Prohibition: The War on Opium and the Chinese “Yellow Peril”
Prohibition in the United States has a rich and often unknown history. For many, growing up with TV shows such as Gun Smoke, Bonanza, and the Lone Ranger, opened up our minds to the unique American history of the Wild West. Watching the good guys bring justice to the bad portrayed a world of liberty and justice for all and everyone was happy in the end.
The reality, however, is that 1800’s was full of complicated issues, and much of the nation’s growing pains took place during this century, as well as our cultural diversity that we enjoy today.
Our cultural diversity is what makes this nation strong, and brings a unique flavor to the world. We are a nation of immigrants, and built from the aspirations of liberty the dream of a republic in which a free society can live in harmony.
The Founding Fathers feared Democracy, and knew such a system of rule often ended in tyrannical corruption and mob rule. In secrecy, the Founding Fathers met in a closed door meeting to work out the details of this new nation. In anticipation, curious and anxious citizens gathered around Independence Hall to hear what had been decided. As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked, by Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia “Well, Doctor, what we have got, a republic or a monarchy?” Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
While keeping this republic, we have had periods of dark times along with the good. It is important to learn, know, and understand these dark times of American history, so we may move forward and embrace the light. You cannot know where you are going, without first knowing where you have been, and as the great philosopher Edmund Burke once stated, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,”
The 1850’s were full of excitement, the Gold Rush was in full swing and with it came Chinese immigrants eager to start a new life and have a shot at the American dream. The Chinese, however, experienced discrimination and bias from the time they arrived, and struggled to make a new life for themselves in this new land. The California Supreme Court categorized the Chinese to be in the same category as Native Americans and Blacks, and denied them the right to testify against white men in a court of law, and unable to be qualify for citizenship.
Because of their hard work ethic and willingness to take low wages, they were favored for mining employment and later railroad construction. In the 1870’s, the economy began to take a downward spiral, and a lack of jobs and depressed wages caused labor unions to focus their anger toward the Chinese. As anti-Chinese sentiment grew, so did laws targeting the Chinese.
The Chinese had brought with them the custom of smoking opium, something that had been introduced to China years before by the Dutch, which also played a role in the Opium Wars between China and the British Empire during the 1840’s. Even though opium was used medicinally in various elixirs and tinctures in U.S. society, it was used to stigmatize the Chinese culture. Opium, especially the smoking of, quickly became used as a propaganda weapon to help create fear of Chinese people.
In 1875 the first known “anti-drug” law was passed in California. This law specifically targeted opium in its smoked form and outlawed public opium dens, while exempting opium in it’s commonly (mainly white used) medicinal form of elixir. Surrounding territories used this example and, too, outlawed opium dens; thus the war on Opium and the Chinese was in full swing.
The pressure on the Chinese immigrant didn’t stop there; other laws began to spring up that targeted the Chinese in an effort to drive them out of California. In 1879, article XIX of the California Constitution banned the employment of Chinese by private corporations and local government. In fact, they made it clear that the goal was to drive out the Chinese. Article XIX states the following:
“Section1. The Legislature shall prescribe all necessary regulations for the protection of the State, and the counties, cities, and towns thereof, from the burdens and evils arising from the presence of aliens who are or may become vagrants, paupers, mendicants, criminals, or invalids afflicted with contagious or infectious diseases, and from aliens otherwise dangerous or detrimental to the well-being or peace of the State, and to impose conditions upon which persons may reside in the State, and to provide the means and mode of their removal from the State, upon failure or refusal to comply with such conditions; provided, that nothing contained in this section shall be construed to impair or limit the power of the Legislature to pass such police laws or other regulations as it may deem necessary.
Section 2. No corporation now existing or hereafter formed under the laws of this State, shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, employ directly or indirectly, in any capacity, any Chinese or Mongolian. The Legislature shall pass such laws as may be necessary to enforce this provision.
Section 3. No Chinese shall be employed on any State, county, municipal, or other public work, except in punishment for a crime.
Section 4. The presence of foreigners ineligible to become citizens of the United States is declared to be dangerous to the well-being of the State, and the Legislature shall discourage their immigration by all the means within its power.”
This had a devastating effect on the Chinese community, and they were forced to self-employ. Many turned to opening laundry businesses to make a living. It wasn’t long, however, before legislators then targeted the laundry business, tacking on new legislation to target Chinese. One such new law required permits issued by the state if you operated a laundry business in a wooden building. At the time, 95% of the buildings used for laundry businesses were made of wood. Of that 95%, over 65% were Chinese owned and none were granted permits. This sparked a pivotal Supreme Court case, Yik Wo vs. Hopkins, when an owner of the a laundry business fought the law on terms of racial discrimination. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Yik Wo, and found that while neutral on paper, the law was not applied fairly, and in fact, being used to discriminate.
The anti-Chinese movement continued, and soon, a man by the name of William Hearst began a notorious media campaign against the Chinese (and later campaigned against Mexicans with marijuana). He put out publications about the “Chinese peril” and Chinese men using Opium to seduce white women. These ads were graphic for the time, and displayed pictures such as the one below, which shows a Chinese man with a knife in his mouth and a gun in his hand. He is running over a body of a white female victim. In his left hand, he appears to be holding a torch or burning opium. The text in the cartoon says “The yellow terror in all his glory.”
Ads like this inflamed the Anti-Chinese movement and continued to use opium as a means of demonizing the Chinese. Eventually the U.S. Congress would pass the Anti-Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. Chinese that were in the country already were barred from becoming naturalized citizens, and were unable to participate in the political process. It was not until 1943 that this law was finally repealed.
The discrimination of the Chinese was horrid, and a dark time in U.S. media and legislation. However, it taught several lessons, and during this processes, paved the way for future action against groups of race or religion that were deemed “undesirable” by the elites. With media ads demonizing a culture through use of a substance, they were able to target a culture indirectly through targeting a drug. This lesson would later become the foundation for future prohibition campaigns including cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol.
Racism and prejudice needed a rallying cry, and the War on Drugs was the perfect solution. Over the next one hundred years, these very same tactics would be used again and again with great success and more legislation and campaign ads were ran to demonize and legislate against various groups of ethnicity and religion, the effects of which are still seen and felt today.
Terrorism and Homeland Security major, recently graduating with highest honors. Nick is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, The National Society of Collegiate Scholars, the Golden Key International Honor Society, Alpha Betta Kappa Honor Society, and Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society. He has appeared as an expert commentator on Fox News Radio, and has been published in academic journals as well as Police One.
To learn more: