n March 16th 2021 three massage businesses owned and run by Asians in the Atlanta area were attacked and eight people were killed. Among the victims were Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng and Paul Andre Michels; six of the dead were Asian women. In January 2021, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old retired auditor from Thailand died from a brain hemorrhage after being knocked to the ground in San Francisco. In March 2020, a Burmese family, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, were stabbed at a store in Texas. It has been a year marked by a brutal series of events, the number of reported anti-Asian harassment, assault and civil rights violations nearing 3800 in the period from March 2020 and February 2021 in the US alone.

In France, the hashtag #jenesuipasunvirus (I am not a virus) began collecting posts in January 2020. At the same time, petitions to restrict Chinese visitors in Korea, and petitions to restrict Chinese students from the classroom in Canada emerged. In Berlin, a Chinese woman was spit on, pushed to the floor and beaten in a subway station, landing in the hospital with head injuries in February 2020. A month later, after a verbal attack, Asian American English teacher Thomas Siu woke up in a Madrid hospital with brain injuries. In April 2020, Chinese students were physically attacked in the central business district of Melbourne. By May 2020, Human Rights Watch warned of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia globally, manifesting in more general discrimination against foreigners in countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, as well as in more specifically anti-Chinese discrimination in South Korea and Japan.

The hate is widespread, but hardly new. The transnational nature of anti-Asian racism has always been tied to the global migration of labor, capital and culture as well as the perceived threat of economic competition, disease and immorality (Lee, 2007: 537-538). The Covid pandemic is perhaps just the latest in a relentless custom of anxious publics and politicians blaming Asians. Especially in the US, the history of anti-Asian violence long predates the hate-laced bigotry of the political leadership in 2020. Though horrifying, this most recent mass murder of Asians in America is also not new.

In 1871, a Los Angeles mob physically tortured and hung 18 Chinese people on the street. It is one of the largest public lynchings in US history, but remains largely unknown due to the lack of records, both public and personal (Zesch, 2012). State laws at the time restricted Chinese witnesses from testifying against whites in court, and the mob that looted Chinese-run businesses “paraded the streets of the town, displayed their booty, and were acclaimed” (Siu, 1987: 50). Despite the 150 indictments and six sentences, all the perpetrators were released.

The racial antagonism came as an epilogue to the Gold Rush, and the massive infrastructure project of constructing the transcontinental railroad. It was driven by perceived competition for employment between white and Chinese workers, exacerbated by vigilante justice and the influence of organized Chinese tongs (Zesch, 2012). At least 85 people were killed in anti-Chinese violence in the mid-1880s (Lew-Williams, 2018: 3), but fatality was only one measure of this violence. In The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America, Beth Lew-Williams uncovers the many non-lethal machinations like arson or deportation that “left little behind, even in the way of memories” (2018: 4). 

The violence reflected a tense anti-Chinese political environment in which the first immigration laws in US history would be passed: the Page Law in 1875 restricting the entry of Chinese women and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which would endure two world wars, the Great Depression and bar Chinese immigration into the US for 60 years. As Erika Lee explains: “It legalized the restriction, exclusion, and deportation of immigrants considered to be threats to the United States. It established Chinese immigrants –categorized by their race, class, and gender relations as the ultimate example of the dangerous, degraded alien—as the yardsticks by which to measure the desirability (and “whiteness”) of other immigrant groups” (2003: 24-25). Thus, they reflected the power of yellow perilism, which is again rearing its head in geography, as critically discussed by Chuchen Pan in this magazine.

These immigration laws also restricted the movement of Chinese already in the US, and created a tense environment in which states like California instituted taxes and fines on Chinese businesses and residencies, compelling Chinese to move to other areas of the country to take on “occupation which white labor did not want” (Siu, 1987: 51). These were the historical conditions for Paul Siu’s ethnography The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation.

Reading Paul Siu

In urban studies, the Chicago School investigations of the Jewish ghetto, the Polish immigrant, the Italian street corner defined the way researchers conducted ethnographic work and established the cornerstones of understanding difference and belonging in the 20th-century US city. Among the lesser-known alumnus of the program was the sociologist Paul Siu who studied with Ernest Burgess and Louis Wirth, and wrote his dissertation about the Chinese laundryman.

In the context of de-humanizing violence, reading Siu’s ethnography about everyday life for Chinese immigrants offers a historical perspective on anti-Asian hate through a portrait of the men working in hand laundries. Siu provides insight into the lives of immigrants working in these places and the nature of laundry work, the dominant profession of Chinese in the US for several generations [i]. Reading a historical ethnography grants insight into what it meant to live on the margins, beyond the landmarks of immigration legislation. Despite the ubiquity of the hand laundry on nearly every city block in 1940s Chicago, sometimes with more than five on a single block (1987: 40), this remains one of few investigations of the Chinese laundryman. It was a figure relegated to racist caricature in American mass culture until the decline of hand laundries in the 1960s 

Siu’s account of the cultural figure of the Chinese laundryman complicates the Orientalist trope of the subservient, hardworking, model minority and along the way offers some powerful context about the utter Otherness [ii], the tragically alien, often invisible Asian experience. The ethnography declares personhood in colorful detail, conveying intimate portraits of interiority in the letters Siu transcribes. He skillfully renders these lives dimensional, with desires and vices in a world where “approval and disapproval are becoming more and more an individual matter” and where people are amenable to change (1987: 280). 

Cover of The Chinese Laundryman by Paul C.P. Siu with a photograph by Leonard McCombe for Life magazine in 1947 (Source: New York University Press)

The book remains a painful testament to the marginalization of Chinese in the US, both in the labor market as well as in the academy. While the ethnography paints a rich picture of everyday life on the margins, the story of Paul Siu and his relative invisibility resonates with ongoing debates about the geographies of knowledge production and the parochial limitations of urban theory. It also helps to shed a different light on the staunch refusal of health authorities to learn from Asia in the context of the pandemic, thereby reflecting two sides of the utter Otherness that dehumanizes Asians nearby and distances those elsewhere.

Work and Stigma

The massage parlors targeted by the 21-year-old white man in Atlanta represented sexualized cultural stigmas that objectified Asian women and criminalized these businesses, but they were also a workplace for most of his victims. Siu’s study shows how the workplace as a site of violence has a long history for Asians. Race riots, looting and burglaries led in many ways to the laundry being set up as a kind of fortress. Against the background of danger, Siu explains the design of the counter, of locks and hidden hooks, a cash drawer with “just enough small change for the day’s use” and the “cage-like fence” that some laundries installed for safety (1987: 61).

An entire section entitled “The Chinese Laundryman as Thing” includes perspectives from college students who describe the laundryman as a “slave-like worker” who is in turn charged with being docile and murderous, sinister and funny, stinky and clever (Siu, 1987: 9-12), though the overall point was underlining their thing-ness, rather than their humanity. Siu’s description of his fellow students’ opinions for “the Chink to remain in their place” (1987: 22) is devastating to read, and facilitates a reading of his ethnography distinct from many of his Chicago School cohort. The bigotry articulated by these students hits at multiple registers, in the perception of the Chinese laundryman and the position of the Chinese researcher.

It is noteworthy that Siu’s ethnography of the Chinese laundryman offers a distinct perspective from Siu’s theorization of the sojourner, a typology of a social type uninterested in assimilation and clinging to their culture, which is applicable for a wide range of immigrants in America as well as Americans abroad (1952: 34). The sojourner hypothesis had a major impact; Philip Yang argues that “the ‘sojourner’ concept is almost ubiquitous in all major works on Chinese Americans published since the 1950s. For a long time, it was largely taken for granted that early Chinese immigrants were sojourners and that sojourning was a uniquely Chinese phenomenon” (2000: 235). The sojourner has been criticized by Asian American scholars for its Orientalizing tendencies (Chan, 1981), and its impact on stereotyping Chinese “as illiterate and impoverished peasants” (Liu, 2002: 30). Frank Chin argues that the myth of the Chinese sojourner retroactively legitimizes the exclusion laws, race riots and violence that Chinese Americans previously faced (1972: 61). It fits a trope of the Chinese in the US as a perpetual outsider, unassimilable, unable to belong and always foreign (Chang, 2004).

In contrast to these depictions, the ethnography paints a complex picture of living abroad and the illusion of return is presented in emotionally fraught terms of shame. A mix of factors including the Chinese Exclusion Act, the financial ruin of the Great Depression, the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, made it complicated legally, financially or politically to repatriate to China. In spite of the daily forms of prejudice carefully detailed in children’s taunts or customers’ derision, the ethnography reveals moments of solidarity. Through interracial relationships and interactions with neighbors, these ostracized laundrymen built meaningful bonds. The ethnography therefore highlights the contradictory forces of everyday life, of both long work hours and vices that propagated debt; its account of the workplace reflects the marginalization from the labor market, and maps the presence of laundries on nearly every city block. Siu’s “study of social isolation” moreover includes sketches of relationships with other social groups.

As urban scholars continue to highlight, everyday life on the margins is punctuated by the need for solidarities. In one example, Siu discusses the employment of African American women in some laundries in such sustained ways that these co-workers “can even mark the laundry ticket, writing Chinese characters on it” (1987: 84).

Epistemic Rejections

Though heralded by David Walkowitz as “a model for the study and understanding of the American immigrant experience,” The Chinese Laundryman was not published until after Paul Siu died (1987: xxi). John Kuo Wei Tchen explains the publication date in his editor’s introduction:

This volume marks the first publication of a 1953 doctoral dissertation written for the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology. The original field research for the dissertation was conducted in the late 1930s. But, most important, the memories captured herein stretch back to the 1850s—to the very beginnings of Chinese entrance into washing and ironing in America. Thus, Dr. Siu’s dissertation bears witness to a collective memory dating back over 130 years. This work should have been published long ago. The reason it wasn’t? The consequence of a subtle cultural discrimination process (1987: xxiv).

By the time Tchen sought out Siu in 1980, he had retired from his last post as the department chair at the Detroit Institute of Technology. Tchen names several reasons why this monumental book was unpublished, including that the sociology series at the University of Chicago Press ended by the time Siu was finished with the dissertation in 1953 and that “the University of Chicago Press felt that his dissertation was not sufficiently ‘marketable’ for publication” (1987, footnote 36: xxxix). In more recent critical scholarship about the Chicago School, Aldon Morris argues that the institution actively marginalized the scholarship of scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois “Here we reach the crux: invisibility and recognition are opposites. Because of the color line, white social scientists did not recognize Du Bois’s scientific contributions as original, rare, and distinctive. As a black person, Du Bois was largely invisible, as were his pioneering scientific contributions” (2015: 184). 

This theme of invisibility resonates with Siu’s experience in the academy. Seeking some record of Paul Siu’s manuscript rejection from the University of Chicago Press, I contacted the publisher as well as the University of Chicago Library Special Collections librarians who helped do a remote review of the “University of Chicago Press Records 1982-1965.” They could not verify any record of the submission or grounds for rejection, though a guide to the special collections notes that they are incomplete and an editor from the publisher confirmed that they might not keep a record of rejections beyond a brief period. Consequently, the account of Siu’s career is primarily an oral history, as told to Tchen. 

As they discussed finally publishing the dissertation, Siu also relayed to Tchen his career path, a decidedly different route from many of his Chicago School cohort. He recounted stories of his students who wondered “how could an ‘Oriental’ absorb and teach whites about Western civilization?” (xxxiv). The students raised doubts about Siu’s academic authority and about his ability to teach the “whites.” This questioning of authority finds echoes today in the way the pandemic has augmented the bifurcation of sites of solutions and the sites of problems. The “regulating fiction” of the global “Western” city as the source of models and theories (Robinson, 2002) has yet to be debunked fully from their podium.

In a recent newspaper essay, Jürgen Gerhards and Michael Zürn argue that the reason Germany refuses to learn from the successes of Asian approaches to the pandemic lays bare a “western arrogance.” Rather than facilitating a sense of solidarity in fighting a virus, they credit the pandemic with activating antiquated and false colonial ideas of Eastern “backwardness” or Western “progress.” In a scathing critique of Alain Badiou’s blog post about the “dangerous dirtiness” of the Chinese, Xiang Zairong describes the colonialist mindset as the “epistemic condition” of Covid-19. This condition renders the experience incomparable, more distant, more different, even as many Asian countries have enjoyed relative non-pandemic normalcy for many months ahead of most of the world.

Living in Europe, in the midst of a fumbled vaccination rollout and the strengthening of lockdown measures (again), I look to my family and friends in China with some envy. I also recoil at the violence in the US with horror, worried for my mother who went through the journey of immigrating to the US 30 years ago and calculating the risk of her facing an attack on the street --a concern that I imagine millions of Asians around the world share. The refusal to learn from Asian countries and the racist violence against Asians feel like the entangled outcomes of utter Othering, and evoke the need for some kind of humanizing gesture. 

Solidarities, Possible and Necessary

Re-reading Siu’s ethnography of life for Chinese in the US in the 1930s in the context of the anti-Asian hate this past year also serves as a reminder of the intersectional vulnerabilities that implicate Asians in numerous possible and necessary solidarities. The racist tropes of the emasculated laundryman or hypersexualized massage worker in grueling, low-paying and dangerous workplace highlight the way that gendered work, racism and economic precarity operate together.

The deluge of violence against Asians highlights the ways that Asians of different ethnicities and socioeconomic classes must find ways of forging solidarities, as bigotry doesn’t differentiate. The police response in Atlanta, clearly more sympathetic with a white killer than a non-white victim, further demands that Asians forge solidarities with all the communities faced with a sense of never-ending assault

Moreover, the collaboration of Siu and Tchen show that solidarity across generations can uncover, and document some of the histories of hurt experienced with our students, in our neighborhoods, on the street as part of everyday life. Tchen recounted not only Siu’s experience teaching white students, but also the housing discrimination he faced each time moving universities. Lillian Li’s Twitter thread about the Chinese relationship pain included this quote “Our pain is made invisible by our success” from an academic speaking about the diaspora.

Image description: A screenshot of a tweet by @Lillian Li reads: "'Our pain is made invisible by our success.' An academic said that in respect to the Chinese diaspora experience recently, and I was undone. A sentence that cut me to the core. A lifetime summed up in 8 words"

The tweet is an echo of what Beth Lew-Williams calls Asian Americans’ historical erasure, and also helps us to see that a better understanding of Siu’s academic life humanizes the Asian American experience as it renders this pain visible. After working at several universities, Siu eventually also found a more tolerant institutional home at the Detroit Institute of Technology where he worked with a mix of black, white and foreign students. “No one complained about my English in Detroit!” (1987: xxiv).

By making Siu’s difficulties in the academy visible, Tchen fractures the veneer of achievement so that readers are able to reflect on Siu’s career, his ethnography and anti-Asian racism in tandem. It shows how the exclusions the Chinese faced in their Chicago laundries and the invisibility of Siu within the academy are entwined wounds of utter Otherness. Understanding this as part of the epistemic condition that shapes geographies of knowledge production, Siu offers a relevant lesson for the task of redressing the parochialism of urban theory. He shows us how this task might require a reckoning with the exclusionary forces within the academy, and its impact on “insufficiently marketable” scholarship. And it also shows how ethnography can capture some enduring truths, worth reading again and again.


Thank you to Silvy Chakkalakal, Buyun Chen and Helen Kim for your comments and support on this essay. I am so grateful for the friendship and solidarities we forge working in the academic settings we work in. Additional thanks to Gareth Jones and Dennis Rodgers for inviting me to engage with Paul Siu’s book, and to Charmaine Chua for very helpful guidance on this essay. 


[i] Starting with the first businesses in the 1870s, the hand laundries in Chicago numbered nearly 700 in the 1920s; by the time of Siu’s research in the late 1930s, there were around 500 laundries (Siu, 1987: 37). The density distribution of laundries in Chicago correlated with the development of apartment building areas where residents were young, salaried, and where in married couples both partners worked. In contrast, far fewer laundries were found in areas with single family neighborhoods, signifying the ways that the Chinese laundry served as an indicator of urbanization (Siu, 1987: 41).
[ii] The term “utter Otherness” is borrowed from Brenda Yeoh’s (2001) reading of Kalpana Ram (1998), applied here to capture the severity of the position.


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