How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Riis moves on to describing Chinatown, and argues from the start that any attempts to make an “effective Christian” out of the Chinese are doomed to failure as a result of generations of “senseless idolatry.” A Chinese man would only convert, Riis thinks, for some ulterior motive, like gaining a Christian wife.
As a typical Progressive, Riis is suspicious of any group that retains its own traditions rather than assimilating to what he sees as true “American” norms—here, that includes Christianity.
Themes
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The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
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Chinatown is next to the Bend, and its dreariness is everyday, not spectacular like its neighbor. The red and yellow holiday colors create a dull rather than bright atmosphere, “glowering” at a visitor from the telegraph pole that serves as the official newspaper of the neighborhood. The place feels secret, like all the important affairs are happening behind closed doors—not because crime is happening, Riis says, but because the Chinese are naturally secretive and untrustworthy.
This section underlines just how much of Riis’s “objective,” highly visual narrative is inevitably colored by his own beliefs and biases—here, making even the primary colors of yellow and red into dull or ominous signs of secrecy. For Riis, these colors are indicative of the “natural” Chinese temperament.
Themes
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The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
While the Chinese smoke opium like Caucasians smoke tobacco, Riis says, the danger is for the white people who are gripped by this drug. Chinese women are rarely seen: instead it’s “white slaves” addicted to opium who crowd these tenements. These white women now only worship the pipe, and will never return home to their own people.
Riis makes a typical Progressive-Era moral argument, warning of the danger that Chinese opium represents to the “purity” of white women who find themselves addicted to the drug.
Themes
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These tenements are striking for their cleanliness: Riis says it makes sense that the laundry is the chosen field of the Chinese. Riis links this cleanliness to the “cruel cunning” of the Chinese, who manage to hoodwink authorities into believing that there are no underage girls in their opium dens. Riis relates one legal report of a 13-year-old, abandoned by a father, who was fired from an Eighth Avenue store and wandered until she ended up in a Chinese laundry. Though the judge sent her home to her mother, soon enough she was back in the opium den.
While Riis contrasts the cleanliness of these neighborhoods to the filth of others in New York, he finds a way to make even this, a trait one would expect him to praise, into a sign of the frightening cunning of the Chinese as a group. At the same time, he continues to express concern for the exploitation of young people in tenement neighborhoods.
Themes
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Riis relates one time when he and a policeman tried to stop a Chinese man from beating his white “wife” in a Mott Street cellar. He was shocked when Riis says he would never beat his own wife.
Riis continues to characterize some of the violence he sees as stemming naturally from ethnic and national differences.
Themes
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
On the telegraph pole in Mott Street the gambling news of the neighborhood—the nightly games and rivalries—is announced. Riis says he doesn’t fully understand the politics of the “colony,” though he argues that the Chinese pay more attention to their internal politics than to any American laws. Any time there is a murder or other crime, the whole community shelters the perpetrator. The police call the neighborhood quiet, and this is true, Riis says: they prefer to be left alone, though the orderliness is only on the surface. He acknowledges that his judgment may be thought harsh, but that the Chinese are highly undesirable as a population. Still, he suggests that rather than banish the Chinese, the door to immigration should open wider, so that the Chinese man can bring his wife with him rather than remaining a “homeless stranger” among “us.”
Again, part of Riis’s motivation in his methodical, step-by-step exploration of different neighborhoods is to understand the internal workings and logic of each small culture. Here, though, he claims that Chinese customs are so opaque that he cannot hope to comprehend them. As he concludes, his tone shifts slightly, as he argues not that Chinese immigrants should be banned (as many in the Progressive Era did argue) but that they should be encouraged to marry women of their own race—not white women—and establish spaces of domestic harmony from which they can properly assimilate into American society.
Themes
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
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