Guy Boothby and the “Yellow Peril”: Representations of Chinese Immigrants in British Imperial Spaces in the Late-Nineteenth Century

Ailise Bulfin

Abstract


By the end of the nineteenth century the pernicious racial term “yellow peril” had entered the common parlance of Victorians across the British Empire. Ironically, this insidious imperial myth that China would overrun the West owed its genesis to the impact of European, and particularly British imperial activity, on China in the late-nineteenth century, rather than to any expansionary Chinese aims or activity. The western impact was bi-faceted, involving both the physical incursion of westerners into China, and the related movement of Chinese people overseas to work in western nations and colonies. Under the international coerced labour phenomenon known as the “coolie trade,” Chinese people were brought across the British Empire as far as the settler colonies of Australia and South Africa, and even to the plantations of the British West Indies. Despite the relative powerlessness of their position as indentured or indebted immigrants, they were inevitably perceived as hostile aliens who threatened "white" society. This essay examines the impact of Australian anti-Chinese sentiment on representations of Chinese people in the works of Guy Boothby, an Adelaide-born author who emigrated to London in 1893. It explores Boothby’s representations of Chinese people in the imperial spaces of Britain’s Australian and Southeast Asian colonies, and also in the informal imperial spaces of contact in “foreign” China, in the cities and coastal locations where the British Empire was making its presence and influence felt, in works including Boothby’s travelogue, On the Wallaby (1894), the Dr Nikola series of novels (1895-1901), “The Story of Lee Ping” (1895), The Beautiful White Devil (1896) and My Strangest Case (1901). It argues that these superficially disinterested but consistently derogatory representations of the far-flung Chinese contributed to the deplorable international myth of the yellow peril, but also could not help revealing the important and largely overlooked presence of the Chinese in the spaces of the British Empire, demonstrating the impact of the coolie trade on imperial society and signalling the multifaceted nature of the British Empire’s involvement with China.

Keywords


Guy Boothby; yellow peril; travel writing

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