When I received The Chinese Americans, my conditioned initial reaction was that it would probably be another poorly researched, poorly thought out and uncritical book about the history of Chinese in the U.S. To my pleasant surprise, I found the book quite good and thoroughly engaging.
Meltzer is not only a competent social historian with an impressive number of books to his name; he is also a very good writer who presents material in a way that is far from dry and boring. Instead of giving the usual chronology—i.e., the immigration, what the Chinese did first, what they did second, and so on—Meltzer begins with the only bit of knowledge most non-Chinese Americans know about this neglected history. What did the Chinese build? Of course: The Chinese built the railroads. By dealing with the obvious Meltzer draws his readers into a fascinating reconstruction of this monumental project. The reader then quickly realizes, "Gee, I didn't know that." Meltzer goes on to discuss Chinese miners, farmers, fishermen and a number of other "I-didn't-know-that" occupations.
One chapter deals with where Chinese immigrants came from by discussing the history of relations between the West and China. Meltzer displays a fair knowledge of the difficult conditions within China which prompted much immigration, and he discusses the imposition of Western imperial powers upon the weak Manchu dynasty. Throughout, China is treated with understanding and respect.
The book's most effective chapter, "Pictures in the Air," examines the very difficult problem of cultural stereotypes of Chinese and Chinese Americans. Meltzer talks about his own childhood images and misunderstandings of Chinese and he writes frankly about learning the chant, "Chink, Chink, Chinaman sitting on a rail / Along comes a white man and cuts off his tail…." He discusses how he came to realize that stereotypes distorted his understanding. Instead of moralizing about racism, the author carefully shows how stereotypes are all around us in the media, in jokes, in stories passed down for generations. This gives the reader concrete examples of racism in U.S. culture.
Two things bothered me. The first is relatively minor, but worth raising. A photograph shows a Chinese woman dressed in ornate holiday attire walking on a sidewalk. (Although it is not mentioned, the photograph was taken by Arnold Genthe in San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake.) The caption states that this woman had bound feet in "accordance to Chinese custom." First of all, the woman's feet are not bound, as evidenced by the type of shoes she is wearing and the fact that she is walking about unaided by an attendant. Secondly, Chinese custom did not dictate that all Chinese women have their feet bound…. A more significant reservation I have is Meltzer's overuse of the word Chinese. It is difficult in such condensed histories to include the names of individual Chinese people. Nevertheless, constant referrals to a monolithic Chinese people do not help the reader to identify with individuals; they also encourage blanket statements about a whole people, such as "All Chinese are hard working." I have often been guilty of this same tendency when I want to make a general point; the solution is to be specific and give examples of actual situations. In order to give names to the people, a great deal of additional historical research in the field of Asian American studies is necessary.
It isn't often that a book for young readers is as well researched as this one. Meltzer manages to combine informed historical knowledge with a great deal of sensitivity for his readers and for Chinese Americans. The end product is a book with intelligence and feeling. It should be noted that this is a state-of-the-art book: it offers some of the best current scholarship, but it also means that current scholarship is far from where it should be, and a great deal more primary, nitty-gritty research is necessary to give names to the many faces and statistics that can now only be described as "the Chinese."
John Tchen, in his review of "The Chinese Americans," in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (reprinted by permission of Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1841 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10023), Vol. 12, No. 1, 1981, p. 17.