“The past is a foreign country,” author L.P. Hartley famously wrote in his book The Go-Between. Perhaps that’s why we hold on to the postcards…
The Chinese in America by Iris Chang is a sweeping narrative history exploring the wholly unique circumstances of Chinese migration to the United States. Most notably, two general waves of Chinese migration were separated by an 80 year period of explicit exclusion.
In the 1850s and 1860s, about 60,000 – mostly young men—arrived from China; hoping to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush beginning in 1849 and then as laborers actively recruited to construct the western expanse of the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. While facing discrimination, these laborers gained a reputation for hard work, sobriety, and overall good health.
Many of these men had planned to return home after making their fortune. In China, however, the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest civil war in human history, saw tens of millions killed from 1850 to 1864. These devastating events ushered in several decades of chaos and disruption to life in China. The Chinese in America were compelled to stay.
While most remained in the West, many headed east for jobs during the Industrial Revolution, while others were welcomed on Southern plantations no longer supported by slave labor. In both cases, the Chinese were well-organized and mindful of the protections afforded by recent changes to the US Constitution; to the dismay of employers.
The brand of discrimination faced by the Chinese outside the West was tempered by their low and less-threatening numbers. Many moved to urban areas and opened up laundries, restaurants, and other businesses. With very few Chinese women, many lived their lives as lonely bachelors while others, despite laws to the contrary, inter-married with blacks and whites.
Throughout the country, the Chinese in America gathered in dozens of semi-autonomous neighborhoods known as Chinatowns. These communities were organized around benevolent associations, which helped new arrivals, provided social support, offered employment assistance, and organized recreation.
Iris Chang illustrates her epic tale with personal narratives. For instance, many of the Chinese men that arrived in New York City during this time found that, among the newly-arrived Irish immigrants, there were roughly two women for every Irish male. Despite social intolerance, a Chinese man with an Irish wife was not an uncommon sight. As Chang tells it, one young Irish bride laughed off a reporter questioning her marriage to a “Chinaman.” She explained that the Chinamen were all good ‘fellows,’ that they work hard, go to night school, and are devoted to their wives.”
Marriages such as these nurtured assimilation, as many of the children tended to blend into the white population. With few records kept distinguishing the Chinese as a unique ethnic group, there might be some Asian surprises out there for many who today think of themselves as “white.”
Others who offer no physical clues that Chinese blood runs through their veins nonetheless see themselves in a Chinese light. Lisa See, whose great-grandfather arrived in America from China in 1867 and married a Caucasian woman, has embraced her Chinese identity in a collection of books. Much of her work is historical fiction centering on Chinese and Chinese American life, while On Gold Mountain is her thoroughly researched family story. Many of the descendants of the nineteenth century wave of Chinese immigrants have similar mixed-race stories.
Despite much success, anti-Chinese sentiment among whites resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Legal immigration from China was severely curtailed for the better part of a century. One of the exceptions during the exclusion era is that those who could demonstrate that they were merchants—as opposed to laborers—were permitted into the country; along with their wives. Hence, American Born Chinese (ABC) children were often raised by families with a degree of wealth. This is the first of several policies that shaped the unique demographics of much of the modern Chinese American community.
American immigration policies were relaxed following World War II. A new wave of immigration once again attracted a specific type of immigrant.
After fleeing mainland China following the communist takeover in 1949, many nationalist Chinese fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan. In an effort to grow these two off-shore technologically-focused economies, the British government in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese, and the Chinese refugees themselves realized the social capital one could acquire through education. Children raised in this environment were held to extremely high academic standards with the goal of earning a scholarship to one of America’s elite universities. Speaking English was essential.
The result of these policies, according to Iris Chang and her own family’s story, is that these immigrants were the “most intellectually capable and scientifically directed children… my parents came to the United States on scholarships, obtained their doctoral degrees, and later became professors. And across the country, their friends—doctors, scientists, engineers, and academics—shared the same memories and experiences; a forced exile from the mainland as children, first in Taiwan and then in the United States.”
Another wave of Chinese immigrants would also be welcomed into the best of what America had to offer. In order to deal with the massive population explosion in the late 1970s, China instituted a one-child policy. In a culture that cherished sons, many daughters born during this era were put up for adoption. Since the 1990s, more than 80,000 Chinese children have been adopted by largely affluent white Americans able to afford the expensive process of adoption.
The Chinese in America have been described as the “model minority” which has become a rather ticklish label. As white America is prone to do, this stereotype has been attributed much more to culture than to the unique circumstances of Chinese migration. There is no question that the Chinese in America as a group have been immensely successful and that their traditions of family and hard work have contributed to that success.
Many questions arise, however, when we set this unique group alongside other minorities whose family stories of migration were shaped by other, often nefarious, forces. Reading Iris Chang’s delightful narrative history of The Chinese in America is a pleasant way to begin answering some of those questions.