Anti-English Spectrum vs. the Asiatic Exclusion League

For those who think that the Anti-English Spectrum fanatics are bad, well, I agree. I personally think they’re a significant part of the reason why Korean society, which used to be pretty positive towards Westerners on a one-on-one level, has gotten increasingly hostile with every passing year I’ve spent here. (And yes, I’ll stand by that statement, in terms of my subjective experience, though I’ll also admit some of that has to do with my neighborhood and personal disenchantment.) I’d also say it’s part of the reason a video like this one (yes, it’s the MBC “Shocking Truth About Relationships With Foreigners” video, which is gone from Youtube, but still up on Facebook) could be aired on mainstream Korean TV, and the producer could feel uninclined to apologize for it when he got called on it.

But I’ve also consistently argued that when Westerners start comparing Korea to America in 1950, the reason they choose that place and time is simply a failure of knowledge and of historical memory. Likewise, I’d now argue, for how expats seem to enjoy comparing the institutionalization of racism into legislation with Nazi racial policies. There are, I’d say, much better comparisons to be made, if you do a little research… especially, I’ll add, for those of us from Canada or the USA. (I’ve run across references to similar crap in Australian history, too, but I leave it to any Aussie who feels like contributing to fill in that blank, at least for now.)

You see I’ve been researching anti-Asian sentiments in North American history for a story I’ve been drafting, set just after the Klondike gold rush up in the Yukon, concerning in part Chinese immigration to Canada… and what I’ve run across is not all that surprising, but it is also not very pretty. 

I mean, yes, foreigners coming to Korea do have some questionable legislation aimed at them: migrant workers aren’t supposed to stay beyond a fixed term, and there are mandatory drug and HIV tests for people coming on E2 visas (at least; I’m on an E1 and at my first work-mandated checkup, when I was promoted to my current position, they didn’t know whether it applied to me, and went ahead and did it just in case). Anyone who doesn’t know about how the Anti-English Spectrum hate group is involved in all of that can read up on it in the comprehensive series of posts researched by Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling. (The series begins where I’ve linked, and proceeds through over thirty more.)

But, say, have you heard of the Chinese Head Tax? That was Canada’s measure for controlling immigration of Chinese into Canada, when the number of Chinese migrants got big enough that their presence was noticeable in Western Canada. Note: the head tax was created because a law banning Chinese immigration to Canada failed to be upheld, as it was illegal in a British Dominion to do so.

How much was the Head Tax? Well, it depends on the year: at first, it was $50 (in 1885 dollars, mind you); by 1903, this had swelled to $500 — again, in 1903 dollars. (In 2003 dollars, that’s closer to $8000, at a time when other immigrants only paid a nominal fee to come to Canada.) Apparently even this measure was unable to effectively block Chinese immigration, and so the head tax was abolished in Canada in 1923, with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923…

… which explicitly banned Chinese immigration to Canada outright. That didn’t get repealed until after World War II, by the way. All that nastiness with the Nazis made people think maybe racialized immigration laws weren’t such a good idea after all, and besides, Chinese Canadians had pitched in during the War, or at least that’s what enough people felt for the law to change.

(There was similarly awful legislation in the USA, as well, aimed at controlling the immigration of Chinese to the USA. You can read about it here.)

Now, I knew there was racism against Asians in North America’s history, but I didn’t know it was as extreme as that, or as legislatively codified.

And while I’ll be the first to agree that Anti-English Spectrum is a hate group, and unacceptable in today’s world, and also just kind of pathetic, it’s not like there wasn’t a comparable hate group operating in the USA and Canada. There are some disturbing similarities between AES (and the group it’s mutated into more recently) and its Western equivalent, which ironically also has almost the same initials to its title (AEL, instead of AES).

I am, of course, referring to the Asiatic Exclusion League, which was fixated on idea that Asians were “ruining” Canada and America; a fear that Asian influence was leading to the spoiling of young white women (who were, it was claimed in Vancouver, during the investigations that followed the Vancouver Riot of 1907, starting to use opium in “Chinese opium dens”); and a general desire to halt the immigration and growing presence of Asian foreigners in America and Canada. Check out the tactics of an affiliated group, the “Anti-Jap Laundry League” (and doesn’t that title just roll off the damned tongue?):

This league attempted to financially harm Japanese-run laundries using four different tactics: picketing laundries, following customers back to their homes and intimidating them, preventing the laundries from purchasing equipment, and threatening public officials who refused to punish the laundries. They successfully ruined many Japanese laundries in this way.

For those expats in Korea reading this who are teachers, imagine members of AES following your students’ parents home and intimidating them for sending their kids to a hakwon or university or high school with a “low-quality foreigner” or staff; imagine them picketing hakwons, schools, and universities. One might fairly argue that the Korean AES is using more modern equivalents–and in terms of their political actions, such as getting immigration laws changed and building negative sentiment through scary quotes in the media, I’d agree–but somehow the Asian Exclusion League seems scarier, more dangerous. More hateful, I’m not sure, but scarier and more dangerous? Hell yes.

And that’s not even to get into the internment of Japanese citizens in both the USA and Canada during World War II.

None of this is to justify or defend the AES, which, I repeat, is a pathetic and objectionable organization, and, I’d say unequivocally, a hate group. But I’d suggest that, like so many things we see in Korea today–from the rise in young women smoking, to the widespread (and unacknowledged) alcoholism, the negative reaction to women’s changing role as both workers and consumers in this society, the changing sexual norms, the panic over interracial relationships, the bigoted entertainment that isn’t recognized as bigoted by a large part of society, and so much more–it’s a part of the process of modernization, and something many societies have gone through in a recognizable pattern in the past.

And, of course, if we reframe the comparison more naturally–comparing how Korean society is reacting legislatively and socially to non-white, non-Western immigrants–the comparison might be somewhat less favorable. In terms of that comparison, I’m inclined to suggest that things may not yet have gotten as bad as they likely will.

In particular, anti-Chinese and anti-Chinese-Korean (Joseon-jok) sentiments seem to be rising all the time, lately, and Miss Jiwaku was telling me about how rumors among people she knows suggest that the recent murder on Jeju Island “must have been by a Sino-Korean person” simply because the island has lots of tourists visiting it, meaning it’s easy for a Sino-Korean to go there (well, yes; it’s easy for anyone in Korea to go there, though).

The take-home message is that the perception of Chinese-Koreans as violent and scary and horrible has reached such a high that now some people are jumping to the conclusion that any unsolved brutal, horrid crime must have been committed by one of those people. And, as I say, this is likely to get worse before Korean society in general changes course and wises up about it.

So, when white foreigners complain about racism, believe me, I understand: we do experience it here, no question. But… it’s not as bad as what some of our ancestors did back home, only a few generations ago… and it’s nothing like what non-whites in Korea sometimes (or even often) have to deal with.

7 thoughts on “Anti-English Spectrum vs. the Asiatic Exclusion League

  1. This article more or less summarises my thoughts on this issue. The AES is an inexcusable, thinly-veiled hate group, but honestly, all I can really say about them is that they’re basically amateurs compared to some of their international counterparts. They don’t even have the conviction to come out and admit their racist intent, unlike, say, the KKK or Stormfront or any number of similar groups. Of course, with numbers of foreign residents increasing and a likely government-backed push towards multiculturalism, there is plenty of time for more radical and violent racist groups to develop. But for now, I’d say we’re doing okay. And again, whatever mild racist or xenophobic sentiment Westerners here might be exposed to (and I don’t mean to suggest that this is anything but unacceptable), it’s absolutely nothing compared to the fear and hatred reserved for the Joseon-jok.

    As for Australia, you can look up the ‘White Australia Policy’, which is exactly what it sounds like, and was in effect for an embarrassingly long time. In fact, Australia has a whole host of embarrassing, racially-charged issues that seem to spring up every other year. Having experienced it first-hand (not directed at me but to others), it’s probably why I let it slide so easily over here.

  2. I love the post – thank you for posting it! It is really interesting to see/read the other side of the experience of something like nationalised racism. It is interesting for me to experience being in the minority and experience this type of prejudice and racism. (I’m sure Korea is not alone in this, either, but it seems to be being very vocal recently…)

    From an Australian perspective, we have had Chinese migrants since the 1820s (roughly) and the gold rush; we’ve had Afghani cameleers since the early exploration days (late 1790s maybe?), and so much more. The strangest thing is that we had a “White Australia Policy” ( until 1973 which effectively denied entry to non-white migrants and resulted in the deportation of some migrant workers back to their homelands (e.g. Pacific Islanders who were working in the cane fields in northern Queensland). Even aborigines (Australian native people) were not recognised as “people” until the mid 1960s. So, a lot of what Gord has said about Canada and the States applies in Australia as well, albeit being more recent and definitely still living in people’s minds now.

    Oh – and to bring this type of thing to a more relevant context in Australia right now – just search for “boat people Australia” and you will find some amazing stories and hatred of these “illegal” immigrants. (Note: They are not illegal – asylum seekers and refugees are not illegal.) It’s often overlooked that the illegal immigrants are predominantly English-speaking people from New Zealand, Britain, Canada, and USA. :)

  3. Over the decades of White Australia Policy being gradually dismantled, there were all kinds of disgusting measures aimed at keeping non-Europeans (i.e. Asians) out. Australia has been in a panic about ‘Asian invasion’ since before federation.

    In Australia anti-Asian sentiment was also given political legitimacy in the late 90s with One Nation, a right wing populist virtually-neo-Nazi party that looked like it was becoming the third force in politics for a while.

    We also had the Cronulla race riots in 2005, and more recently violent attacks on Indian and Chinese international students have left Australia struggling to convince its biggest trading partners and sources of international students that Australia is multicultural or even just a safe place to use public transport. It’s hard to get ‘Australia really is wonderfully multicultural, there’s just certain suburbs you shouldn’t go to’ into the pitch to rich Asian families choosing from the global university marketplace.

    Koreans who focus their ‘my society is changing and maybe I’m being left out’ rage on English teachers puzzle me a bit because we’re such small potatoes compared to other non-Korean groups. We’re absolutely dwarfed by south/south-east Asian migrants. But I guess being a small, easily defined target whose role in Korean society isn’t actually changing much might make us a somehow reassuring object of rage.

    1. Bryan,

      Thanks for the added info, and sorry for the delay. This got wrongly tagged as spam!

      As for the focus on English teachers — I think it also has to do with a postcolonial inferiority complex; postcolonial identity issues come into play a lot… but I assure you, people are focusing more and more on Sino-Koreans and on Southeast Asian immigrants. (Both in the positive and very much in the negative sense of “focusing”…)

  4. Thanks for your comment, Trisha!

    That’s interesting. I did not mention the atrocious policies directed at Canada’s First Nations people, some of which (like the residential schools) I seem to recall were pretty much copied & pasted into Australia’s handling of that continent’s aboriginal people. I’m not sure how much harder it was for non-Chinese non-whites to emigrate to Canada, though: the legislation was straightforwardly anti-Chinese immigration. (But, then, we had an active KKK in my hometown well into the 1920s, maybe even into the 1930s. They were listed in the Henderson [phone & address] Directory and everything, right after the Kinsmen Association. And since we had few to no blacks in Saskatchewan at the time, they hated on Indians, Metis, Jews, Catholics, Eastern Europeans… well, you get the picture…)

    As for the situation for refugees and asylum seekers in Canada now, well, there’s a whole scandal over the current Witch-King Prime Minister of Canada’s regime having cut health care for refugees. Doctors are standing up against it, all over Canada, which is impressive, but it’s pretty disgusting that they would have to do so.

    Though I suppose that also says how far we’ve come.

  5. I would agree that non-White people in South Korea have it worse than White people. The latter may think they have it bad, but it’s nothing compared to what Chinese, SE Asian, Middle Easterners, or Africans have to deal with in terms of Korean xenophobia. South Korea is like Japan in being a very ethnically homogenous entity that has a hard time diversity.

    So be grateful for your White skin priviledge.

    1. miz,

      Yeah, definitely I’ve noticed bigotry towards Chinese and Southeast Asians increase, really quite remarkably since I arrived in Korea twelve years ago.

      That said, two things about your comment:

      1. Yeah, I don’t think Korea can use that “homogenous county” excuse anymore. Not because Korea’s all racially diverse, but because there have been non-Koreans in the country for over a century. At some point, Korean society is going to have to admit that foreigners are no longer a new, weird, novelty presence in the country. I figure that point has come and gone. And also, I have to say that while we were in Japan, while some people assumed my wife was Japanese, not once did we encounter the kind of bigoted shit that Jihyun got in Korea when she was out in public with me. So, while Japan does have some problems, lumping Korea and Japan together in this strikes me as unfair.

      2. Telling someone “be grateful for your White skin privilege” is likely to rub people the wrong way. White privilege does work on a high-level, institutional sense–whites in Korea for example seem to find getting employment much easier than people of other races–but you know, when it’s a drunk or a mentally ill person attacking you in the subway, or a racist father-in-law talking shit right in front of you, assuming you don’t understand what he’s saying, or a stranger sexually harassing, white privilege doesn’t manifest as a magical white lightsaber. It exists, and people who enjoy its benefits should be aware of it, but people who don’t enjoy it shouldn’t imagine it is some kind of magical force field.

      (At the very least, it’s a quick way to alienate those whites who are sympathetic despite the privilege they enjoy.)

      Also, I’ll be honest: some of the effects of white privilege put me off. I noticed some peoplebeing extra-nice and extra-polite to me, and it always made me feel uncomfortable. I wouldn’t complain if it led to nicer treatment than regular Korean customers were getting, but I didn’t really like it, if you know what I mean.

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