“A Problem for Which There Is No Solution”: Eurasians and the Specter of Degeneration in New York’s Chinatown

“A Problem for Which There Is No Solution”: Eurasians and the Specter of Degeneration in New York’s Chinatown

Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 15, Number 3, October 2012
pages 271-298
DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2012.0022

Emma J. Teng, T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations; Associate Professor of Chinese Studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In 1898, journalist Louis J. Beck offered the reading public what he saw as a valuable case study in “heredity and racial traits and tendencies.” This case study was none other than the infamous “half-breed” criminal George Washington Appo (1856–1930), whose name was virtually a household word for New Yorkers of the time. Born to an Irish mother and the “Chinese devil man” Quimbo Appo, a notorious criminal in his own right, George Appo was a preeminent celebrity criminal of the 1890s. A notorious pickpocket and “green-goods man,” George was catapulted to national fame after appearing as a star witness in the dramatic Lexow Committee investigation that brought down New York’s Tammany Hall. Taking sensationalism to a new level, the “king of confidence men,” as the Boston Globe called him, had even appeared on the stage, playing himself in George Lederer’s theatrical melodrama In the Tenderloin to national acclaim. To cap it all off, the World voted Appo among “The People Who Made the History of 1894.”

But Beck was not much interested in the details of New York police corruption, nor in the new low point to which American theater had sunk: his true concern was the Chinese Question. Beck was the author of New York’s Chinatown: An Historical Presentation of Its People and Places, published by the Bohemia Publishing Company in 1898. Part tourist guidebook, part amateur ethnography, part muckraking exposé, this amply illustrated volume was the first full-length book on New York’s Chinese Quarter, and would in time become a frequently quoted source for Chinatown history. Beck promised his audience that his book would shed light on the vexed Chinese Question by presenting the city’s Chinese residents through the unbiased lens of the reporter. At the heart of the Chinese Question was this—could the Chinese in time become assimilated, and patriotic, American citizens, or did their “racial traits” render this impossible, warranting their exclusion from the nation? Beck offered George Appo’s biography as food for thought:

George Appo was born in New York City, July 4, 1858 [sic], and is therefore an American citizen, and should be a patriotic one, but he is not. His father was a full-blooded Chinaman and his mother an Irishwoman. He was an exceedingly bright child, beautiful to look upon, sharp-witted and quick of comprehension. For ten years he was the pet of the neighborhood where his parents dwelt. . . . At the age of ten he became a pickpocket.

Beck’s decision to dedicate an entire chapter to the celebrity criminal stemmed from his conviction that this “noted Chinese character” was “well worth investigating,” not only for the light his story shed on the operation of the green-goods business, but, more important, “because he is the first one of the new hybrid brood” to gain public attention. As such, Beck argued, “The question which naturally presents itself to the thinker is: ‘What part will the rest of his tribe take in our national development?’”

It was a question that was on the minds of many journalists, social reformers, travelers, and others as they toured America’s Chinatowns and saw growing numbers of “half-castes” on the streets and in doorways. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century, such “mixed” children could be found virtually wherever Chinese immigrants had settled across the country. When pioneering Chinese American journalist Wong Chin Foo reported on the New York Chinese for the Cosmopolitan in 1888, he asserted that there were over a hundred “half-breed” Chinese children in that city alone. Although their absolute numbers were small, their anomalous looks drew attention and aroused curiosity. Observers attached a special significance to these children that went beyond their numbers. For many, they represented the future shape of the Chinese American population, for better or worse. Some regarded these “hybrids” as living specimens that offered a chance to see firsthand the…

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