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Unbound Feet, by Judy Yung.

May 5, 2012

Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, by Judy Yung. University of California Press (1995), Paperback, 395 pages

A well-researched and written history of Chinese American women in San Francisco from the 1902 to 1945.

Judy Yung is both an accomplished historian and a daughter of the Chinese American community in San Francisco. Drawing on both these identities, she has written an important book. Having been born in the city to a working-class family in the 1930s, she understands the various clusters within the community. In her introduction and epilogue, she places family members—and herself—in the larger story which she tells. She also makes extensive use of oral histories, some of which she conducted and others from earlier collections. For each time period, she focuses on a few women placed differently within the community and tells enough of about each to bring them to life and personalize her generalizations.

In addition, Yung is unusually well versed in US women’s history, immigration history and ethnic history, enabling her to make insightful comparisons between Chinese American women and women of African-American, Jewish American, and Mexican American communities. Her research skills are excellent and her sources wide-ranging. She uses statistics somewhat sparingly in the text of her book, but includes many charts in her appendix.

The overall thesis of Yung’s book is that Chinese American women born in or coming to San Francisco were always limited by patriarchal demands within Chinatown and racism outside their community, but they have gradually loosened these restrictions. Her narrative is a positive one, using the image of the traditional foot bindings of early Chinese immigrant women which was not ended until younger women stepped forward “in step” with the American nation during World War. II. Throughout her book, Yung pays special attention to the ties which the San Francisco Chinese had with their home country and events taking place there. In doing so she presents new material for readers like myself.

Yung opens her book with a brief summary on the arrival of Chinese in California in second half of the 1800s. Almost all those who came were male, creating a terribly unequal sex ratio for the Chinese community. Chinese families had long had a tradition of men leaving their families work elsewhere. More significantly, Anglos opposed the entry of Chinese and restrictions made it particularly difficult for Chinese women to enter the USA. Before 1900, Chinese women in San Francisco fell into only three categories; prostitutes, maids, or the “lily footed” wives of merchants. Sold or kidnapped into slavery, the prostitutes were the worse off. Maids were also young women, bought to the country by wealthy women. Usually held as slaves or indentured servants, they might be abused or sold into prostitution when they reached adolescence or they might be allowed to marry and form their own households as they were promised. Most Chinese men worked as laborers, and only a few merchants were legally able to bring their wives and their wives’ maids to San Francisco. The wives were largely confined to apartments over the stores their husbands ran. Because of their bound feet and the restrictive views of respectable behavior, they seldom left their homes, relying on their maids, whose feet were not bound, to relate to the world outside.

After 1900, more Chinese women were arriving in San Francisco as laborers found ways around the strict immigration restrictions and brought their wives into San Francisco. Few of these women had bound feet. In the absence of mothers-in-law, they had the full domestic responsibility. Taking in sewing was a common practice for working class women. Some of them and their daughters began to get an education and have contact with the larger community. Protestant missions continued to play roles in expanding their lives. Yung walks a fine line in describing these institutions. On one hand she acknowledges that some Chinese disapproved of the work of the missions, in particular their efforts to free women from prostitution and from abusive husbands. Others praised them for such efforts and took advantage of the women’s organizations and schooling which the missions offered.

Chinese in America closely followed events leading up to the national revolution which ended the Ming dynasty in China in 1911. The nationalist reform agenda in China included agitation for more rights and expanded options for women. Chinese in San Francisco were influenced by this rhetoric and some made it their own. Foot-binding stopped and prostitute was no longer openly practiced. A surprising alliance arose between the Anglo women running the missions and the Chinese nationalists supporting reform who viewed educated women involved in public affairs as a sign of Chinese progress.

By the 1920s and 1930s, increasing numbers of Chinese American women were becoming active outside their homes as workers and as social, political activists. Women became active in creating their own organizations. Some daughters considered their own individual desires and experimented with the new freedoms of the era. Depression and New Deal policies actually benefited some women in Chinatown who were now eligible for assistance and training. Some women and men left San Francisco and returned to use their education and skills on behalf of the people of China.

When the Japanese first invaded China in 1931, Chinese Americans rallied to the support of their homeland. Women’s organizations took a lead in fund-raising efforts to support the Chinese defense. When the United States declared war on Japan a decade later, Chinese American women became part of a larger patriotic effort which opened the door to expanded economic and political opportunities.
In Jung’s words, they were “in step” with the rest of the nation and the discrimination they had faced lessened.

I highly recommended Unbound Feet as informative, well-research, and enjoyable. It is essential for anyone interested in the story of non-Anglo women in the United States.

See, Lisa. Shanghai Girls. A fictional account set in China and Los Angeles that parallel Jung’s for the 1930s and 1940s.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror. A general history of migration to the U.S.A. that includes excellent coverage of migration from Asia.

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