public Murals (University of California, 1999), Lee is currently studying images a little closer to home: nineteenth-century Chinese shoemakers in North Adams, Massachusetts, who posed for hundreds of photos long before photos held the sentimental or historical value we know today. "Was this the moment when the need for visualizing identity began to take shape?" Lee asks. His inquiry is supported by a Millicent C. McIntosh Fellowship, granted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for recently tenured faculty in the humanities. Lee is also studying three hundred unpublished photographs by Diane Arbus for a book and traveling exhibition scheduled to open at Mount Holyoke's art museum in fall 2003. Students will get a preview of both projects this coming spring in Lee's new course, History of Photography, in which he surveys the rise and development of photography in the United States, Mexico, and Europe.

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