Chinese American Literature Book Review: The Chinese in America: A Narrative History by Iris Chang
Author Iris Chang, who wrote the "The Rape of Nanking" bestseller, seems to have a knack for finding painful or embarrassing topics that others would just as soon erase with the passage of time. Her Rape of Nanking book reminded us of an Asian holocaust that killed an estimated 350,000 Chinese, a war crime that is little known in the West, and that is still downplayed and sometimes even denied by members of the Japanese government. Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm, raised questions about the fairness of the treatment received by Tsien Hsue-Shen, a brilliant rocket scientist who was accused of espionage during the McCarthy era in a case that presaged the Wen Ho Lee case fifty years later. The Tsien case was particularly embarrassing to the US because after his deportation, Tsien went on to become the father of the Chinese missile program. With her new book, The Chinese in America, she recounts a less controversial but still painful tale: that of the Chinese Americans and their quintessential American story of search for justice and acceptance by fellow Americans.
The first Chinese that came to America were prospectors seeking their share of gold in the "Golden Mountain" of California. The Gold Rush didn't last long but the Chinese found work as farmers, laborers and other fields where employers appreciated their diligence, productivity, and, most importantly, their willingness to be paid less than their Caucasian counterparts. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad employed over 11,000 Chinese laborers, many working on the most dangerous portions of the construction effort. After the completion of the railroad, many Chinese dispersed to other parts of the country in search of work. The willingness of the Chinese to work for lower wages, however, won them open enmity from Caucasian laborers, resulting in the passage of a number of discriminatory regulations, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first act to exclude a people solely based on their national origin. This act, which barred the entry of most Chinese immigrants, was in effect until 1943, when World War II made China an ally of the US. Even then, the number of new immigrants allowed was a token number of 105! In fact, the numerical cap did not substantially increase until 1965. New waves of immigration would result from the defeat of the Nationalist government in the Chinese mainland and later on from more liberal emigration policies from the Communist regime. However, the effect of the Exclusion law can still be seen: although the first Chinese immigrants came at about the same time and the Germans and the Irish, the number of Chinese Americans today stands at only 2.3 million or less than 1% of the US population. Ms. Chang's devotes quite a few pages to describing the historical settings that launched each wave of immigrants and their mixed reception in the US. This background, of both Chinese and American history, helps ensure that all readers reach the same level of understanding but at times the information is so basic that it borders on patronizing.
The narrative is sprinkled with many first-hand accounts by immigrants and even stories gathered from the author's own family. Overall, this "eyewitness" approach is useful as it livens up the narrative and gives flesh to cold historical facts. At times, however, one wonders whether the examples cited should really be extrapolated to represent the view of a whole group. For instance, in describing the experience of Taiwanese students in the US colleges, she asserts that "American food repulsed them" and quotes the wife of a graduate student who "almost threw up when served a dessert of cored apples". But is this experience representative of all students or is it just the bias of one very picky eater? My informal poll of my Taiwanese friends and relatives would seem to indicate the latter. Most first-generations Chinese Americans I know find American fare easy to like even though they may still prefer to eat food they have grown up with. In fact, my sister-in-law gained 20 pounds in her first year in a US college because she just loved the food s much. In another, more important instance, the author asserts that many Taiwanese employees are afraid to challenge authority because they grew up during the so-called "White Terror" of 1950s Taiwan, a repressive period of Kuomintang rule on the island. This seems to be an unsubstantiated assertion considering that the very same trait can be seen on non-Taiwanese Chinese and even Japanese workers. In this instance, isn't it more likely that the Confucian social and educational system tends to discourage open discord? Even today, students in Chinese schools are expected to listen passively rather than ask questions or even challenge the instructor as is done in American schools. With passages like these, one wishes that the book, subtitled "A Narrative History", had relied less on narrative and provided more analysis and statistical data to prove its less conventional assertions.
The history of the early Chinese immigrants and their bachelor societies has already been well-documented in many books. "The Chinese in America" is one of the few that actually tries to bring the story to the present time. This is valuable because the story of the Chinese Americans is still unfolding. While most early immigrants were unskilled laborers from Guangdong province, the 1950s-1980s saw mainly students and professionals from Taiwan, many still fearing a Communist takeover of the island. In the 1990s the immigrant demographics would change again. This time the immigrants would come mainly from the Chinese mainland both as legal immigrants from the professional ranks as well as illegal immigrants traveling under insufferable conditions. Official discrimination has been outlawed but subtle discrimination in the form of "glass ceilings" and the public perception of Chinese Americans as perpetual foreigners persist. In spite of the success of most Chinese Americans in joining the middle class (their median income actually exceeding that of white Americans) and the success of many notable Chinese Americans in their chosen fields, there are serious questions about their future. For every Jerry Yang, I. M. Pei, and Michelle Kwan, whose successes are embraced by all, we need to remember victims like Vincent Chin, whose killers got away with a $3,750 fine and never spent a day in jail, or Wen Ho Lee, who was made a sacrificial lamb by the Clinton administration when it came under attack for accepting illegal campaign contributions. In a survey commissioned by the Committee of 100, it was found that Americans were less likely to vote for an Asian American for president than for any other major ethnic group. Facts like this should serve as a wake up call for Chinese Americans of the need to be more involved in the American political system and to increase their awareness of the long road traveled by their predecessors. Reading this book would be a good start in that direction. In addition to the major historical movements, Ms. Chang also uncovers several interesting footnotes of history such as the existence of Chinese communities in the Deep South, Chinese-Irish marriages in the 19th century, and the "astronaut" father and "parachute" children phenomena of the present day, where parents and children live and commute from opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean. This book is an easy read as it was obviously targeted at the lay reader rather than the history buff.
- Famous Chinese Americans. The web's most comprehensive list of notable Chinese Americans, including mini-biography for each.
- Becoming American: The Chinese American Experience. An excellent PBS special hosted by respected journalist Bill Moyers.