(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the textbook version of American history a generation ago, Chinese Americans were virtually invisible. Indeed, as Charles McClain observes in the introduction to this invaluable study, even the scholarly works that focused on the first Chinese immigrants to the United States tended to view them as curiously passive, stoical victims of discrimination—if not invisible, still far from being seen as actors on the stage of history. Increasingly, however, as McClain notes, scholars have sought “to see the Chinese more as subjects and shapers than as objects of history.” In that vein, he argues that “the conventional wisdom concerning the Chinese and their supposed political backwardness needs to be stood on its head. . . . Far from being passive or docile in the face of official mistreatment, they reacted with indignation to it and more often than not sought redress in the courts.”

By chronicling the tenacious resistance against discrimination carried out by the Chinese and their lawyers in nineteenth century America, McClain greatly enriches our understanding of the early Chinese American community. At the same time, he situates the Chinese experience in a larger historical context. “To ignore Chinese legal initiatives,” McClain writes, “is . . . to ignore an important facet of U.S. constitutional history in general. The cases brought by the Chinese raised immensely interesting questions of constitutional and statutory interpretation. Many of them contributed significantly to the molding of American constitutional jurisprudence.”

Although a handful of Chinese had settled on the East Coast earlier in the nine-teenth century, the first substantial Chinese immigration to the United States was spurred by the Gold Rush of 1849 and was heavily concentrated in California. Almost from the beginning, the Chinese had to contend with strong opposition to their presence, manifested both by intimidation and violence and by discriminatory legislation.

McClain traces the Chinese struggle against discrimination from roughly 1850 to 1900, by which time Japanese immigration had become the focus of nativist sentiment. His study is divided into four parts. Part 1 surveys the first anti-Chinese laws in California, enacted in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and the vigorous Chinese response; this is followed by a detailed account of a number of test cases from the 1870’s. Parts 2 and 3 are devoted to the 1880’s: Part 2 deals with cases in which the Chinese sought equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, while part 3 chiefly centers on attempts by the Chinese to challenge federal exclusion laws. (The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marked the first time that entry to the United States was restricted on the basis of race or ethnicity; it was followed by a series of federal acts that further limited Chinese immigration.) Under the heading “Century’s End: Last Episodes of Sinophobia,” part 4 analyzes the case of In re Lee Sing (1890), in which the Chinese successfully challenged a San Francisco ordinance enforcing residential segregation, and an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco in 1900, as a result of which the Chinese were once again forced to fight for equal protection.

A handful of the cases McClain discusses will already be well known to students of constitutional history—most notably Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886). This case grew out of several San Francisco laundry ordinances adopted in the early 1880’s. Beginning in the 1870’s, the many Chinese-operated laundries in San Francisco had drawn the attention of nativists. Several ordinances clearly directed against...

(The entire section is 1485 words.)