“Women . . . on the Level with Their White Sisters”: Rose Hum Lee and Butte’s Chinese Women in the Early Twentieth Century

Pictured here in 1945, Rose Hum Lee became a sociologist, who used her academic training to document Butte's Chinese community. Courtesy the Mai Wah

Pictured here in 1945, Rose Hum Lee became a sociologist, who used her academic training to document Butte’s Chinese community. Courtesy of the Mai Wah Museum in Butte, MT.

Born in Butte in 1904, Rose Hum Lee earned a B.S. in social work from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology and completed a doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation—The Growth and Decline of Rocky Mountain Chinatowns—was published in 1978. Because her work was largely based on the experiences of her own family and childhood, her scholarship offers invaluable insights into the lives of Chinese women and families in Butte during the first four decades of the twentieth century.

The daughter of merchant Hum Wah Long and his wife, Lin Fong, Rose Hum Lee, like other Butte-born Chinese American children, attended Butte’s grammar and high schools, where she distinguished herself academically. Additionally, the fact that her father was one of the city’s most prominent Chinese businessmen conferred a level of respect on the Hum family.

Nevertheless, Lee, like other Chinese women of Butte, encountered the common racist assumption that equated Chinese women with prostitution. The Montana Standard reflected that stereotype while defending the wives of Butte’s merchants in a 1942 article about the city’s Chinese history. “While the Chinese men of Butte were, as a rule, good law-abiding citizens . . . the less said about the Chinese women of that day the better,” the Standard noted. “The exception among the women were the wives of Chinese doctors and merchants, women who were on the level with their white sisters and who have left many estimable children.” Certainly, those estimable children—like Lee—contended with pressure to maintain their respectability. Continue reading

Discrimination: The Case of Mrs. Wo Hop

Although little is known about Mrs. Wo Hop--even her first name is lost to history--the pass she carried reveals something of the world in which she lived. Butte-Silver Bow Archives

Although little is known about Mrs. Wo Hop–even her first name is lost to history–the pass she carried reveals something of the world in which she lived. Butte-Silver Bow Archives

Chinese immigrants played an important role in the economic development of the West, including Montana. The 1860s mining boom and the subsequent railroad development in the region drew a diverse mix of people, including many Chinese. In spite of their role in building Montana, Chinese pioneers faced intense discrimination and their stories are often lost to history. This document is one of the few pieces of evidence we have about the life of Mrs. Wo Hop of Butte. It illustrates the precarious position of the Chinese, and especially Chinese women, in late nineteenth-century Montana.

While American businesses had welcomed—and even recruited—Chinese workers in the mid-nineteenth century, by the 1880s native-born Americans on the West Coast increasingly blamed the Chinese for unemployment and lower wages. Pressure to end economic competition, paired with the idea that the Chinese were racially inferior by nature, culminated in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The act prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States, and it was the first immigration law in American history to exclude a group based on nationality. The law allowed for the admission of certain upper-class individuals like merchants and teachers, but it was extremely difficult for these non-laborers to prove their status. Thus, until its repeal in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively ended Chinese immigration.

Mrs. Hop, whose husband was a merchant in Butte, carried these papers to prove that she was in America legally. As a Chinese woman, Mrs. Hop was in an especially dangerous position. The bulk of early Chinese immigrants to the United States were men, and Chinese women and families were seen as anomalies. The stereotype among native-born Americans was that Chinese women were brought to America as prostitutes, and ­­religious and civic leaders promoted the idea that their presence posed a moral danger to American society. The Page Law of 1875 had imposed stiff penalties on the importation of Chinese prostitutes, and the enforcement of the law reflected a strong cultural assumption that women who immigrated from China were coming for illicit purposes. Continue reading