Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America presents an excellent introduction to an immigrant community that many Americans still consider foreign, despite the Chinese presence in the United States for more than a century and a half. The book focuses on the three major waves of Chinese immigration: the laborers who came during the era of the California gold rush and the building of the first transcontinental railroad, the refugees from Chinese Communism after 1949, and the diverse immigrants who came in the last decades of the twentieth century.
In doing her research, Chang discovered a great deal of continuity among the experiences of these immigrants of different periods. For instance, their history has always been a “push-pull story,” in which their dual motivation has been to escape bad conditions and to seek new opportunities. Chang argues that the Chinese “brought distinctive cultural traits to America—such as reverence for education, hard work, thriftiness, entrepreneurship, and family loyalty—which helped many achieve rapid success in their adopted country.”
Although many good books about the Chinese American experience have already been published, Chang’s account is the most interesting and comprehensive of the general surveys available at this time. To her credit, she does not claim to have invented a new historical field. In seventy pages of references to sources, she makes it clear that she has been able to take advantage of a large and growing literature. Her documentation frequently refers to the general works of Roger Daniels, Lynn Pan, Jack Chen, Ronald Takaki, Betty Lee Sung, and others. Chang’s notes also include numerous references to more specialized monographs, such as Paul Siu’s study of Chinese laundrymen and Judy Yung’s social history of Chinese women. In addition, Chang has done an impressive amount of original research in archival collections, newspaper stories, court transcripts, census data, autobiographies, and oral interviews. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, moreover, she makes frequent references to the experiences of her own family.
Chang observes that Caucasian Americans have viewed Chinese people as exotic and even mysterious. This was true in the case of the first recorded Chinese woman to enter the United States, Afong Moy, who went to New York City in 1834 as part of a cultural exposition. Audiences were fascinated by her small bound feet and the way she ate with chopsticks. Shortly thereafter, the conjoined “Siamese” twins Chang and Eng Bunker, sons of an ethnic Chinese fisherman, reinforced the popular image of Asians as strange and even bizarre. After making a fortune by displaying their deformity, they operated a plantation with more than thirty black slaves in North Carolina.
In the era of California’s post-1849 gold rush, more than 100,000 laborers came to the United States hoping to make a fortune at “Gold Mountain.” While a small minority of lucky immigrants struck it rich, most of them found employment as unskilled workers or else they operated labor-intensive businesses like restaurants and laundries. In the 1860’s, when several thousand Chinese helped build the transcontinental railroad, they impressed almost everyone with their willingness to work energetically six days a week, from sunrise to sunset. White laborers frequently complained that Chinese competition depressed wages and forced everyone to work harder. With less pay than other workers, Chinese laborers performed some of the most demanding and dangerous of jobs. Only the Chinese were willing to pour nitroglycerin into holes drilled in granite. In the Cape Horn gorge near Colfax, California, they exploded dynamite while suspended by ropes on the sides of steep mountain cliffs. Numerous laborers died in accidental explosions, but the Central Pacific Railroad Corporation did not keep a record of the number.
The Chinese immigrants of the nineteenth century had to face extreme forms of prejudice. Like other persons of non-European ancestry, they were not eligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens until the second half of the twentieth century. In 1853, the conviction of murderer of Ling Sing was overturned on the grounds that the testimony of Chinese witnesses was not permitted in California courts. Because the law excluded persons of African and Indian descent, the judges reasoned that the purpose of the exclusion was to protect white citizens from “the corrupting influences of degrading castes.” In the 1860’s California segregated Asians and other non-Europeans from its public school system, and from 1871 to 1882 Chinese children were even denied a state-funded education.
Chang emphasizes that the Chinese became scapegoats whenever unemployment became a widespread problem. In 1871 a race riot in Los Angeles resulted in the deaths of about two dozen Chinese. An Irish immigrant, Denis Kearny,...
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