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A Tale of Two Sisters

June 15, 2021

Winnifred Eaton aka Otono Watanna

Make it fiction, but keep it true—that’s a credo that helps guide me when I’m writing. When I was composing Caroline Lee’s character in The Bohemians, I drew on the stories of Edith and Winnifred Eaton, two real-life women (and real-life sisters!) to help me understand the experience of mixed-race women in the early years of the twentieth century. In wrestling with the question of who they were, Edith and Winnifred created lives and stories that fell well outside the boundaries society tried to impose on them. They traveled the world, writing all the while, and as different as they were, intelligence,  courage, and creativity fueled both sisters’ experiments in how to live and what to write. 

Born in England, they were the daughters of Edward Eaton, an English merchant, and Achuen Grace Amoy, a Chinese woman. Amoy had been a Chinese slave girl who toured the world with a Chinese acrobatic troupe until she was rescued from her abusive owner in London, England, by missionaries in 1855. Eaton met Amoy while on a business trip to Shanghai, China. Their marriage would have been extremely unusual in England; in the United States, it would have been outright illegal.

Having come of age during a period of tremendous discrimination toward Chinese immigrants in North America and perhaps even greater discrimination toward mixed-race individuals, the sisters devoted much of their writing careers to exploring the little-understood position of the mixed-race (then called “Eurasian,” now referred to as “hapa”) people.

The eldest sister of the family’s fourteen children, Edith, published most of her work under the pseudonym “Sui Sin Far,” which is the Cantonese name for a narcissus flower often presented as a gift at Christmas or Chinese New Year. As “Sui Sin Far,” Edith wrote fiction and journalism about Chinese American and Chinese immigrant communities. Winnifred, meanwhile, assumed a Japanese persona (for which she gave herself the pseudo- Japanese name “Onoto Watanna”) and wrote novels set in Japan, which she’d never visited. She posed in kimonos for photographers and made frequent public comments about Japanese traditions and politics.

In 1865, the Eatons left England to live in New York, but stayed there only a short time before returning to England in 1868. The family returned to North America in 1872, relocating to Montreal, Canada. The sisters’ father struggled to make a living as a clerk and the large family went through difficult times. In 1882, he left his job and tried to make a living through his art. By 1896, he was earning money smuggling Chinese into the U.S. from Montreal.

Edith Eaton, Also Known As Sui Sin Far

Edith left school at a young age in order to help support her family. By age 18, Eaton was setting type for the Montreal Star. She’d begun writing as a young girl and, beginning in 1890, she published anonymous journalistic articles about the local Chinese community in Montreal’s English-language newspapers, the Montreal Star and the Daily Witness. She also worked as a stenographer and legal secretary. She left Montreal first to work as a stenographer and special correspondent in Ontario.

Edith was an intrepid world traveler. In 1896, she worked as a journalist in Kingston, Jamaica, for about six months, and began to publish under her Chinese pen name. Later, she moved to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and then Seattle before moving to the East Coast to work in Boston. While supporting herself as a legal secretary, she continued to write. Although her appearance and mannerisms would have allowed her to easily pass as an Englishwoman, she asserted her Chinese heritage after 1896, writing articles about what life was like for a Chinese woman in white America.

She wrote a number of short stories and newspaper articles while working on her first book of fiction. Published in June 1912, Mrs. Spring Fragrance was a collection of linked short stories marketed as a novel. Her fictional stories about Chinese Americans were a reasoned appeal for her society’s acceptance of working-class Chinese at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration to the country. Owing to a new generation of scholars, her work was rediscovered in the 1980s, and she’s now considered a pioneer in Asian American literature.

Winnifred Eaton, Also Known As Onoto Watanna

Edith’s younger sister Winnifred followed in her footsteps, leaving home at seventeen to take a job as a stenographer for a Canadian newspaper in Kingston, Jamaica. She remained there for a year, then moved Chicago, where for a time she worked as a typist while continuing to write short stories. She began publishing in the Saturday Evening Post as well as by other popular periodicals. She moved from this to writing novels, passing herself off as Japanese American under the name of Onoto Watanna (which sounds Japanese but is not).

Winnifred Eaton

Winnifred started writing around 1898, but it was when she moved to New York City with the manuscript of her second book, A Japanese Nightingale (1901), that her career really took off. The novel proved extremely successful. It was translated into several languages and eventually adapted both as a Broadway play and then, in 1918, as a film. Her novel Tama (1910) was also a runaway bestseller and her novel Me, A Remembrance, a thinly disguised memoir, told a titillating tale of a woman’s infidelities.

A massive success as a novelist, Winnifred also worked as a screenwriter, title writer, literary advisor, and scenario editor for Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer between 1921 and 1930, and wrote a number of fascinating articles on both the profession of the Hollywood screenwriter and the Asian-American experience.

Her decision to write under a Japanese pseudonym was motivated in part by the need to shield herself from the fervent anti-Chinese sentiments of the time. As Onoto Watanna, Eaton played into the popular late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century strand of orientalism known as Japonisme, which permeated American and European arts, design, fashion, film, and literature. She was progressive for her time, however; her romances featured interracial relationships, which were not only taboo but, in many countries, also a crime.

Winnifred Eaton
Winnifred as Onoto Watanna

Winnifred’s appropriation of Japanese culture has led some to characterize her as the “bad” Eaton sister and Edith as the “good” Eaton sister. But like any good story, this one’s not so simple. Both sisters could have chosen to pass as white, but they didn’t. More to the point, in different ways, they added complexity and nuance to what had been demeaning stereotypes about Asian Americans during the age of the “Yellow Peril.”

The Eaton Sisters and The Bohemians

In Edith Eaton’s memoir, Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian, she writes about how, as a journalist in San Francisco, it was her job to solicit newspaper subscriptions from Chinatown residents. Some members of the community mistook her for white and regarded her with suspicion, and some simply didn’t believe that she was Chinese. Once she gets to know these members of the community better, many welcomed her, but she never felt completely accepted.

I was fascinated by Edith’s stories about San Francisco. Even though she lived in the city some years before the fictional Caroline Lee, she offered a unique point of reference as I was fleshing out Caroline’s character.

Edith also recounted stories about two multiracial Chinese American women she met. One of them hid her ethnicity from her husband but was treated with acceptance once she told him. The other disliked her fiancé from the beginning and only agreed to marry him after constant pestering, but she finally left him after he became uncomfortable with her association with other Chinese people and asked her to pretend she was Japanese.

These women were foils for Edith and Winnifred themselves, women with no easy answer to the questions “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” Women like Caroline. Looking at their lives side by side made it clear that there was no one way for a woman to be mixed-race or Chinese American—not then, much less now. For them, as for Caroline, what you saw was sometimes an act, sometimes a shield, and always some version of the truth.

If you want to learn more about the Eaton sisters, I recommend Becoming Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton. Edith Eaton’s Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian is available in full here.