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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.

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