The earliest known publication by an author of mixed Chinese and European descent, Mrs. Spring Fragrance: A Collection of Chinese-American Short Stories, chronicles the joys, pains and mostly unknown experiences of early Chinese immigrants on the United States’ West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Sui Sin Far was actually the pen name for Chinese-British-Canadian-American journalist and writer Edith Eaton (her younger sister, Winnifred Eaton also wrote under a pseudonym, Onoto Watanna), who published the collection in 1912, at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was raging in America.
The eldest daughter of a Chinese mother who was adopted by English missionaries and an English merchant, Eaton left school in order to help her enormous family (she was one of 14 children) and eventually began contributing to Montreal’s English-language newspapers. While she could “pass” as white, Eaton actively claimed her Chinese background and wrote articles that concerned the Chinese experience in the U.S.
At the surface, the family fables seem charming, sweet and simple, but any reader who is aware of the historical and social context of her work will have a fuller appreciation for Eaton’s real mission.
When I was an undergrad in the late nineties, grappling with my own mixed Korean and European identity, I read Eaton’s first person essay, “Leaves From the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” in an Asian American Studies course. I could immediately relate to the feeling of being called over “for the purpose of inspection” and being simultaneously exotified and dehumanized by whites and Asians alike.
Some of these same themes are highlighted in Mrs. Spring Fragrance in the form of slice-of-life stories that take place in Seattle and San Francisco, both of which were hotbeds for Chinese immigration. At the surface, the family fables seem charming, sweet and simple, but any reader who is aware of the historical and social context of her work will have a fuller appreciation for Eaton’s real mission.
While not enslaved the way Africans were, Chinese men were brought to the U.S. in large numbers as indentured laborers, known as coolies, to construct the western section of the transcontinental railroad. Prejudice against the Chinese was swift and their willingness to work for lower wages and hardworking attittude created an economic threat, making these men a target for discrimination and racial violence.
The ironically-titled “In the Land of the Free” highlights the suffering faced by racially discriminatory immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (and later, 1892 and 1902, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers—the first time a specific ethnic group was targeted) and the suffering of a Chinese woman whose baby is taken away by U.S. government officials for a full year. At the time, Chinese women in America were few and far between (again, thanks to discriminatory immigration laws) and if they were present in popular culture, they were represented as prostitutes, “sing-song girls” or opium den smokers. For Eaton to characterize a Chinese woman as a loving mother torn apart by her son’s tragic absence was downright revolutionary.
Chinese women in America were few and far between (thanks to discriminatory immigration laws) and if they were present in popular culture, they were represented as prostitutes, “sing-song girls” or opium den smokers. For Eaton to characterize a Chinese woman as a loving mother torn apart by her son’s tragic absence was downright revolutionary.
In “Its Wavering Image,” a white reporter begins courting Pan, the daughter of a white woman and Chinese man. He says, “You are a white woman—white. Did your kiss not promise me that?” before betraying her. She retorts, “I would not be a white woman for all the world. You are a white man. And what is a promise to a white man!”
A common theme in many of Eaton’s short stories is her defense and promotion of the independent woman (it’s important to note that Eaton herself never married, also a revolutionary act at the time).
Stories such as “The Americanization of Pau Tsu” and “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” tackle the issue of cultural assimilation while “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” and “Her Chinese Husband” deals with interracial marriage, identity and, heartbreakingly, racial violence.
The fictional short stories have been credited with helping Americans accept working-class Chinese immigrants. Those who were open-minded enough to read an entire book about Chinese Americans—who were widely despised and considered “inferior,” “alien” and “heathen” at the time—likely had their minds blown since the collection humanized immigrants and offered complex takes on their daily life.
Eaton also shines a light on gender issues within Chinese culture, from China’s policy at the time of only educating boys to women routinely taking their meals after their husbands (or at a separate table) to men taking secondary wives back home.
Even though this collection was published more than 100 years ago, many of the themes and concerns still resonate today, whether it’s Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. or the ways in which men try to control women’s bodies, independence and livelihoods. In 2017, Asian Americans are routinely stereotyped and discriminated against, yet celebrated for being the “model minority,” a myth that is helpful to no one.