During the turn of the 20th century, Asian immigration was perceived as a threat to whites in North America. Chinese were seen as invasive, culminating into Yellow Peril hysteria. In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning Chinese immigration, within a few years after the first recorded use of chink. The dehumanizing use of the word is argued by one author to be a racist justifier for the passage of the Exclusion Act.
However, labor shortage on the west coast still required Chinese and other Asian laborers. Alaskan fish canneries were so short on workers, appeals to Congress to amend the Exclusion Act went forward. The Iron Chink, an early 1900s fish preparation machine, was marketed during the shortage as a mechanical means and replacement (hence the name) to keep Chinese population low, utilizing anti-Asian fears as selling point to the product. The name of the product was bold by modern standards, and symbolic of anti-Asian racism during the era. Usage of the word continued, such as with the story "The Chink and the Child" by Thomas Burke, later adapted to film by D.W. Griffith. Griffith altered the story to be more racially sensitive and renamed it to Broken Blossoms.
Although chink originally referred only to those of Chinese descent, the meaning expanded sometime in the 1940s to include other people of East Asian descent. During the Vietnam War, the word was frequently used to refer to Vietnamese soldiers, with numerous examples of news reports attesting to this. In addition, literature and film about the Vietnam war, also contain examples of this usage of chink, including the 1986 film Platoon and the 1970s play (and later film) Sticks and Bones.
Racially motivated violence and harassment has disturbed Asian communities and families, often performed in conjunction with slurs such as chink and at the expense of Asian youth. Asian American community members believe chink and other slurs are not taken seriously enough by public officials. In 2004, Bang Mai, a Vietnamese teenager residing in Boston, was stabbed and killed after a confrontation where he and other Asian youths were called chinks. The incident was believed to have been built up over a series of incidents involving harassment between youths. Kenneth Chu has been used as an example of the seriousness of the slur, when he was found murdered with the word chink scratched into his car.
Similar to the controversial reclamation of the word nigger, the word chink has been used in a positive manner. When targets of the slur use it in positive light, they are attempting to make the word less offensive or turn it towards their favor.
Wang Lee Hom, a Taiwanese American musician, named his Asian hip-hop fusion genre chinked-out in order to put positive light on the word. Eventually Wang hopes the word will become "cool". Punk rock band The Chinkees, led by Mike Park, a Korean American, was named so to point out that current day racism against Asian Americans still exists. Bay Area based Hip-Hop artist Chinky I, a Japanese and Filipino American uses the moniker to bring a positive light to the term which in Hip-Hop is used to describe some one as being high "chinky eye". "If more people use the term when referencing my music than I feel like I am doing the right thing. I'm proud to be Chinky". Chink-O-Rama, a New York City play in the vein of In Living Color, similarly uses chink and other epithets throughout the show to "disempower" the words through parody, humor, and satirical analysis. Kate Rigg, co-creator of the show, used the term in the title because racists assume "that all Asian people are/look the same," therefore having the single slur representing all Asians. David Jung, co-creator and actor in Chink-O-Rama, created his character MC Chink Daddy, shortened to C-Diddy, as a parody of Asian stereotypes. He competed in the 2003 Air Guitar Championships, appearing on talk shows and news stations after his world victory.
Sarah Silverman appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 2001, stirring up controversy when the word chink was used without the usual bleep appearing over ethnic slurs on network television. The controversy led Asian activist and community leader Guy Aoki to appear on the talk show Politically Incorrect along with Sarah Silverman. Guy Aoki alleged that Silverman did not believe the term offensive.
A Philadelphia eatery, Chink's Steak, created controversy, appearing in Philadelphia Daily News and other newspapers. The restaurant was asked by Asian community groups to change the name or even spelling, which the current owner outright refused. The restaurant was named after the original Caucasian owner's nickname, "Chink", derived from the ethnic slur due to his "slanty eyes".
During early 2000, University of California, Davis experienced a string of racial incidents and crimes between Asian and Caucasian students, mostly among fraternities. Several incidents included chink and other racial epithets being shouted among groups, including the slurs being used during a robbery and assault on an Asian fraternity by 15 Caucasian males. The incidents motivated a school-wide review and protest to get professional conflict resolution and "culturally sensitive" mediators.
The American band The Bloodhound Gang performed a song on their album One Fierce Beer Coaster called Yellow Fever, describing a sexual relationship with an Asian woman, that was highly controversial. The chorus of the song goes "Chinky chinky bang bang, I love you/Chinky chinky bang bang, I know you love me too." One verse explained that dental floss would be sufficiently wide enough to blindfold the Asian woman for sexual purposes.
The 1969 top 3 hit single for Blue Mink, Melting Pot, which talks of how the world would be happier if everybody was coffee-coloured, sings "Take a pinch of white man, Wrap him up in black skin. [...] Mixed with yellow Chinkees. You know you lump it all together And you got a recipe for a get along scene Oh what a beautiful dream If It could only come true". The lyric was also included on the 2003 reissue of 1983 multi-platinum Culture Club album Colour by Numbers, which included a cover of the song as a bonus track. The 1994 Boyzone album, A Different Beat, omitted the lyric however.
In 1999, an exam given to students in Scotland was criticized for containing a passage that students were told to interpret containing the word chinky. This exam was taken by students all over Scotland, and Chinese groups expressed offence at the use of this passage. The examinations body apologized, calling the passage's inclusion "an error of judgement.
The musical Cats originally contained the lyric, "with a frightful burst of fireworks, the Chinks, they swarmed aboard!", but in recent times, all productions of the show revised the lyrics to, "with a frightful burst of fireworks, the Siamese swarmed aboard!"