Mixed Race in Victorian London

I just read the first two books in Y. S. Lee’s The Agency series, A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower. Y. S. Lee is a Singapore-born Canadian author, and these novels are mysteries set in 1850s London. The protagonist, Mary Quinn, is the daughter of an Irish woman and a Chinese sailor. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read almost no books starring a half-white, half-Chinese character, that is, a character like me, so I was intrigued by The Agency books.

Mary’s father is a Lascar, an Asian sailor who works on British ships. I hadn’t heard of the Lascars before reading A Spy in the House, and I appreciated Lee’s illuminating a perhaps little-remembered aspect of British imperial history and the demographics of mid 19th century London. By the time the story begins, though, Mary’s parents are both dead, and she is working for an all-female detective agency (improbable, I know). Though she can’t conceal her “exotic” (oh, boy) appearance, she keeps her racial background a secret from everyone, including her employers. She passes as black Irish or allows people to assume she has some Spanish or Italian blood.

Mary claims not to be ashamed of being Chinese, but she doesn’t want anyone to find out about her father because she fears (probably with good reason) that people will think her inferior or of lesser intelligence if they know. Thus she’s uncomfortable in situations where people dwell on her looks or when Lascars are brought up (the first mystery involves shipping and a home for aged Lascars) or when she must interact with other Chinese people in London. She also seems ashamed of her inability to speak Cantonese when other Chinese characters address her in it.

Mary calls herself a “half-caste,” a term which is now considered derogatory. I first learned this word from the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I watched in a high school world history class. It also appears in Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah, an entertaining book about a group of children in China who train in martial arts and rescue American soldiers during World War II. The protagonist is Chinese, but a couple of her companions are of mixed Chinese and European heritage, and I recall them being direct about the challenges this creates for them in China and even talking about their race with the American soldiers.

Mary’s sense of, and fear of, belonging nowhere is likely a familiar one to most mixed race people. She keeps her family history a secret among the English but still can’t avoid people questioning her about her appearance and heritage. She believes if people knew the truth, she wouldn’t be accepted in white society anymore, perhaps not even by her beloved employers/former teachers. At the same time, she doesn’t believe she’d fit in in the Chinese community either, in part because she doesn’t speak Chinese. In The Body at the Tower, while disguised as an errand boy, Mary is invited by a Chinese servant girl to have dinner (a proper dinner, with rice) with the girl’s family. Feeling that it’s too late to return to that community and that she can’t live in both worlds at once, Mary rejects the invitation.

While Mary can pass as, if not fully English, then at least not-Chinese among white Londoners, the Chinese characters can see immediately that she has Chinese heritage. This is probably a result of experience: most of the English have probably met very few Chinese people, while the Chinese Londoners are attuned to other East Asians because there are so few of them in the city and may also have seen other children of Chinese sailors and white women in their small community. I’ve noticed a similar pattern in my life, though it doesn’t always hold. Some white people tell me they noticed I was Asian right away while others notice something and privately wonder “what” I am for a while until they decide to ask me, often ineptly. I have also met Asian people who were surprised to learn I had Chinese heritage. In my experience, the only people who can reliably tell I’m hapa* right away are other hapa people. We’re generally pretty good at identifying each other.

In this vein, the part of Mary’s experience that most resonated with me was how people are eternally inquisitive about her appearance and how she can never be sure how people perceive her. For me, this is the number one most disconcerting thing about being multiracial. I don’t mind telling people about my background, but ignorant/borderline rude questions and coded language get old. And though I, unlike Mary, don’t have to pass as anything, it can be weird to be somewhere and not know whether everyone else in the room realizes there is a Chinese-American among them.

Something nice about The Agency books is that their covers feature a model who is both Asian and white! That’s partly why I finally checked them out from the library; seeing the covers reminded me that these were the historical fiction novels about a mixed race girl. I don’t think I ever saw the covers without knowing about the race of the heroine, so I see a hapa girl on them, but interestingly, there has been some discussion of the covers online. Some bloggers have complained (mildly) that the model looked more like a Latina or a light-skinned Black girl than a hapa girl. Others even seemed to think she looked white. This concern is understandable given that there have been cases of egregious whitewashing on YA covers, but it also reveals that people have a certain conception of what a Chinese/white girl should look like, and the fact is, hapa people can have a wide range of phenotypes. Y. S. Lee has even commented on this herself and has posted behind-the-scenes pictures from the cover photo shoots on her website. She wants her readers to know that the model’s heritage is true to Mary’s.

Anyway, I’m probably going to read the next book in the series because I want to find out if Mary reveals her Chinese heritage to her love interest!

*Hapa is a Hawaiian word meaning half, part, or mixed and is used to refer to mixed race people. In the continental U.S., it’s come to mean specifically a mixed race person with Asian heritage (see Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project). I like the word hapa, but I’ve also heard that some people object to its having been appropriated outside its Hawaiian context, so I use it gingerly. 

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2 thoughts on “Mixed Race in Victorian London

  1. “I don’t mind telling people about my background, but ignorant/borderline rude questions and coded language get old.”

    I get that, too, but I imagine it’s a bit more awkward when white people address half-white people than when they address fully non-white people, because there’s some sort of implicit evaluation, a kind of, “Are you one of us?” embedded in the question. As for me, I’ve decided never to ask anyone about their race or ethnicity, even if I have a strong suspicion and am actually curious, because I 1) haven’t figured out a way to ask that doesn’t sound stupid and 2) don’t think it should affect my relationship with someone in any way. If it comes up in conversation, then that’s great, but I won’t be the one to bring it up. What do you think of this?

    It was very nice to read your thoughts on the issues that mixed-race/hapa people face. I think it’s funny that this character, Mary, feared being thought unintelligent if people found out about her Chinese heritage, whereas today, the assumption might go the other way!

    • Oh, this wasn’t even a full rant… 🙂 Actually, you’ve made me think that there might be a commonality in the experiences of hapa people (not people with other multiracial identities) and…monoracial(?) Asian-Americans, and I think it’s tied up with the perception of Asians as perceptual foreigners in the U.S. Some of the questions I’ve gotten about my or my parents’ nationality and the languages I do or don’t speak probably come up because I’m already being perceived as Asian to some degree. I imagine you’ve gotten those questions too.

      And I think your policy of just not asking is a good one.

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