On anti-Chinese racism, Emperor Norton, my political ambitions, and lots of other stuff in between

A few days ago, an irate reader of this site left a comment, vowing that, if I should ever decide to run for Mayor of Ypsilanti, he would make it his mission to stop me. He was apparently compelled to make this solemn oath, you see, because, in coming out against anti-Chinese racism a few days ago, I’ve exposed myself to be… wait for it…. a “really sick racist.” And, like the protagonist in Stephen King’s book The Dead Zone, now that he’s had this glimpse into darkest recesses of my soul, he can’t allow me to ascend to such a position of tremendous power. At any rate, during the subsequent conversation in the comments section, my friend Doug, who, it’s probably worth noting, has made it clear in the past that he too sees me as a seriously flawed individual, implied that my goal wasn’t be become Mayor of the Ypsilanti, but to become the City’s Emperor Norton. Not getting the reference, I went to Wikipedia, where I found the following.

Joshua Abraham Norton (c. 1819 – January 8, 1880), the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco, California, who in 1859 proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States” and subsequently “Protector of Mexico”.

Born in England, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father’s estate. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice.

After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton left San Francisco. He returned a few years later, apparently mentally unbalanced, claiming to be the Emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.

Though he was considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, most famously, his “order” that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge crossing and a tunnel to be built under San Francisco Bay (which both happened long after his death in the form of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube).On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner, and died before he could be given medical treatment. The following day, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to Norton. Norton’s legacy has been immortalized in the literature of writers Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Neil Gaiman who based characters on him…

Norton spent his days inspecting San Francisco’s streets in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot.

During one of his inspections Norton is said to have performed one of his most famous acts of “diplomacy.” During the 1860s and 1870s, there were occasional anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Ugly riots, sometimes resulting in fatalities, took place. During one incident, Norton is claimed to have positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets; with a bowed head, he started reciting the Lord’s Prayer repeatedly until the rioters dispersed without incident…

And that last bit, in case it wasn’t clear, is why I chose to share all of this today. Not only is the image of this incredibly eccentric man placing himself between an angry mob and the group of Chinese people being descended upon absolutely beautiful, but the way that the story came to the surface, through this weird series of fortuitous twists and turns in our conversation, is itself so poetic, that I felt as though I had to share it. One of the main reasons that I continue to work on this site after ten years is the promise of seeing unintended connections like these unfold, and lead somewhere beautiful. Here, we started with a discussion of anti-Chinese race-baiting, as seen in Pete Hoekstra’s deplorable Super Bowl ad, and, after this weird detour into the Emperor Norton-like position I hold in Ypsilanti, we end up with this truly beautiful image of a man placing himself in danger, close to 150 years ago, to protect early Chinese Americans. I realize that I may be odd in this respect, and I don’t mean to diminish in any way the evils of racism when I say this, but I think the winding path that we’ve followed to get here is just so incredibly lovely.

As for Norton, I’m so thankful that Doug brought his existence to my attention. The closest comparison I can think of here in the Ypsi/Arbor area is Shakey Jake, who passed away a few years ago, after spending several decades on the streets of Ann Arbor. He wasn’t know for being a great statesman, and, as far as I know, he never exhibited profound foresight, but, to some extent, he transcended his career as a panhandler and actually held a position of some respect in the community. I think that I said it at the time, but, when he passed, so too did a big part of Ann Arbor’s heart. And, all the “keep Ann Arbor funky” t-shirts in the world, won’t make up for that fact.

Oh, and here’s one more thing about Norton. He not only issued his own money, but it was an accepted local currency in San Francisco. The paper notes, some of which still survive today, came in denominations ranging from fifty cents to ten dollars.

And, one last thing… Emperor Norton was, according to historical accounts, always accompanied by two stray dogs that he referred to Bummer and Lazarus. As I don’t intend to have any more children, I plan to use these names for my next two companion animals.

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  1. Heidi
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to add to that list of authors: Christopher Moore and highly recommend A Dirty Job, Bummer and Lazarus make quite the apperance.

  2. Lynne
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it is nice when a conversation turns in such an interesting and perhaps accidentally relevant manner.

  3. Anonymatt
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    But the real question is: did Emperor Norton call for the ban of urine troughs?

  4. Posted February 12, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t realize you were unfamiliar with him. He’s still a folk hero in some circles. And, yes, that Chinese story is part of his legend.

  5. Paige
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    First off I would like to say that I’m fairly certain all of your readers are generally irate. Secondly, let me know when you run for mayor– I’ll move back to Ypsi to cast my vote for you.

  6. Edward
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Patrick Elkins would be Bummer. I’m not sure who Lazarus would be.

  7. Elviscostello
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Mark, I always thought of you as “King Strang” of Ypsi!

  8. Eel
    Posted February 13, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    The most insidious racist is the one that sees racism and calls it to the attention of others.

    And, for what it’s worth, I always saw you as being more like the main character in John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. Either that or Otis from the Andy Griffith Show.

  9. Posted February 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Why do you hate Chinese people so much?

  10. anonymous
    Posted February 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Emperor Norton would have been huge on reality television.

  11. X
    Posted February 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Emperor Norton sounds like their Sarah Palin, but with good ideas.

  12. Taco Tom
    Posted February 14, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    If you recall, Mark, our recent emigre, Thomas Kula, published and sold zines, haikus, etc during the Shadow Art Fair. These were all published under the imprimatur of St. Joshua Norton Press. Per Mr Kula, in addition to being Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, said Joshua Norton was the patron saint of the Peoples Republic of Ames.

  13. Posted February 19, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    For those of you who don’t believe anti-Asian racism exists, I’d like to direct your attention to the following Jeremy Lin-related headline at ESPN.com:

    Chink in the Armor

  14. anonymous
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    From The Guardian:

    Of the many questions that have been asked about the jaw-dropping success of the New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin, who went from a barely known basketball player to one of the most famous athletes in America in a single game, one that has yet to be posed is: what is the connection between Lin and Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? While that aesthetically beautiful but morally bankrupt film is primarily remembered for Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy wardrobe, it is Rooney’s turn as the speech-impaired upstairs neighbour, Mr Yunioshi, that, for me, really gives the movie its true flavour. It’s hard to call a film glamorous when it features a white actor playing an Asian stereotype that would put a Tintin cartoon to shame.

    Which brings us back to Lin. Lin is an Asian-American NBA basketball player, a first-generation son of Taiwanese immigrants and a Harvard graduate, the American dream given athletic form. Until 4 February, few even knew his name, but after that evening’s game against the New Jersey Nets, in which he scored 25 points, and his continuing near-superhuman run of form ever since, the whole of New York and the American press entered into a state of “Linsanity” to the point that Lin is trying to trademark the coinage.

    There have been high-profile Asian-American athletes before, Michelle Kwan and Tiger Woods being the most obvious. There have also been Asian players in the NBA before, such as the now-retired 7ft 6in Yao Ming. But Lin is the first American in the league of Chinese or Taiwanese descent and this, it turns out, has been a difficult concept for some to grasp.

    One shouldn’t expect thoughtful sensitivity from professional athletes or the most hysterical wing of the sports media, but the racist language and even flat-out racism directed at Lin has been quite something to behold.

    “Chink in the armor” was ESPN’s take not once but twice when the Knicks lost a game last week, both as a headline added by ESPN writer Anthony Federico and then as a phrase used by the anchor Max Bretos (Federico has since been fired and Bretos received a 30-day suspension.) Those two muppets look the height of sophisticated decorum compared with Foxsports.com writer Jason Whitlock, whose response to Lin’s triumph over the Lakers on Friday night was to tweet “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight”, a comment notable for being almost more misogynistic than racist. When the Madison Square Garden Network flashed up a photo of Lin, it superimposed it with a fortune cookie, presumably refraining from adding some chopsticks purely because it didn’t have the graphics.

    Welterweight Floyd Mayweather has never been a modern-day Emily Post but his tweeted thought on Lin last week – “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the praise” – was impressive even by his standards. Also, “don’t get the praise”? Come on, Floyd, you came ninth in Dancing with the Stars! How much more praise do you want?

    Nor does one need to look to the morons for examples. The chinstroking journal The Atlantic put forward the charming theory that Lin’s success is due to his “philosophical heritage” – ah, so! And so inscrutable, too!

    Racism in sport is nothing new, as anyone familiar with English football could tell you. But Lin’s high-profile success has highlighted a different problem, that of racism against Asian Americans in general. While no one would claim that racism against black people is no longer a problem in America, it is unthinkable that any news network or even half-brained TV presenter would use racial slurs against a black player equivalent to the Asian ones that have been used against Lin. This is because racism against Asians is not confronted as much and therefore is somehow seen as more acceptable – not even racist, even.

    A survey last year found that Asian-American teenagers suffered far more bullying at school than any other demographic: 54% of Asian-American teenagers reported being bullied compared with 31.3% of white teens and 38.4% of black ones. In an extraordinary article in New York magazine last year, Wesley Yang wrote that to be an Asian-American means being not just part of a “barely distinguishable” mass of “people who are good at math and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally”.

    Asian Americans are, without question, barely represented culturally. Black roles in Hollywood are still by and large limited to maids, drug dealers and James Earl Jones, but Asian roles are invariable limited to camp villains, martial arts experts, dippy shop owners and exchange students soundtracked with a gong.

    So the answer to what connects Mickey Rooney and Jeremy Lin is that both show a side to America that even this most racially aware country tends to ignore. The difference is that Rooney encouraged those stereotypes, Lin overturns them, yet the response remains the same.

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