Heathen Chinese, The
DESCRIPTION: "I've a very sad pitiful story to tell you, Although it's a common one too... But alas! there is no work for a white man to do; They're hiring the Heathen Chinese." The singer tells of his poor family; he will join the Knights of Labor to stop the Chinese
EARLIEST DATE: 1936 (Brown)
KEYWORDS: labor-movement poverty foreigner
1869 - Establishment of the Knights of Labor by Uriah S. Stephens
1879 - Terence V. Powderly becomes Grand Master Workman of the Knights, opening membership to the unskilled -- and to minorities
1886 - Haymarket Riot causes the decline of the Knights of Labor
FOUND IN: US(SE)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
BrownIII 233, "The Heathen Chinese" (1 text)
BrownSchinhanV 233, "The Heathen Chinese" (1 tune plus a text excerpt)
NOTES [458 words]: Bret Harte wrote a piece, "Plain Language from Truthful James," generally called "The Heathen Chinee." This is a tale of a Chinese man who has peculiar success at cards and is punished for it. It does not appear to be directly related to this piece but may well have helped inspire it.
The Haymarket Riot is one of those events that seems to have been viewed very differently by different sources. Jameson, writing not long after the event, gave this summary on p. 299:
Haymarket Massacre (Chicago), an Anarchist riot, originating in labor troubles which culminated in an open-air meeting in Haymarket Square, May 4, 1886. Violent speeches were made by the Anarchists Spies, Parsons, and Fielden. A bomb was thrown among the police, causing great loss of life. Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Engel, Schwab, Lingg, and Niebe were arrested and tried. The first four were hanged November 11, 1887. Fielden and Schwab were imprisoned for life. Lingg committed suicide. Governor Altgeld, of Illinois, pardoned Fielden and Schwab in 1893.
Schlesinger, p. 361, says that some 180 police were in attendance for the event. The weather was rainy and the crowd already starting to break up as a result when they arrived. The bomb killed seven and wounded more than fifty. "No one seems to know who committed the dreadful crime." Reportedly eight were arrested for murder -- evidently the seven listed by Jameson and one other. Terror is said to have swept the country, but there is no mention of organized labor.
I must say that, in reviewing this entry, I have no idea why I noted the Haymarket Riot. It is not mentioned in the song. It perhaps gives us a hint at the last possible date for the song, but we could be fairly sure it was before 1888 anyway.
Jameson, p. 131, notes a series of treaties in 1844, 1858, and 1868 had opened the doors for immigrants from the far east; 105,000 Chinese were identified in the 1880 census. An attempt to restrict immigration was passed by congress in 1879 but vetoed by President Hayes. In 1880, an agreement was reached with China to limit immigration. This also made it harder for those who left the United States for China to return. Another Exclusion Act was vetoed by President Chester A. Arthur, but then he allowed another Act to become law when it was clear that his veto would be overridden (Karabell, pp. 84-85). In 1888, immigration was stopped entirely. In 1892, laws were passed permitting expulsion of the Chinese. Chinese exclusion was a major issue in the 1888 presidential election, when Harrison was accused of not being firm on the issue (Wesser/Schlesinger, pp. 1647-1648). Thus the song almost certainly dates from before 1888. My guess is that it dates from after the Panic of 1873 but before 1880. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson, Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Karabell: Zachary Karabell, Chester Alan Arthur [a volume in the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.], Times Books, 2004
- Schlesinger: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., editor, The Almanac of American History, revised edition, Putnam, 1993 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Wesser/Schlesinger: Robert F. Wesser, "Election of 1888," in Arthur M. Schlsinger, Jr., editor; Fred L. Israel, associate editor, History of American Presidential Elections 1789-1968, volume II (covering 1848-1896), Chelsea House, 1971
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