‘The Gilded Age’ and the Shadow of China Trade

Julian Fellowes’s new drama series, “The Gilded Age,” teases at possibly being a “Downton Abbey” prequel, providing us with both a younger version of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Violet Crawley with her young  son Robert dashing enough to eventually win the heart of the girl who would, as his bride Cora, save Downton Abbey. After three episodes, we aren’t there yet, but the taste of scandal is in the air, both historical and fictional. Yet there’s a bitter lack of representation in a show that is obviously bending to provide representation in the antiquated binary system of Black and White.

Moreover, the set up seems like a slap in the face of Asians. The year is 1882. This is the year that Jesse James was killed (in April) and that Charles J. Guiteau was found guilty (January) of the assassination of the president of the United States, James Garfield (July 1881). It’s the year that John D. Rockefeller and friends created the Standard Oil Trust. If you are Chinese American, that year should send a warning flare of anger.

The year 1882 is when the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur (6 May 1882). The first episode of “The Gilded Age,” “Never the New,” begins in what seems to be the late spring of 1882, when college classes have just finished. Our POV character is Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who discovers upon the death of her father, that he doesn’t own their home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and there are no savings. She can’t even afford to pay her lawyer, Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel). Marian has no alternative, but to seek shelter with her estranged paternal aunts in New York: Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her younger spinster sister, Ada Brooks (Cynthia Nixon). 

While waiting for the train, Marian’s purse and tickets are stolen and she must rely upon the charity of a Black woman about her age, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) and ride with her.  Circumstances upon arrival in New York lead to Peggy seeking shelter with Marian’s aunts and Agnes decides to employ her as her secretary after learning that she graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth (in Philadelphia). 

Across the street, industrialist George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) and two kids, recent Harvard grad Larry (Harry Richardson) and the naive but eager to please Gladys (Taissa Farmiga)  are finally moving into a lavish mansion across the way from Agnes van Rhijn. The Russells are “the new” and Bertha is determined to break into high society. She’s given up all her old friends and thinks she is ready to buy new friends with her impressive house.

Up until the opening of the series, the Russells had been stuck down on 30th Street. Their new mansion was built by Stanford White (1853-1906) and this is the first whiff of scandal. White was a partner of the firm, McKim, Mead & White, but he was most infamous in his death, when his despotic ways were revealed and the concept of temporary insanity was introduced into the courtrooms. White was killed at the Madison Square Theatre by the rich Harry Kendall Thaw. Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit, had been seduced by White when she was 16 and that was four years before she married Thaw. Thaw could not let go of the abuse his wife had suffered before with White. So this sensational murder and trial won’t happen until 24 years later. 

Marian’s grandmother came in 1674 to New York (Livingston) so although she is new to New York, she is not one of the “new” families. She’s a member of The Four Hundred, a list of New York high society during the Gilded Age which was led by Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (1830-1908), known as Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), who was the wife of William Backhouse Astor Jr. (1829-1892). 

Benton’s purple and red outfit is a definite yes from me.

Peggy’s family lives in Brooklyn, but she’s reluctant to return home.  She has a strong disagreement with her father, Arthur (John Douglas Thompson), but things are better with her mother Dorothy (Audra McDonald).

Children are always trouble. Peggy is determined to become a writer although her father discourages her. She’s gotten some interest, but her race becomes an issue. There are other issues afoot. Oscar van Rhijn, is hunting for a rich and easy-to-control heiress. He has his eyes soon set on the poor Gladys. Oscar’s true affections or at least his lust is locked on his secret lover, John Adams (Claybourne Elder). 

So we have diversity through a middle-class Black family and a two gay White males so far. But diversity in 2020 is more than Black and White.

China’s Shadow and Chinese Americans

Mrs. Astor’s  husband, William Backhouse Astor Jr.  has yet to be introduced. His paternal grandfather,  John Jacob Aster (1763-1848) has already died, and his wife, Sarah Cox Todd (1762-1842) as well. However, John Astor is what connects The Four Hundred to China. Astor built some of his fortune opium smuggling from China. Fellowes, of course, should be aware of this problem. The United Kingdom was involved in two Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), which gave the United Kingdom and the East India Company the right to sell opium from India to China in return for tea and silks. Yes, silks that are likely be using by the rich and powerful in New York. 

According to NPS.gov, Astor smuggled in opium between 1816 and 1825.

Once the drug was in the country, he wasn’t afraid to let the marketplace know because he often advertised he had it for sale in the “New-York Gazette and General Advertiser.”

By selling opium, Astor was fueling an international problem that would reach epidemic proportions during the mid-1800s. When Astor died in 1848 he was worth an estimated 20 million (about $650 million in today’s dollars). However, it’s not known how much of his wealth is attributed to his drug smuggling business. 

Will the growing drug problem be a topic of the Gilded Age? In 1890, Congress will impose a tax on opium and morphine and William Randolph Hearst will begin publishing stories about the dangers of Chinese men who seduce White women with their opium. Hearst will buy the New York Morning Journal in 1895. 

The Chinese are already in Manhattan by 1882. The Chinatown began in the 1870s. The first Chinese woman to arrive was AFong Moy in 1834. She was part of a “marketing ploy” by American merchants. She was exhibited as a curiosity and toured as far as Boston to the north and New Orleans to the South. According to the New York Historical Society Museum and Library, PT Barnum had two Chinese women and two Chinese men on display at his temporary Chinese Museum. Chang and Eng, the famous conjoined twins had a six-week engagement at Barnum’s American Museum in 1860 and went on a Barnum European tour in 1868. 

According to This Is New York blog, “many immigrants were driven out of the West due to a violent anti-Chinese movement that was fueled by white anxiety over jobs, as employment collapsed with the end of the Gold Rush and completion of the transcontinental railroad. Repelled by external discrimination, Chinese immigrants clustered together in a few core streets — Mott, Pell, and Doyers — that eventually expanded into Chinatown.”

The blog notes that the area already had an immigrant population, of Irish and free African Americans. The blog also notes that a woman who was a US citizen would lose her citizenship if she married a Chinese national. There were no anti-miscegenation laws and never would be in New York. The Chinese men who married, often married Irish women

The TV series, “The Gilded Age,” does, of course include characters who are Irish. 

Several times we’re reminded that the American Civil War (1861-1865) wasn’t that long ago. There are veterans for whom funds need to be raised and Marian’s father was a general. Asian and Pacific Islanders did fight in the American Civil War

The Chinese who served the Union Army during the American Civil War would be denied US citizenship although Congress had passed an act in 1862 promising citizenship to honorably discharged foreign veterans. An earlier law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, limited naturalization to “free White persons(s),” meaning that indentured servants, slaves, free Black people and Asians would be denied citizenship. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship to people born in the US, except for Native Americans. The Naturalization Act of 1870 allowed “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent” but it also revoked the citizenship of naturalized Chinese Americans. 

According to the National Parks Service , John Ah Heng or Hang, a Civil War veteran was living in Staten Island and had been naturalized as a US citizen in 1875. Hang voted until 1903 when he was barred from the polls. John Ah Shoen had enlisted in New York and post-war, lived in New York. There are accounts of Filipino Americans fighting on both sides of the Civil War. Asian Americans fighting in the American Civil War were born in places like India, China, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Guam. 

Three Chinese rose in the ranks to become corporals. Edward Day Cohota served after the Civil War as a regular soldier, but his twenty years in the military didn’t get him citizenship. Cohota told his children that for 30 years, he voted until someone realized he was not qualified to vote. 

The eldest sons of Eng and Chang also fought in the war on the side of the Confederacy and the war resulted in severe financial losses for the Thai-born Chinese twins. 

The Gilded Age politics had Republicans in control and they “consistently supported generous government pensions for Union war veterans.”  Yet not all veterans were treated equally. While Black Americans gained their freedom from slavery and the vote, the Chinese, some of whom fought for the Union were losing their rights. Their promise of citizenship was not realized. In time, it wouldn’t be the Chinese breaking into The Four Hundred. It would be a Japanese geisha, Yuki Kato. George Denison Morgan, nephew of Pierpont Morgan,  would pay her debt and marry her in 1904. This is two decades after the starting year of “The Gilded Age,” during which more anti-Asian laws would be passed, within individual state and federally. 

Asians currently make up 14 percent of the New York City population (compared to 5 percent nationally). Black and African Americans make up 24 percent of NYC’s current population, but 13 percent nationally. Latino/Hispanic are 30 percent and also not represented and that is another issue: under representation of Latino/Hispanic in New York City. In addition, the Jewish population of New York began to increase as Jews fled Russia in 1881. A report from the New York State archives indicates that “In 1880, approximately 60,000 Jews lived in New York City.” Fellowes did introduce a Jewish family into “Downton Abbey” when Lady Rose MacClare marries Atticus Aldridge.

Because “The Gilded Age” begins in 1882, it is hard to avoid the topic of Asian Americans in US history, in a story that includes railroads, luxury and the family of a brazen opium dealer. Imagine the outcry if a drama set on the East Coast of the US started in 1619 or 1863 and didn’t mention Black slavery. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first and only major legislation that was implemented to specifically prevent an ethnic group or specific nationality from immigrating into the US. It was extended in 1902 for another decade and made indefinite in 1904. It was the beginning of legislation that would define a desirable population to certain types of Whiteness and a binary of Black and White. The 14th Amendment gave African Americans citizenship and the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalization rights to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent” and denied the same right to other groups of non-whites, particularly Asians. By not introducing Asians into “The Gilded Age,”  Fellowes’ drama is just another study in Black and White, from an antiquated US history that is both anglocentric and written with an East Coast bias by an Englishman. And remember, “Downton Abbey” starts with the sinking of the Titanic, a disaster which six Chinese men and one Japanese man survived. The Chinese weren’t allowed to join the rest of the survivors in the US because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Japanese man was vilified and lived under a cloud of shame. Anti-Asian sentiment was common in the US during the Gilded Age and justified by legal means nationally and by unequal treaties internationally. Since the start of the pandemic, anti-Asian hate has again taken hold of the US.

According to an NBC News report, “anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339 percent last year compared to the year before, with New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities surpassing their record numbers in 2020.” The report also notes the importance of addressing anti-Black sentiment as well. 

The report also found that Black Americans remained the most targeted group across most cities. In New York, the Jewish community reported the most hate crimes last year, with researchers, in part, linking increases to the three-week Gaza War in May. In Chicago, gay men were the most targeted. In terms of location, Los Angeles “recorded the most hate crimes of any U.S. city this century” in 2021 alone, with New York coming in just behind it. 

While I applaud the representation of a well-to-do Black family that employs their own servants in “The Gilded Age” and enjoy the dress styles worn by Benton’s Peggy,  New York City was a place of many different ethnic groups and races. The state never passed anti-miscegenation laws (like eight other states and the District of Columbia). If a period during which anti-Asian hate is on the rise again  is not the right time for inclusion of Asian Americans in a historical dramas, particularly one set during a time of legally expressed anti-Asian sentiment, then when is? 

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