|Popular Literature: Bret Harte and Jacob Riis
The poem written by Bret Harte in 1871 entitled The Heathen Chinee and the
excerpt from Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives are examples of narrative
pieces that were popular in the second half of the 19th century and influenced
people’s perceptions of the Chinese. Have students read one or both of
The Heathen Chinee
The Harte poem was immensely popular and widely circulated (it cost only
25 cents) and brought the term “heathen” into popular usage
to refer to Chinese and Chinese Americans.
The questions accompanying the poem ask the students to think about what
message the reader would take from the piece and why the reader might do
How the Other Half Lives
If possible, show or pass around a copy of the book How the Other Half
Lives and give the students a brief introduction to Riis and his aims in publishing
the work. The book is widely available at libraries and can also be found
on the Internet.
Divide students into groups to read the passage. After reading the passage,
each group should sketch a scene of Chinatown as it is depicted by Riis.
Students should write on their sketch three sentences or phrases from
the reading that
describes the scene they have drawn.
The Biography of a Chinaman, a reading in the lesson on Chinese Perspectives
offers a Chinese view of Americans. The author, Lee Chew, was a Chinese
immigrant who worked many jobs as he moved across the country from
California to New
York where he ended up as a merchant in Chinatown. His view is an interesting
contrast to Riis’ characterization of the Chinese.