Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. – Review – book review
Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco By Judy Yung (University of California Press, 1995. XIV + 395 pp. Hardcover $45. Paperback $15.95.)
This long anticipated work by historian Judy Yung fills what had been a big void in Asian American studies, women’s studies, and American studies literature Focusing on Chinese women in San Francisco from the late 19th century, when they arrived there, through the first half of the 20th century, and working from dual outsider/insider perspectives as a trained historian as well as the daughter of one of her informants and subjects, Yung skillfully documents, retells, and analyzes the life experiences of these women as immigrants and as immigrants’ daughters and wives marginalized by race, class, and gender. Interwoven into the sociohistorical text and analysis are numerous mini-narratives and personal testimonies of three generations of Chinese women spanning more than 50 years of collective memory. Their stories demonstrate the hardships and heartbreaks that might be expected, but recount above all the pragmatic behavior of these mostly ordinary yet often remarkable women as they adapted to survive in America.
Yung is careful to remind the reader that her study is limited to Chinese American women in San Francisco during the period under consideration; therefore, attempts to generalize across ethnicities to other or all Asian American women, or to generalize about Chinese American women without regard to time and location, should be circumscribed. On the other hand, she is right to assert that the large and early concentration of Chinese Americans in the San Francisco area made that location a logical base for the study, especially given the availability of informants and archival sources. As the child of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco, Yung also declares forthrightly a personal objective in undertaking her study, which was “the quest for answers to my own identity as a Chinese American woman–answers that I could not find in any history textbook….” That refreshing admission in no apparent way affects the academic integrity of the work.
Yung pays attention to class differences in the experiences of these Chinese American women. Thus, she specifies that for educated, middie-class Chinese American women, their views on gender roles and relations were mainly influenced by Chinese nationalism, by Christianity and Christian institutions and personnel, and by their desire to become acculturated into American ways of thinking and doing. In fact, because much of the documentary or primary sources spoke mainly to middle-class women, Yung readily admits that her study does not illuminate much about the experiences of illiterate, working-class women, and illuminates less about the immigrant generation than the American-born generation. It tends to focus on women of some achievement rather than on the large collective of ordinary women who have left no individual marks on history. Yet lower-class and working women, such as prostitutes or girl slaves (muitsai), are not entirely missing, for some insights into their experiences have been gained from records of Protestant missionary homes and rescue missions.
Admission of limitations of the work notwithstanding, Yung’s study could have been strengthened if she had provided some comparative analysis of Chinese women to other Asian immigrant women during the same period. The logical group would have been Japanese American women, on whom there exists a growing body of work, and whose numbers and history somewhat parallel that of Chinese women. In addition, comparison to contemporaneous women of other marginalized, segregated, discriminated against and excluded communities would have been both feasible, given existing literature, and illuminating. Some comparative analysis would have helped situate Chinese women in a broader social context and further clarified the significance of their stories in the larger framework of American history.
Onto a compelling narrative, Yung imposes her “gender, race and class” analysis. In most instances, she manages to do so without unduly disrupting the flow of the narrative or unnecessarily patronizing the reader who can reach good conclusions without being prompted. When she is clearly ambivalent about an issue, however, the flow of her narrative breaks down and her attempt to analyze the question becomes awkward and produces confusion. For example, she criticizes “Marxist feminists like Heidi Hartmann” for assuming that working class immigrant women such as Law Shee Low were oppressed if such women, from their “vantage point,” did not feel “oppressed” by their confinement to the domestic sphere and their subordinate status vis-h.vis men. Then a few pages later she approvingly cites the argument of “the anthropologist Michele Zimbalist Rosaldo” (presumably not a “Marxist feminist”) that women who “are confined to the private sphere, cut off from other women and the social world of men,” remain “oppressed.”
Some readers may quibble with Yung’s largely uncritical treatment of missionaries and religious institutions in the lives of these Chinese women. For example, Yung draws heavily on Presbyterian and Methodist missionary journals and case files to recount “harrowing stories” about Chinese prostitutes and other abused women. While she notes that some of these records might indeed have sensationalized the situations, she does not sufficiently interrogate the nature of these sources nor the motives of the missionaries in undertaking work to “rescue” and” civilize” Chinese women; she does not plumb the ideological implications and consequences of the relationship between missionaries and desperate women cut adrift from family and cultural moorings.
These comments are not intended to detract from the value of this significant work, but rather to raise some questions. As written, “Unbound Feet” is suitable for the general as well as the academic audience.
Dr. Evelyn Hu- DeHart is a professor of history and Director of the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in America at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
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