Mathematics and racism make a volatile combination.
At some point in the nineteenth century, Caucasians, especially in the English-speaking world, realized that the majority of the human race wears an Asian face. Occidentals also had to admit, usually grudgingly, that Asia had produced several long-lasting cultures and some impressive technological advances. Given time and unrestricted movement, the world would inevitably take on an Oriental character.
And so was born the Yellow Peril, the fear of all things Asiatic: especially sheer numbers. The spectre of Asian dominance haunted the Western imagination well into the twentieth century, influencing law, human rights, and culture.
It was acceptable throughout North America to work labourers of Asian descent harder for lower pay. This unfair treatment was then used to justify further racial discrimination, since the lower-waged workers were said to be taking jobs away from white men. Violence directed at Asian immigrants and their descendants broke out several times at the turn from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries; the perceived threat to White men's livelihood was the usual motive. Increasingly, (white) voters demanded restrictions be placed on immigration from points East.
The United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and in 1907 created a Barred Zone from which it did not accept immigrants; the zone covered most of Asia and parts of Russia and the Middle East. These acts would not be repealed until 1943, partially in deference to China's status as one of the Allies during World War II.
Canada, meanwhile, began passing laws to limit Chinese immigration after the 1885 completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, on which many Chinese labourers had toiled. By 1903, Canadian laws disenfranchised most immigrants and citizens of Asian ancestry, and in 1907 the Canadian government passed a prohibitive head tax on immigrants from China. Chinese immigration to Canada was suspended altogether in 1923; these restrictions would remain in place until 1947.
Both countries made Gentlemen's Agreements with Imperial Japan to limit immigration during this same era. Worse awaited Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. In both countries, these people, often belonging to the second and third generation born in the Americas, had their property confiscated and they themselves were interned in camps. After World War II, efforts were made to keep the Japanese-Canadians from resettling on the west coast, and others were encouraged to return to Japan, a foreign country many had never seen.
Beginning in the USA in 1946, some restrictions were lifted, mostly with reference to the Asiatic wives and children of American soldiers who had fought in the Second World War's Pacific Theatre. People of Asian descent were re-enfranchised throughout the Americas in the 1940s; restrictions on immigration based on country of origin disappeared in the 1950s, and ethnic quotas or head counts that worked against Asian immigration were finally lifted in the 1960s.
An early twentieth-century board game mirrored immigration law and popular sentiment; in Yellow Peril, a player manipulating a few white pieces attempted to block the movement of a player manipulating several yellow pieces.
Western pop culture loved the Yellow Peril.
Its most famous fictional representative is the diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu, created by Sax Rohmer (1886-1959), a popular British novelist who published novels and stories about the character's sinister plots, beginning in 1912. Another node deals with him in detail, but his description bears repeating, as it embodies the zeitgeist of the Peril:
Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government-- which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence.
Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.
The racial stereotype of the Sinister Oriental, evil, inscrutable, and brilliant, thrived in Spy novels (think Ian Fleming's Dr. No), whodunits, Hollywood thrillers, and comics.
Detective Comics #27 featured the first appearance of the Batman; but it also presented two supporting stories which focused on evil Chinese villains. Buck Rogers, originally from a novella by Philip Francis Nowlan but made more famous by a comic strip and various mass media adaptations, awoke in a twenty-fifth century where America was dominated by a futuristic Mongol horde. Flash Gordon fought aliens, but they were modeled on the Yellow Peril caricature, and led by Ming the Merciless, the Fu-Manchu-like emperor of the planet Mongo. This image survived in pop SF; the original Klingons from Star Trek (original series) and the Trade Federation from Star Wars seem to be Ming's descendants.
Nevertheless, as East and West increasingly meet, their cultures influence each other, and the Yellow Peril becomes an example of racial paranoia less likely to be taken seriously or revived in the West.
Bernard Bailyn et al. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Lexington, Heath, 1981.
Arthur Dong, dir. "Forbidden City, USA". The American Experience. 1989.
“Immigration, Asian Americans, and Asia.” Bridges with Asia. http://www.asiasociety.org/bridges/bridges03.html
Joy Kogawa. Obasan. Toronto: Lester and Orpan Denys, 1983.
Gilder Lehrman. “Immigration Restriction Period, 1880-1920. History Online. http://www.gliah.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=421
Don Markstein. "Buck Rogers." Toonopedia. http://www.toonopedia.com/buckrog.htm
Peter Nepstad. “Inscrutable Oriental Plots World Domination” The Illuminated Lantern.
Jess Nevins. “On Yellow Peril Thrillers.” Violet Books.
The Page of Dr. Fu Manchu. http://www.njedge.net/~knapp/FuManchu.htm
Sax Rohmer. The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (1912-1913). London: J.M. Dent, 1985.
"Sax Rohmer." Literary Heritage. http://home.freeuk.com/castlegates/rohmer.htm