'No Tickee No Washee'[1]: Sympathetic Representations of the Chinese in American Humor

Terry Abraham

July 2003


Chinese immigration and American response

A combination of circumstances, some economic, some political, and some individual, drew thousands of Chinese (mostly males) to the American West beginning soon after the discovery of gold in California in 1848. They were first welcomed as contributors to the labor pool, but as time passed and economic conditions changed, white workers increasingly saw them as economic threats with an alien lifestyle. The Irish sandlot orator Denis Kearney and his Workingmen's Party of California campaigned on the slogan "The Chinese Must Go" during the late 1870s. Anti-Chinese violence flared in urban centers and rural towns; Chinese residents were attacked by mobs, beaten, and driven out of town. At the national level, this effort culminated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As a result of the law, which severely limited Chinese immigration to the United States, the population of Chinese began to decline from a peak of about 136,000 out of a total population of about 50 million.[2]

In short, the early history of the Chinese was at first, and for a brief period of time, an acceptance of their labor coupled with a recognition of and often curiosity about their "otherness." During the second phase, economic pressures such as business panics, unemployment, and economic depression led to a racist and often unprovoked antipathy to the Chinese. After exclusion, as the numbers of Chinese diminished, they either inhabited sequestered "Chinatowns" or were incorporated into the life of the community as restaurateurs or domestic servants.[3] In Chinatown their greater numbers usually protected them, but outside they were often the subject of practical jokes, cruel pranks, and other activities that sometimes became battery, robbery, or murder. The Chinese were often targeted as the butt of humor from their earliest days on the Pacific Coast.

In early-day San Francisco, for instance, the twenty-nine year-old Samuel Clemens would throw beer bottles on the roofs of his Chinese neighbors to watch them run out and holler. When the Chinese went back inside, he would toss another bottle.[4] It was the equivalent of poking a stick in an anthill to watch the ants scurry about.

Ethnic and dialect humor

It is important to distinguish between ethnic and anti-ethnic humor; a distinction not always clarified in discussions about ethnic humor.[5] There is a difference between the stories told among themselves by members of a group and jokes told about that group by others, often the dominant others. Racist jokes, in particular, fall in the latter camp. It is possible, as John Lowe notes, that "ethnic humor, so frequently used to maintain hegemony by the group in power, can, through inversion on the part of the oppressed, become a weapon of liberation."[6] He expands on that concept to suggest that ethnic humor is one stage in "Americanization." This analysis, however stated, overlooks its mirror image, the anti-ethnic joke. Making fun of the stereotypical ethnic immigrant was a means of aggressive social control, not because it spoke directly to the ethnic group so characterized, but because it taught a shared set of values about the ethnic group to those who shared the joke-telling experience.

All ethnic groups to the United States were subject to an everyday level of crude comedy in representation, in jokes, in stories, in art, and on the stage. Jews, blacks, Irish, Poles, Swedes, Yankees, hillbillies; all were (and, to a certain extent, are) on the receiving end of American humor. The Chinese were no exception. John Fischer, in the introduction to volume of humor reprinted from Harper's Magazine, notes his embarrassment over that magazine's publication of "some of the worst humor that ever reached print.... On the evidence of their jokes, our great-grandparents took a savage enjoyment in the embarrassments of the poor and handicapped. Not only did they bristle with racial and religious prejudice; they were proud of it."[7]

One enormous component of ethnic humor was the dialect joke or story. Vaudeville and burlesque, early movies, and great unreadable portions of American "literature" were in dialect. Dialect humor was used to place a character in a location and in an environment by shortcutting or telegraphing the author's intentions about the character. Dialect could refer to the poor and unlettered - the rude rustic - or to the immigrant newcomer. Fischer noted: "It was founded on the theory that nothing in the world was quite so funny as the mispronunciations and hamstrung syntax fo the ignorant classes - including cowboys, waitresses, "darkies," Irishmen, farmers, and new-rich businessmen."[8]

Mark Twain used a western dialect to great effect in Roughing It (1872), his account of his Nevada experiences, and included several different dialects in Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884)[9]. Finley Peter Dunne's Irish dialect stories featured the inestimable Mr. Dooley whose trenchant political and social observations were widely read in the early 1900s and were still offered to students as a significant part of American literature in the 1950s.[10] Amos and Andy moved from radio to early television, shifting from white actors to black actors, capitalizing on the broad brush of stereotypes speaking a contrived black dialect.[11] The early Marx Brothers were dialect comedians before transforming their ethnic characters into the more unique Marx Brothers; only Chico retained his Italian accent.[12]

Language, in a phrase attributed to linguist Max Weinreich, is a dialect with an army and a navy.[13] Dialect humor, accordingly, always results from the subordinate relationship of the dialect speaker to the mainstream. If the story is told in dialect, you are also being told that the dialect speaker is an "other," an immigrant, an alien, a foreigner, a member of a lower class (although there are dialect stories that make fun of upper class Brits), or a person of an other race. Authors of dialect stories, now fallen from fashion, more often used dialect to write about the Chinese than to attempt a Chinese dialect. Bret Harte, as one example, did both.

Representations of the Chinese

Overland Monthly, in September 1870, published editor Bret Harte's "Plain language from Truthful James," an account of three card-players, one of whom was Chinese, all of whom were cheating.[14] Upon the discovery, the Chinese was reviled with the phrase, "We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor," and beaten. Within a year, illustrated booklets containing the poem were being distributed under the title The Heathen Chinee. It was also reprinted again and again in periodicals and newspapers. In 1877, Harte joined with his then-friend and California compatriot Mark Twain in converting this material into a play titled after the Chinese character, "Ah Sin."[15] While not the first major author to present the Chinese in American literature, Harte undoubtedly established and confirmed the pattern.[16]

In the poem, it is August 3, 1870 in the California mining fields. The narrator "Truthful James" (whose nickname asserts the reliability of his tale) and Bill Nye sit down with a Chinese man to play euchre. The Chinese man is named "Ah Sin;" "Ah" was a common honorific prefix to Chinese forenames, it means, roughly, "That person whose name is...." The pun on sin may have been inadvertent. Ah Sin does not understand euchre and is seen as a patsy by James and Bill. James expresses shock at Bill's stacking the deck and stuffing his sleeve. But his surprise is the greater when Ah Sin shows his hand, the hand that Bill had dealt to James.

At this point, the Chinese dupe is revealed as a knowledgeable and expert card sharp himself and one who has beaten the two miners at their own game. He also had cards up his sleeves and, as well, wax under his fingernails. Nye's verbal response echoes the refrain of the California Workingman's Party and it is implied that an assault takes place. The illustrated versions are more explicit in their violence, showing Ah Sin being punched and kicked by the much larger Nye.

The conclusion "That for ways that are dark | And for tricks that are vain, | The heathen Chinee is peculiar" is ironic in that it is clear that in both "ways that are dark" and "tricks that are vain" it is not only the Chinese who are peculiar. As Margaret Duckett noted: "...the author was poking fun not so much at the Heathen Chinee as at the race prejudice of Truthful James."[17] This point is essential because "the poem was accepted by the great mass of readers as corroborating their own preconceptions in regard to the essential sinfulness of their yellow neighbors and rivals."[18]

Ah Sin, Bill Nye, and Truthful James are recurring characters in Harte's dialect poems. In "The Latest Chinese Outrage," a group of Chinese laundrymen seek payment for their work. Ah Sin speaks: "You owe flowty dollee - me washee you camp." Here, again, the Chinese are treated sympathetically, even though they are attacked for presenting their valid grievances.[19]

It is interesting to note that Harte specifically dates this poem, and apparently the story it tells, to August 1870. His other poems of this genre, so dated, range from 1856 to 1873. They purport to relate, in western dialect, the adventures of California gold rush miners in the Sierra Nevada. In fact, the California gold rush was pretty much over by the mid 1850s and the "rushers" had moved on to new strikes in Colorado (1859), Idaho (1860), Montana (1862), and, subsequently, the Black Hills (1876), and the Klondike (1897). Those remaining tended not to be the independent prospector/miner of the earlier days, but a paycheck miner working for a corporation.

Poems such as Harte's "Plain Language from Truthful James" became part of the repertoire of amateur entertainers at home and in the community. Before in-home entertainment technology, it was up to a person to memorize a printed piece and declaim it on occasion. Edison's phonograph marked the transition from live/amateur to canned/professional presentations. His recitation of "Mary had a little lamb" marks the phonograph recording as a device to capture the spoken word as well as what it became more well known for, the musical piece.

A Chinese woman living on the remote Salmon River in central Idaho is reported as finding humor in "Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry" as played on a neighbor's wind-up phonograph about 1917.[20] Yankee humorist Cal Stewart performed as Uncle Josh Weathersby, resident of the small New England town of Pumpkin Centre. The dialect story was published in Uncle Josh's Punkin Centre Stories (1903).[21] In this story, Uncle Josh is visiting New York and inquires about laundry services. He is directed to a nearby Chinese laundry:

So I told him I'd like to git him to do some washin' fer me, and he commenced a talkin' some outlandish lingo, sounded to me like cider runnin' out of a jug, somethin' like--ung tong oowong fang kai moi oo ung we, velly good washee. Wall I understood the last of it and jist took his word fer the rest, so I giv him my clothes and he giv me a little yeller ticket that he painted with a brush what he had, and I'll jist bet a yoke of steers agin the holler in a log, that no livin' mortal man could read that ticket; it looked like a fly had fell into the ink bottle and then crawled over the paper.

Not recognizing the ticket as his claim, and misdirected by a city slicker, Josh cannot produce the ticket when he calls for his laundry. The phrase "No tickee, no washhee" is not included. In spite of the laundryman's protestations, Josh assaults him, and runs off with somebody else's shirts, a part of the laundryman's queue, with the laundryman yelling for the police behind him. Uncle Josh, as the rube, is gulled by the city slicker (by implication) and takes out his frustration on the innocent laundryman. I found this not much funnier with Stewart's nasal Yankee dialect and characteristic laugh as part of the delivery.[22]

Mieder records the earliest documented use of "No tickee, no washee" as 1931[23]; which seems to be a half-century or so later than one would think. Because it is such a central concept to Cal Stewart's dialect story, it is surprising he did not use the phrase. Does that mean that its use did not become widespread until after 1903 and before 1931? This would be contrary to the general expectation that the phrase originated in the late nineteenth century, probably in California.[24]

Stage presentations were often captured, or rewritten, for print distribution. Uncle Josh is one example. Also in this genre is the small book entitled Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes (1902).[25] While it includes some jokes, such as the immigrant dialect "Mick sees Chinaman coming up out of coal hole. 'Look at the heathen coming through the earth! Begorry, I knew if they passed a law to keep them yellow divils out of the country they'd get in some way,'"[26] and some that could possibly be ascribed to famous vaudevillians such as Weber and Fields, at least one of the significant pieces about the Chinese is clearly marked as from a literary source, Scribner's Monthly.[27] It is entitled "Isaac Rosenthal On The Chinese Question. Adapted from an article in 'Scribner's Monthly.'"

Written in the mock German-Jewish dialect, Isaac Rosenthal, "an unusually intelligent German Hebrew," recounts his experiences with the Chinese. As a clothing merchant, he is approached by a Chinese man wanting to purchase a coat. Isaac thinks "he vill not know a coot goat ven he zee id, and I show him some dot ish not of the brim qualidy, and vill not last so long as dot kind as I show you, and I sharg him a coot brice." The buyer says he'll take it but instead of money, he offers to trade a box of tea for the coat. Isaac accepts the trade but afterwards finds the box has an inch of good tea on top, and below "yust rubbish, and some schmall bieces of iron to make him heavy."[28]

This dialect account of two cheaters cheating each other is framed with text relating the story to the anti-Chinese legislation passed by Congress in 1882: "At the time that Congress was debating upon the bill restricting immigration from China, I was endeavoring to gather from various sources the general opinion of the public on the question."[29] And thus it ends with Isaac proclaiming "Und so, mein liebe Herr, you can de reason undershtand dot I like not to have dot Shinese beobles gome to New York."[30]

In 1902, when this book was published, the Chinese immigration question had been reopened when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was extended for another ten years. Two years later the ending date was removed making the exclusion permanent, and the act was not repealed until 1943. But the text as presented had originally appeared in Scribner's in February 1879. Entitled "A symposium on the Chinese Question" by A. A. Hayes, Jr.[31]

Augustus Allen Hayes was the son of the well-known Massachusetts scientist of the same name. A journalist and novelist, Hayes apparently spent some time in China in the early 1860s, served in the international Shanghai Volunteers, and wrote several articles based on his experiences there. As a resident of China he had the opportunity to see the Chinese behind the western American stereotype.[32]

The symposium is framed by an introduction claiming that while he was unable to collect "written statements from the representative gentlemen whose views on the pressing Chinese question I have endeavored to collate; but having first applied to a native of the Flowery Kingdom, and learning that he 'no sa be Englishee w'litee'[33], I concluded to secure the services of an ex-reporter of a metropolitan journal, and transcribe the results of his 'interviews' as follows."[34] The interviews are with Ah Lee, Alphonse de la Fontaine, Gerard Montague, the previously mentioned Isaac Rosenthal, Phelim McFinnegan, and Eliakim Pillsbury. Each is a masterpiece of dialect; from China, France, England, Germany, Ireland, and Montana Territory. The westerner's conclusion is 180 degrees from that expressed by Rosenthal: "So, pard, if my opinion's any good to you, jest say that I calkilate to stick close to the Constitution, and if that document don't make no difference between folks that come here from foreign parts, I say give 'em all a show, and make 'em behave themselves, and if they don't, make 'em git up and git suddenly."[35] The author adds: "With which words of common sense (are they not so, oh, intelligent, fair-minded reader?) cometh to an end this symposium" which leaves one with an impression of sympathy at least towards the Chinese.

In a second longish comic piece in Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes, an Irish servant, Miss Kitty Malony, describes to her friend her experiences with the Chinese servant the "missus" added to the household. In Irish dialect, she tells of his introduction: "there stud a rale haythen Chineser a-grinnin' like he'd just come off a tay-box. If you'll belave me, the crayture was that yeller it 'ud sicken you to see him; and sorra stitch was on him but a black nightgown over his trowsers, and the front of his head shaved claner nor a copper biler, and a black tail a-hangin' down from behind, wid his two feet stook into the heathenests shoes you ever set eyes on."[36]

She threatens to leave but is offered more money and is told "how it was a Christian's duty to bear wid haythins and taitch em all in our power...." Kitty agrees to put up with the new member of the household, but complains about him spraying water on the clothes from his mouth while ironing and of his copying her every move. The last straw occurs when Fing Wing, mimicking her movements, steals some sugar from a delivery right in front of the "missus" and hides it -- "with a show o' being' sly" -- in Kitty's box. Kitty is fired on the spot; her account to her friend, however, is that "she gave me such sass as I cuddent take from no lady, an' I give her warnin' an' left that instant, an' she a-pointin' to the doore."[37]

One again, the Chinese man is the butt of the humor, but wins out in the end. He, even in his ignorance of custom and practice, knows that Kitty is stealing, and demonstrates how this was done in the guise of his imitative behavior. Her antipathy towards him, reflective of the broader socio-politcal issues of Irish female servants being supplanted by male Chinese, is justified when he, a fellow servant, exposes her little bit of graft. In addition, the story both supports and contradicts the typical expression that all servants are thieves by suggesting that only some are such.

That story, attributed at the end to "Mary M. Dodge," does not have a source identified in Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes but finding the earlier piece in Scribner's suggested that as a possibility. Accordingly, the full story was found published there in January 1871, complete with illustrations.[38] Mary M. Dodge, however, was not identified as the author on this first publication. In fact, it was not credited to her until the release of her Theophilus and Others (1876) which collected together some of her shorter pieces including that of Miss Malony, described by a contemporary reviewer in Galaxy as "the justly celebrated addition to characteristic American humor."[39] Mary Mapes Dodge is better known as the author of Hans Brinker and the silver skates (1865) and was the first and long-time editor of the children's magazine St. Nicholas where she published both Mark Twain and Bret Harte.

The last Chinese-related item in Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes is a poem entitled "John Chinaman's Protest." Its six quatrains describe the peaceful, industrious life of the Chinese immigrant, all with the same chorus:

What fo'
Melican man
No wantee
John Chinaman
Ally mo'?[40]

"John Chinaman" was commonly used as an expression of racist stereotyping in the nineteenth century American West to refer to the Chinese immigrant. Here, in the pidgin dialect also considered a racist stereotype, we find the voice of the much put-upon Chinese. Undoubtedly written by a non-Chinese, and thus claiming to speak for him, we find "John Chinaman" asking why? Why is he told that he is good at laundry work, an occupation imposed upon him by the white society, but is pressured to leave. Why is he not wanted when he minds his own business? He does not curse, he does not fight, he works hard, and he does not beg or steal. Is it because he is not permitted to vote; "He no go lound 'lection day, and shoutee, Fightee evelybody, smokee cigal, or dlink beer"?[41] These questions are all asked in a tone of wry puzzlement. The reader recognizes that they are good questions; the answers, of course, are harder.

Another example of the Chinese servant story can be found in One Thousand Laughs from Vaudeville (1908). In this story, the servant, a boy of fifteen, is asked his name. After hearing the response, the "missus" says "Oh, that name is too long. I could never remember it, so I will call you John." John, as we have seen, is the stereotypical name given to individual Chinese. He asks her name, which is "Mrs. Charles Algernon McTavish Robinson" and responds "Oh, helle! Your name is too long. I call you Charlie."[42] Here the servant turns the tables on the "missus" and pays her back in her own kind.

Humor in Racism

The Chinese jokes and stories in Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes are really only a small part of a larger whole. It may be true that their inclusion there, particularly as modified to refer to current events, is related to the recurrence of the national debate on Chinese immigration. That does not address the many dialect jokes relating to Jews, Irish, or Germans in the slim volume. Nonetheless, an effort was made to transform material several decades old to meet modern concerns.

There is no editor credited with the compilation of Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes but the publisher, Frederick J. Drake & Company, founded in 1899, was less than five years old and was concentrating its efforts on how-to-do-it books, possibly for distribution by one of Chicago's several mail-order houses. By 1950 the firm had moved to nearby Wilmette.[43] Within a few years of the turn of the century, they also published a number of similarly themed works.[44]

Another explanation speaks to the likelihood that by 1902, the Chinese had moved up the white community's apprehension scale and a backlash ensued. "'Every time a group moves up in American culture -- blacks, women or Polish people -- there is a corresponding intense joke cycle against them,' [historian Joseph] Boskin explain[ed]" to a newspaper reporter.[45]

If we are uncertain, then, about why Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes includes old jokes and stories, aside from their obvious attraction to a publisher, it is instructive to see, in the context of the political climate of the era, how the Chinese are represented. W. P. Fenn, in his Ah Sin and his Brethren in American literature, argues that the Chinese "have served admirably as sources for humor, sensation, and exotic background; but the have inspired little of that literature which requires for its creation a deeper understanding of life and character."[46] The examples here focus on the humorous and comic, but are of interest in that they tend to be sympathetic to the Chinese unlike representation -- as dirty, depraved, and disgusting -- in much of the popular literature.[47] The anti-Chinese movement had a strong and multi-faceted propaganda arm, with stories, articles, poems, plays, and illustrations.[48]

In the selection examined here, most of which are taken from one slim volume of popular text, the Chinese are ultimately triumphant. Ah Sin is the equal to the two card sharps; Mr. Rosenthal's coat buyer exchanges cheat for cheat; Fing Wing forces Miss Malony's dismissal; although these are all caricatures joked up to be humorous, the ostesible victim instead emerges victorious. Unfortunately, the unfairness of the America's racial climate makes it clear that even winning is losing. Ah Sin is beaten; the Chinese coat buyer receives a shoddy coat, and Fing Wing -- well, maybe Fing Wing comes out ahead.

The Chinese servant in One Thousand Laughs from Vaudeville also gets the better of the presumptuous "missus" who can not be bothered to learn the servant's Chinese name. This story, one of several Chinese-related jokes, is credited in the introduction to Leo Carrillo, "Teller of Chinese Yarns" whose early vaudeville performances led him ultimately to movies and television, most prominently as the Cisco Kid's sidekick, Pancho. In Carrillo's autobiography, The California I Love (1961), he tells of growing up next to Los Angeles' Chinatown, where the family had a Chinese servant. He started in vaudeville telling Mexican and Chinese dialect stories at age sixteen in while working for the art department of a San Francisco newspaper.[49]

The set-up frame for the jokes is that "I will relate to you a few Chinese stories which I picked up around Chinatown, San Francisco, while engaged as a journalist in that city."[50] These several stories, in spite of the inclusion of now-pejorative terms such as "chink," "Chinaman," and "Chinese jabber" referring to language, end with the Chinese in the superior position. In addition to the servant renaming his "missus," he is set up to tell the Bishop to "go to helle," another servant gets the better of a tramp at the door, and a waiter tells the customer that he has been eating dog instead of duck; all demonstrate that these representations of the Chinese contain multiple coded messages. Carrillo later examined his use of dialect: "How I love the Chinese, Mexicans, Italians, and Japanese! It was the use of their dialects in my stories which launched me on my career in vaudeville. ...In San Francisco I leaned particularly on Chinese, Mexican, and Japanese material for California audiences. My visits to the colonies of these various racial groups and my association with the people in their eating places, at their work, at their places of amusement, all gave me an insight into their national characteristics and their sense of humor. By taking these and streamlining them into anecdotes and stories for vaudeville I conveyed the 'feel,' I think, of all these people and their outlook on life." He also noted: "Of course I never used [dialect] for ridicule but always only as amusement, so they could join in the laughs as well as other people. This was why I had tried to do with all the races, for that matter, because I felt unless I entered fully into their feelings and made them part of the act, so to speak, I might offend. And I was determined never to hurt the feelings of anybody merely to get a laugh out of an audience."[51] Written a half-century later, Carrillo may have forgotten that some of his presentations had been captured and published.

Unlike many others who used dialect to characterize "the other" Carrillo was "the other." As an hispanic in a world of "gringos," a term Carrillo glosses as "ignoramus,"[52] he was an outsider. His vaudeville act drew on his own experiences with racism, which he barely hints at in his memoir, to mock his audience's preconceptions.

Western historian C. L. Sonnischsen asserted "that all humor, including western humor, is based on human failure, at least on human deviation from the norm."[53] The Chinese clearly deviated from the norm -- as the more privileged Anglo-Saxon defined norm -- and thus was the beneficiary of a great deal of cruel humor. But, occasionally, the shoe was on the other foot:

The boys on the ranch decide for New Year's resolutions that they will not tease the Chinee cook anymore, and troop in to the kitchen to apologize to him for all the tricks they have played on him all year. "No pull China-boy's pigtail anymore?" he asks incredulously, "No, John, we're going to treat you right, from now on," they assure him. "No put rattlesnake in pants?" "No more rattlesnakes, John." "No mo' dead frog in shoe?" "No, John, we're really going to treat you right, from now on." "Velly good. China-boy no piss in coffee anymore."[54]

But why did a white audience -- to which these works were presented -- consider any story, poem, or drama as humorous that depicted the much-hated Chinese in a positive, even sympathetic, light? To some commentators, the question answers itself. The funny part is in the underdog unexpectedly being victorious. Anthropologist Elliott Oring calls this "appropriate incongruity."[55] The point of the joke -- maybe even all jokes -- is the fitting incongruity. In the previous joke, appropriateness comes from the cook's revenge on his tormentors in an action that only the cook could take; the incongruity is the fact of his taking any action at all, particularly as he is not only the target of the cowboys' abuse but represents all of the past century's abuse of the Chinese immigrant.

And we should remember that the locus of some of these stories might be described as mid to high American literary culture: Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Mary M. Dodge, A. A. Hayes, Harpers, and Scribners represented some of the most prominent and popular names, almost brand names, as we now consider it. Choice Dialect and One Thousand Laughs are obviously not high culture; but they trade on it by reprinting materials and citing the brand name. These stories are far removed from the scurrilous anti-Chinese illustrations that have been so assiduosly documented in the The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese (1994).

Similarly, "No tickee, no washee," speaks to the Chinese laundryman's power over the transaction -- I won't give you your clothes if you don't have a receipt -- while making fun of his pidgin English. As Mieder points out, the expression has since been generalized as humorous catch-phrase governing a wide range of transactions and not expressly related to the Chinese at all.[56]

Therefore, what is funny about these jokes and dialect stories, in part, at least, is that they surprise the reader with the incongruously positive view of a group of people stereotyped as the deserving recipient of abuse. This racist notion is subverted by the underlying subtext, more or less explicit that the "heathen Chinee" was deserving of better treatment. That the better treatment was not often forthcoming could be said to be another example of the Chinaman's chance, a phrase said to have originated in the California gold country to refer to the unfairness handed to the Chinese: they could not win for losing.[57]

But they did "win." In other twentieth-century anti- joke cycles -- the blonde joke, the Jewish American Princess joke, the Hillary joke, the Polack joke -- the target of the humor was the victim, not the victor.[58] Were things that much different at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning? Certainly the response was different. Lawsuits, boycotts, and anquished apologies suggested a much different and less-accepting climate for the anti- joke.[59]

But the real test, observed Ellen Hopkins about women comedians, "Power doesn't just reside in not being the target of a comic's jokes. Real power is being the one who's telling them."[60] The Chinese in the nineteenth and early twentiewth centuries, because of racist immigration laws, were unable to reach that point.


[1] For a folkloric exegesis of this phrase, see Wolfgang Mieder. "'No tickee, no washee': subtleties of a proverbial slur." Western Folklore 55:1(January 1996)1-40.

[2] For more inormation on the Chinese-American experience, see Susie Lan Cassel, ed. The Chinese in America: A History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002; Iris Chang. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking, 2003; Roger Daniels. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988; Shih-shan Henry Tsai. The Chinese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

[3] See: Samantha Barbas. "I'll Take Chop Suey: Restaurants as Agents of Culinary and Cultural Change." Journal of Popular Culture 36:4(Spring 2003)669-687; Terry Abraham. "Class, Gender, and Race: Chinese Servants in the North American West." 1996. <http://www.uidaho.edu/special-collections/papers/chservnt.htm>

[4] Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912. 255-256.

[5] Lowe, John. "Theories of Ethnic Humor: How to Enter, Laughing." American Quarterly. 38:3(1986)439. Historian Joseph Boskin writes: "I claim considerable cultural power for humor as a social fulcrum in this culture, one that acts as a divisive as well as a coalescing agent." Rebellious Laughter: People's Humor in American Culture. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997. 2. In spite of this recognition, both Lowe and Boskin virtually ignore the anti-ethnic class of humor.

[6] Lowe, "Theories," 442.

[7] Fischer, John. "Introduction," In Fischer, John and Lucy Donaldson, eds. Humor from Harper's. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961. xiii.

[8] Fischer, "Introduction," xiii.

[9] Sanford Pinsker notes that in Huckleberry Finn "there is more illusion than actual dialect." "On or About December 1910: When Human Character - and American Humor - Changed." in William Bedford Clark and W. Craig Turner, eds. Critical Essays on American Humor. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984. 186.

[10] Eckley, Grace. Finley Peter Dunne. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Martin Dooley's remarks on war preparations for the invasion of Cuba have a modern flavor, once you wade through the depiction of an Irish accent: "'Iv coorse, they'se dissinsions in the cabinet; but they don't amount to nawthin'. Th' Sicrety iv War is in favor iv sawin' th' Spanish ar-rmy into two-be-four joists. Th' Sicrety iv the' Threeasury has a scheme f'r roonin' thim be lindin' thim money. Th' Sicrety iv th' Navy wants to sue thim befure th' Mattsachusetts Supreme Coort. I've heerd that th' Prisident is arrangin' a knee dhrill, with th' idee iv praying th' villyans to th' divvil….' 'We're a gr-reat people,' said Mr. Hennessy, earnestly. 'We ar-re,' said Mr. Dooley. 'We ar-re that. An' th' best iv it is, we know we ar-re.'" Dunne, Finley Peter. Mr. Dooley in Peace and War. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1899. 9. This is the seventh edition of 10,000 copies each since its first publication in November 1898.

[11] Ely, Melvin Patrick. The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon. New York: Free Press, 1991.

[12] Kanfer, Stefan. Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. New York: Knopf, 2000. 42-43, 51.

[13] Cited at <http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/AAVE/hooked/>.

[14] Harte, Bret. Poems and Two Men of Sandy Bar. v. 12 of Writings of Bret Harte, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1896. 129-131. The section containing this poem is titled "In Dialect."

[15] Margaret Duckett, in her Mark Twain and Bret Harte (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. 52-57), points out that the rupture in the Twain-Harte friendship, expressed during their collaboration on "Ah Sin," was caused in part by their differing attitudes towards the Chinese. The play itself was lost for many years, not surprising considering its lack of stage success. It was finally published as Ah Sin, a dramatic work, edited by Frederick Anderson. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1961.

[16] For The Heathen Chinee's antecedents and descendants, see William Purviance Fenn, Ah Sin and his Brethren in American Literature. Peiping: College of Chinese Studies, 1933; also William F. Wu's The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction, 1850-1940. Hamden: Archon Books, 1982.

[17] Duckett, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, 19. According to Duckett, Harte later expressed regret about the poem, "especially when it was cited to support that very race prejudice which all his life Harte fought." (39)

[18] Fenn, Ah Sin, 47.

[19] Harte, Poems, 142-145. Although it might fit in this poem, Harte did not use the expression "No tickee, no washee."

[20] Wegars, Priscilla. "Polly Bemis: Lurid life or literary legend?" in Glenda Riley and Richard Etulain, eds. Wild Women of the Old West. Golden: Fulcrum, 2003. 54

[21] Also available as <ftp://sailor.gutenberg.org/pub/gutenberg/etext97/ncjsh10.txt>.

[22] Cassette copies of the phonodiscs are available at <http://www.besmark.com/stewart.html>.

[23] Mieder, 13, 27. A fan web site devoted to Korean American actor Phillip Ahn quotes from Tex [Ritter] Rides with the Boy Scouts (1937) where Ahn, playing Sing Fong, the laundryman, says: "All samee. No tickee, no washee, no shirtee. You bling tickee, you catchem washee." <http://www.philipahn.com/odds.html>.

[24] Mieder, "'No tickee, no washee',"14.

[25] The full title is Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes. Containing Side Splitting Stories, Jokes, Gags, Readings And Recitations In German, Irish, Scotch , French, Chinese, Negro And Other Dialects, As Told And Recited By Such Well Known Humorists As Ezra Kendall, Geo. Thatcher, Lew Dockstader, Rogers Bros., Weber and Fields, Joe Welsh, Marshall P. Wilder, J. W. Ransom And Others. Chicago: Frederick J. Drake & Company, Publishers, 1902.

[26] Choice Dialect, 13.

[27] Choice Dialect, 21.

[28] Choice Dialect, 22.

[29] Choice Dialect, 21.

[30] Choice Dialect, 22.

[31] Hayes, Augustus Allen. "A Symposium on the Chinese Question," Scribners Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People 17:4(February 1879)491-494. <http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=ABP7664-0017-81>

[32] Hayes' travel account New Colorado and the Santa Fe Trail (1880) was derived from articles in Harpers Magazine and other periodicals. Articles in Harper's include "The Cattle Ranches of Colorado," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 59:354(November 1879)877-896; "The Shepherds of Colorado," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 60:356(January 1880)193-211; "Grub Stakes and Millions," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 60:357(February 1880)380-398; "Vacation Aspects of Colorado," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 60:358(March 1880)542-558; "The Santa Fe Trail," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 61:362(July 1880)185-196. I wish to acknowledge the usefulness of Cornell University Library's digital project entitled "Making of America" <http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/> the indexing of which enhanced this research effort.

For his Chinese journalism, see his: "Pidgin English," Scribners Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People 15:3(January 1878)372-377; "First Railroad in China," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 58:343(December 1878)131-135; "The Last of the Chang-Maos," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 59:349(June 1879)128-132; "An American Soldier in China," Atlantic Monthly 57:340(February 1886)193-200; "China and the United States," Atlantic Monthly 59:355(May 1887)586-591.

[33] I.e., he neither speaks nor writes English. One of the hazards of writing in dialect is the likelihood that what one writes can sometimes be unintelligible.

[34] Hayes, "A Symposium," 491.

[35] Hayes, "A Symposium," 494.

[36] "Miss Maloney On The Chinese Question." Choice Dialect, 38.

[37] Choice Dialect, 40.

[38] "'Etchings - Miss Malony on the Chinese Question,' by Miss Malony," Scribners Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People 1:3(January 1871)350-352. <http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=ABP7664-0001-55>. Fenn, Ah Sin, xxi, mistakenly assigns this appearance to Century Magazine.

[39] "Current Literature." Galaxy, 22:4 (October 1876) 568; <http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=ACB8727-0022-74>.

[40] Choice Dialect, 150-152. No source has been identified for this item, but it is unlikely it was written especially for this volume. It is possible that the title has been supplied for this appearance.

[41] Choice Dialect, 151-152.

[42] One Thousand Laughs from Vaudeville: The Funny Efforts of the Leading Monologists, Comedians, Sketch Artists and Jokers. Baltimore: Ottenheimer, 1908. 45. Brothers Isaac and Moses Ottenheimer started their book business in 1890 specializing in cheaply produced joke books. One Thousand Laughs has an illustrated paper cover and the text pages are a now browned newsprint. The children of immigrant parents, the Ottenheimer brothers's business prospered through the years and was handed down to the grandchildren. (see <http://freepages.history.rootsweb.com/~bobsoldbaltpostcards/introduction.html>. In 2002, the firm began the process of closing, selling off its stock, furnishings, and backlist. (Milliot, Jim. "Ottenheimer closing down." Publishers Weekly 6/17/2002 <http://publishersweekly.reviewsnews.com/index.asp?layout=article&articleid=CA222465&publication=publishersweekly>).

[43] Derived from an advertising postcard published by Curt Teich and Co. in 1950, held by the Lake County Discovery Museum, <http://www.digitalpast.org/cgi-bin/viewer.exe?CISOROOT=/lakecoun004&CISOPTR=4170>.

[44] These include White House hand-book of oratory: being a carefully selected collection of patriotic speeches and essays: with gems of literature, prose and poetry, adapted for readings and recitations at home and on public occasions together with an exhaustive summary of the principles of elocution and oratory, with exercises in voice and gesture, by Charles E Chadman (1899); McBride's latest dialogues: a collection of dialogues, parlor dramas, colloquies, and amateur plays, designed for the use of young people in school exhibitions, social meetings, and literary entertainments, by H. Elliott McBride (1901); Comic recitations and readings: being a complete assortment of comic, humorous and dialect recitations, suitable for delivery at all times and on all occasions, including all of the late and popular efforts of the world's greatest humorists and entertainers, by Charles Walter Brown (1902); Irish wit & humor: Containing the best sayings of all Irish speakers and the efforts ... of all famous Irish dialect writers; classified under appropriate subject headings, together with a reference table of author, by W. H. Howe (1902); New century American star speaker: a new collection of prose and poetic recitations, readings, plays, drills, tableaux, etc., by Frances Putnam Pogle (1902); Conundrums, riddles, puzzles and gags; a vast collection of the latest and best conundrums gathered from all sources. Including four hundred riddles, questions in science, mathematical and practical puzzles, acrostics, etc., by John Ray (1902); Patriotic recitations and readings, containing a large number of the most effective, eloquent, instructive and brilliant selections for Fourth of July, Decoration, Arbor and Labor Day, Washington and Lincoln's birthdays, and all other holiday celebrations, by Josephine Stafford (1902); Little folks speaker, containing cute and catchy pieces for recitations for very young children, by Charles Walter Brown (1903); Negro minstrels, a complete guide to Negro minstrelsy, by Jack Haverly (1903); Toasts and after-dinner speeches, by William Young Stafford (1903); New monologues and dialect stories; a collection of new stories, monologues, poems and acting plays, published for the first time, by Mary Moncure Parker (1908); as well as such titles as Scientific horse, mule & ox shoeing (1902).

[45]Snead, Elizabeth. "Blonde Bashing." USA Today, December 30, 1991. "Life," 1D. Cited in Oring, Elliott. Engaging Humor. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 63.

[46] Fenn, Ah Sin, 130.

[47] Similarly, Oring notes that in the frontier humor in the US, Australia, and Israel, "the hatred and violence that often characterized relations between colonizers and colonized do not figure significantly in the humor." He adds: "Confronting the colonizer in the jokes, they [the colonized] may give as good as they get." Engaging Humor, 108.

[48] See for instance: Philip P. Choy, Lorraine Dong; and Marlon K Hom. The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese. Hong Kong : Joint Pub. (H.K.) Co., 1994; William F. Wu. The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American fiction, 1850-1940. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982.

[49] Carrillo, Leo. The California I Love. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1961. 29-31; 170-172. Some sources give his birthdate as 1881 ("Carrillo, Leo." Anthony Slide. Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Wetport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. 87.) .

[50] One Thousand Laughs, 45.

[51] Carrillo, The California I Love, 190-191.

[52] Carrillo, The California I Love, 240.

[53] Sonnichsen, C. L. The Laughing West: Humorous Western Fiction Past and Present: An anthology. Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1988. 7-8.

[54] Legman, G[ershon]. Rationale of the Dirty Joke, Second Series, No Laughing Matter. NY, Bell, 1975. 374, 940; reported as collected in New York in 1938 and 1940. A similar account is repeated as a true story from the UC ranch in southern Idaho, collected in April 1964 (Archives of Idaho Folklore, MG 126 Box 1, Folder 39, Special Collections, University of Idaho Library).

[55] Oring, 1-2.

[56] Mieder, 14-15; 20-23.

[57] Although this expression is often credited to the California gold rush, the OED gives its first printed appearance as a 1914 San Francisco newspaper. Oxford English Dictionary Online <http://dictionary.oed.com>. Folklorist Peter Tamony gives an English derivation from boxing and porcelain brought to North America by Australians. "Western Words: Chinaman's Chance." Western Folklore, 24:3(July 1965)202-205.

[58] Boskin, Rebellious Laughter, 129-130.

[59] Boskin, Rebellious Laughter, 145-157.

[60] As quoted in Boskin, Rebellious Laughter, 171.


Return to Selected Papers and Presentations

notickee.htm | © Copyright 2003 Terry Abraham | tabraham @ uidaho.edu