Romance in Chinatown: The Love Stories of Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914)

Dr Erin S.Young (SUNY Empire State College)

Session 9.4: Romancing Chinese Worlds


This project will explore romantic relationships in the short fiction of Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far), with a particular focus on her 1912 collection of stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Since the critical rediscovery of Eaton’s writings in the 1970s, her work has become canonical in American Realism and Asian American literature anthologies. Sometimes referred to as the foremother of Asian (North) American literature, Eaton is notable for her accessible and sympathetic portrayals of Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century. Existing Eaton scholarship is rich with analysis of her engagements with race, gender, nationality, and citizenship. What has yet to be fully explored, however, is her strategic use of courtship, romance, and marriage as vehicles for challenging the dominant racial and national narratives of her time.
[Young’s] goal is to analyze both the intra- and interracial Chinese/white romantic relationships in her stories as sites of Americanization. [Young] am also interested in how the Chinatown landscape frames the construction of these romances. If time permits, [Young] may conduct a comparative examination of Edith Maude Eaton’s love stories and the romantic writings of her sister, Winnifred Eaton (Onoto Watanna), whose Miss Nume of Japan (1899) is arguably the first Asian American romantic novel. While the sisters were similarly positioned as “Eurasian” and transnational women, they employed notably different strategies in their use of romance to address Asian American concerns.


Romance in Chinatown: the love stories of Edith Maude Eaton

Edith Maude Eason:

  • Identified as Chinese American even though she could pass as non Chinese
  • Wrote about west coast Chinatowns, especially San Francisco and Seattle
  • Writing for dominant culture (white audience)
  • Very successful at the time, had her own publisher

In the US:

Anti miscegenation laws and immigration laws led to Chinese bachelor populations. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 prevented immigration by Chinese people. It also:

  • Barred Chinese women, assuming they were all prostitues
  • Families were prevented from forming / being created
  • Chinatowns became zoned – Chinese people not permitted to live elsewhere
  • While photographs of the time only Chinese people in Chinatowns, but they were they were designed largely for white tourism
  • Despite the name, the architecture was largely Edwardian
  • Easily recognisable social identity was created
  • Govt believed people couldn’t become citizens and would stay homogenised (and they enforced this cycle)

USA Society repressed Chinese people, but China Towns allowed for more romantic freedom.

  • Eaton’s 1912 novella on marriage moved life from the street into the home
  • Her fictional stories challenge the racial stereotypes
  • However the romances have not been explored much

Eg Mrs Spring Fragrance

  • Trickster use of language, repeats things over even if not true
  • Eg Tennyson was American
  • Creates a sense of belonging to American identity, even if the facts weren’t true

Other story:

  • Pan (mixed race)
  • Mark Carson (white journalist)
  • Pan has access to secret places, bohemian, not restricted
  • Mark’s story about Chinatown is a rejection of her mixed race heritage, akin to a sexual assault on her
  • Story is a miniature revision of Madam Butterfly

Separations by government:

  • Ellis Island – famous entry point to the US in New York
  • Angel Island – West Coast (very dark mirror universe version of Ellis Island) – many Chinese were

Maude’s sister, Winnifred Eaton, wrote under the name Onoto Watanna. By positioning herself as a Japanese American, Wiinnifred was presenting herself as a more ‘acceptable’ type of Asian American.

Eaton’s parents were married prior to the anti miscegenation laws were enacted. Her parents had a marriage that was denied to later Chinese immigrants, and Eaton and her sister had an upbring that didn’t exist for later generations.

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