"Chinaman's chance" in the news

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sat Aug 20 06:20:37 UTC 2005

John Spencer, a candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S.
Senate in New York, landed himself in hot water for saying on a radio
call-in show that his opponent Jeanine Pirro doesn't have a "Chinaman's
chance" of getting the Conservative Party's nomination.

When a caller to the program later questioned Spencer about his use of the
phrase, the former mayor insisted it was not derogatory and referred to
the experience of Chinese immigrants in building the nation's railroads.
"It's an often-used cliche by talking heads all over the media," Spencer
afterword in a telephone interview with The Journal News. "It is not
derogatory at all and anyone who says it is is being a little bit
political, I guess."
Advocacy groups disagreed, saying the term dates back to the late 19th
century and has come to symbolize the racism and oppression faced by
Chinese immigrants.
"'Chinaman's chance' refers to a sad period in American history when
Chinese immigrants had little chance of survival in helping to build the
nation's railroads on the West Coast," said Pradnya Joshi, president of
the New York Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association., who
was attending the group's national convention in Minneapolis today.

Spencer eventually apologized:

He said Friday that he had been persuaded it was offensive to some Chinese
because "it brings up a reference to a sad point of history that itself is
offensive" -- that the Chinese railroad laborers faced long odds of
"I heard the phrase long ago and I took the time to find out what it
meant," he said. "I never knew it was offensive and I don't know why it
would be, but if it is, it is, and it doesn't matter what I think, so I
apologize. I never intended to offend."

I've heard the railroad explanation of "Chinaman's chance", but I've also
heard that it had something to do with mining operations on the frontier,
where Chinese miners either had little chance of survival, or had little
chance of claiming anything of worth since white miners got the rights to
all the good stuff.

Is there evidence to back up any of these conjectures?

--Ben Zimmer

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