Abstract: Race and Demand: Chinese Exclusion and the Domestic Service Labor Market in the Late Nineteenth-Century United States

Andrew Urban


This paper examines the role of Chinese domestic servants in the late nineteenth-century debate over whether Chinese immigration had a positive or negative impact on the political economy of California. Opponents of Chinese immigration argued that Chinese laborers were "coolies" who did not control the terms or contracts of their labor, and who threatened to decimate the free labor system by introducing a new form of slavery into the United States. In the context of domestic service, however, white elites argued that male Chinese servants—based on a racialized understanding of their traits—represented a superior class of domestic labor. This paper argues that employers of Chinese domestic servants presented a "moral economy" of the home, centered on the notion of defending domesticity against insolent and insubordinate white female servants who failed to respect their authority and the social hierarchy. Employers of Chinese servants challenged both the claims of white laborers that the employment of Chinese laborers proceeded with callous indifference to anything but price, and to their accusations that Chinese laborers possessed value only as slaves.