“Heathen Chinese” was a popular phrase in America and Europe in the 1800s and early 1900s, as exemplified by Bret Harte’s 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” which was widely republished as “The Heathen Chinee.” Harte had actually intended the poem as satire, and indeed later described it as “the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote,” but that fact was entirely lost on his American audience.
Which is why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar, —
Which the same I am free to maintain.
Sandy Lydon’s Chinese Gold describes the harassment of a Chinese family in a fishing village near Monterey and provides another example of the use of this phrase in the year 1897, quoted from Pacific Grove Review:
A witness correctly observed that, to the onlookers, the desire of the Chinese family to eat in private “was of no consequence–they were only ‘heathen Chinese.’” (346)