“Who’s Your Chinaman?”: The Origins Of An Offensive Piece Of Chicago Political Slang

Chinaman Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Chinaman Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

“Who’s Your Chinaman?”: The Origins Of An Offensive Piece Of Chicago Political Slang

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Years ago, as a young newspaper reporter, I found myself in a pickle with a powerful editor. So I turned to a veteran reporter — an old family friend — for advice on how to handle it.

“First off,” he asked, “who’s your Chinaman?”

My what?!

It was the first time I’d heard this piece of Chicago slang, and struck me as weird, archaic and (as a half-Chinese lady) even borderline racist. But I’d learn that it means your sponsor or newsroom protector — often the guy who got you your job.

Chicago photographer Johnny McGuire had a similar reaction to the term. He heard it tossed around by friends who worked in Chicago politics — where it probably started — and he wanted to know more. Specifically he wrote Curious City:

What is the origin of the term “Chinaman” in Chicago politics and why is it used to suggest someone’s mentor or patron?

It’s a great question about local jargon that reaches well beyond Chicago journalism and politics.

According to John McHugh, who reported for the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Today in the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Chinaman” was also used in the “fire ranks and the mob not to mention the Archdiocese, union and even newspaper editorial ranks,” he said. “I don’t have a clue as to how the term evolved.”

But lest you think it’s a dead term, it’s worth noting that “Chinaman” was used as recently as October 2016 on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight. Cook County Circuit Court Clerk candidate Diane Shapiro addressed continued patronage in the court by saying, “we knew which promotions were going to come [to court employees] depending on whose ‘Chinaman’ they had.”

So — like the old-school patronage that spawned it — “Chinaman” has a long history in Chicago, and it remains alive in some circles. But, as Johnny asked, where did it come from?

We didn’t find solid answers about the term’s origin through online searches, books or 150 years of Chicago Tribune archives, so we turned to oral histories — interviews with veteran journalists, cops, politicos and historians. Here, we found a trove of theories (some pretty far out) — and we’ve whittled them down to the three best. We present them here, along with a verdict from Chicago’s Cultural Historian, Tim Samuelson, on which is the most credible.

And, yes, we also dug into the question of whether this term is appropriate to continue to use or a racist relic that deserves retirement.

Political consultant Don Rose says “Chinaman” was already in common use when he entered Chicago politics in the late ’40s. And he only ever heard one theory on the origin of the term. It has to do with the proximity of the Bridgeport neighborhood to the Chinatown on Cermak.   

“Bridgeport, until very recently, was the seat of political power and the home of mayors galore going back [many] years,” Rose said. “And Chinatown is almost adjacent to Bridgeport. I was told that it meant someone from that area … but [you] didn’t want to say ‘I’ve got a Bridgeporter.’”

That would be indiscreet, so instead you said “I’ve got a Chinaman,” as code for the guy from Bridgeport, next door to Chinatown, who got you your job.

“It was just a metaphor for Bridgeport,” Rose said. “I don’t have any documentation, that’s just the way it was explained to me.”

The Bridgeport neighborhood is adjacent to the Chinatown at Cermak and Archer. (Courtesy Rose Lyons)

In the world of Chicago law enforcement the term “Chinaman” takes on a darker tone. This theory was shared by retired police Lt. Robert Angone, who joined the Chicago Police Department in 1965. There, he said, he joined a lot of veteran cops who’d entered the force after World War II. He was told the word came from The Manchurian Candidate, the 1962 film starring Frank Sinatra.

“That’s where the Red Chinese captured Americans, brainwashed them and sent them back to their jobs, and then, at the snap of a finger, they had to perform the way the Chinaman back in Manchuria wanted them to,” Angone said. “They could make them do anything they wanted.”

The 1962 movie starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey follows an American patrol as they are captured and brainwashed by Chinese communists during the Korean War.

In this theory, the Chinaman essentially controlled the cops who received their jobs because of him. Angone said the Chinaman could also be called upon for help later: “Whenever they needed a transfer or when a boss was giving them a hard time … if you got yourself in trouble or you wanted to work straight days … or if you had to lose your ticket book because you wrote the wrong person a ticket, you needed to call out to your Chinaman.”

This theory comes from retired bartender and Chicago history buff Phil Wizenick. It’s based on the influential First Ward Alderman (1897-1923) Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who set up his notorious vote-buying bar, The Workingman’s Exchange, near the intersection of Clark and Van Buren Streets. Back then, that area also happened to be smack dab in the middle of Chicago’s first Chinatown.

The Workingman's Exchange at Clark and Van Buren sat in the heart of Chicago's original Chinatown. The Alaska Hotel upstairs was supposed to have rooms for 15 cents a night. (Courtesy Tim Samuelson)

“It dawned on me that that’s where it had to start,” Wizenick said. “Because the First Ward Alderman in Chicago had to be the heaviest guy in town. And if you got a heavy clout like the First Ward Alderman, you’re gonna get a plumb job. ”

The saloon, immortalized in the 1943 book Lords of the Levee, was run by Kenna along with his co-alderman “Bathhouse” John Coughlin. (Yes, there used to be two aldermen in every Chicago ward!) There, patrons were offered cheap beer, free lunch and inexpensive rooms upstairs at Kenna’s Alaska Hotel. But when voter registration and election time came, they were expected to — and did — vote the way Kenna and John told them to.

As First Ward Aldermen, John

Judging the theories

It’s worth noting that none of these theories is backed up by documents. No one, it seems, has ever gotten to the bottom of this question — not even Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s Cultural Historian.

But Samuelson was game to dig into our theories and vet them for credibility.

Here’s his take on the Bridgeport theory.

“This is a classic creative analogy, a way to explain something you don’t want to talk about, like when you don’t want to give away your insider,” Samuelson said. “Certainly throughout Chicago’s history Bridgeport was a seat of political power and favors, but it always seems to me that the Bridgeport-Chinatown connection wasn’t that strong.”

Instead, Samuelson said, it’s more likely that the term alludes to the tight connection between the Chinatown on Cermak and the adjacent Italian neighborhood to the west, full of influential First Ward politicians like Fred Roti.  

As for the Manchurian Candidate theory …

“Initially, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me because it seems like the term Chinaman for a political favor-giver connection goes back further than 1962 [when the movie came out],” he said. “However, it is interesting that — in doing research on the term — the references seem to show up mostly after that 1962 date. I still believe the term is older than the movie but there might be something there.”

Lastly, we laid out the Hinky Dink theory.

“This has some real political oomph behind it — to use a technical historian’s term,” he said. “Hinky Dink was the go-to guy for favors and distributing jobs and he had the Workingman’s Exchange [in old Chinatown]. It makes sense.”

So which one is best? In the absence of hard documentation, Samuelson chose the “Hinky Dink Chinatown” theory as the likely winner.

“Because Hinky Dinky Kenna, who was the great dealmaker and fixer of aldermanic history, was headquartered right in the middle of the old Chinatown,” he said.

But he does give the Manchurian Candidate theory credit for giving the term “a whole new life.”

“How’s that for an evasive answer in a good political tradition?” he asked.

Click for larger version: An old political cartoon illustrating the patronage system at work in The Workingman's Exchange

What about the race issue?

So that’s the historical look at Chicago’s usage of “Chinaman,” but is it appropriate to use today? Was it neverappropriate because it’s inherently racist?

Personally, I’ve never been offended, but I’ve also got a complicated history with the term. I’m a middle-aged, half-Chinese lady who grew up in Chicago newsroom culture. Plus, I had my own Chinaman. His name was Roger Ebert and he got me my first job at the Chicago Sun-Times 32 years ago. As an Asian guilty of using the practice and the term, I was confused, so I looked for perspective.

Candidate Diane Shapiro, who used it last fall on Chicago Tonight, said, to her, the term’s never carried racial connotations.

“Nobody ever thought of it as anything more than the person who was responsible for helping you find employment,” she said. This was echoed by most sources I interviewed for this piece.

But then I heard a story from retired police Lt. Bob Angone. It’s about a “Chinaman-themed” retirement party in the ‘70s for a Chicago police commander, a guy who soared through the ranks on the wings of a powerful sponsor.

Angone recalls that, in the middle of the commander’s retirement speech: “The back door of The Martinique [banquet hall] opened up and all of the sudden this great big guy, about 6’ 4” with a Fu Manchu and the old Chinese robe comes in, looking like an old Chinese ruler. … He walks in real slow toward the podium and all of the sudden the guy standing next to the commander grabs the microphone and says, ‘You all wanted to meet Bill’s Chinaman, and so he’s coming up to the stage.’”

Here, even if you interpret it as an elaborate play on the word, it was, at least for one party, directly connected to Chinese people.

But how do Chinese-Americans who work in industries where the term if commonly used feel about it? To get the political view I met up for dim sum with retired politico Gene Lee.

“I did hear it,” Lee said, “but I never took offense to it.”

As the former deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, Lee was one of the highest-ranking Chinese men to hit Chicago politics. He said he became aware of the “Chinaman” thing early on, from his own political mentor, the powerful First Ward Alderman Fred Roti.

Alderman Roti (second from right) and political pals met for a golf outing in 1980. (Courtesy Denny Johnson)

“He said, ‘Gene, I just want to give you the head’s up,’” Lee recalled. “You should not take it personally when you hear the word ‘Chinaman.’ They are not referring to you specifically, but it is used in political circles in reference to ‘Who’s your clout?’ or ‘Who’s your juice?’”   

With this prep, Lee said, he took the term in stride during his four decades in Chicago politics. And, over the years, he heard it used less and less — almost never from Roti.

“Even back then, Alderman Roti was very sensitive in not using that term,” Lee said, “maybe because he was the alderman that represented Chinatown.”

So if Roti refrained from using the term around Chinese people, could it be that even he, a guy who went to prison for extortion, thought it was offensive?

Retired TV anchor Linda Yu can definitely see where someone might be disturbed by the term. She worked in Chicago newsrooms for more than 40 years, retiring in 2016, but said no one used “Chinaman” in front of her. Still, she did get wind of its Chicago usage and said it would have been considered very offensive in her home state of California.   

In 1984, west coast-native Linda Yu began anchoring the 4 p.m. news for ABC Chicago. (Courtesy Linda Yu)

“I think somebody not from Chicago would see it as a derogatory term,” she said. “And somebody from Chicago who doesn’t think in political terms, to me, would see it as a derogatory term.”

She notes that the term came into vogue in the late 19th century when Chinese faced deep racism. And although the Chicago usage isn’t directly about Chinese people, she reminds us that we’ve stopped using the word “Coolie” and “Oriental” in most circles.

“My hope is that more and more, the term’s [Chinaman] gone away,” she said.

Racist cartoons of the Chinese became popular around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

More about our questioner

Courtesy Johnny McGuire

Johnny McGuire is a commercial photographer, who was born and raised around Chicago.

“As a kid from a big Irish family, we naturally had a lot of relatives who were city workers and politicians,” he said. “So I heard [Chinaman] thrown around by my uncles and friends a lot, but no one really knew where it came from.”

When Johnny returned to Chicago after studying film at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was more interested in photography than municipal work. Luckily, he had a patron, a sort of godfather who could help him break into the business.    

“His name was Art Carrillo. He was the nicest guy and he knew everybody [in the Chicago photo world,]” McGuire remembered. “He took me under his wing … back then it was basically who you knew. … When he gave someone my name, it meant he vetted me and people were confident hiring me. And that’s how I got my start.”

McGuire was a little skeptical when he first heard the Hinky Dink Kenna theory about the origins of “Chinaman”: the Bridgeport theory had been his first pick.  But he warmed up to it when he paid a visit to the old building on South Clark Street where Kenna set up his vote-buying saloon. The barroom space is now a pawnshop and a joint for deep-fried seafood. Upstairs it’s still a cheap men’s hotel just like in Kenna’s day.

“The men’s hotel kind of completes the picture here,” he said, surveying the colorful block that faces the Metropolitan Correction Center. “This definitely looks like a place where deals got done, and maybe still do.”

Plus, Samuelson’s favorite theory confirmed Johnny’s own hunch: It might be more accurate to call this kind of person an “Irishman.”

Fair question, though: As an Irish guy, would Johnny find that offensive?

“I don’t think calling the political patrons “Irishmen” is offensive to me at all,” he said. “I actually like it.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org.