The Chinese in America: A Narrative History
© 2003 Iris Chang
Like most Americans, my earliest notion of the Chinese in America is an association with the Transcontinental railroad. As it happened, their story begins before that, with the California gold rush. Poor Chinese men, having caught wind of the bonanza in California, made their way to “Gold Moutain” in hopes of making a fortune and returning to China with it. While many hit the jackpot and returned, still others made another home in America, becoming actors in its story. In The Chinese in America, Iris Chang superbly runs together three threads: a history of China, as the decline of the last empire and the resulting civil strife (including war) created a need for opportunities and safety to be found abroad; the history of the United States, lassoing in the West and needing all the railroad men, miners, and farmers it could get; and the story of the generations who traveled from one nation to the other, attempting to adjust to a new country without losing their heritage. It is an admirable story of perseverance amid bewilderment and hardship.
The earliest Chinese visitors to the United States came not to flee wicked oppression in China, but to make money on Gold Mountain and go home rich men. A few did strike it lucky and retire wealthy, but many more stayed. Although most of the Chinese who settled in the United States remained on the west coast, not all congregated in urban Chinatowns. They searched for opportunity wherever it might be found; working farms and ranches, mines and railroads, and – occasionally — even finding their way to New England and the South. There, despite racially-orientated legislation, they found tacit acceptance, safe in their ambiguous status. That changed in the 1870s, when a depression set teeth on edge and prompted unemployed laborers to blame the cheap labor flooding in from the East. The Chinese Exclusion Act followed, barring most immigration from Asia. Strict quotas were imposed, and only certain professions were entirely welcome. The Exclusion act would hold until the 1940s, when the United States and the Chinese people became allies, both targets of Japanese imperialism. (Shortly after World War 2, racial limitations on immigration were ended altogether. even as the war and those which followed generated anti-Asian prejudice) As one generation pushed the frontier by breaching the Rocky Mountains, linking the coasts and allowing agriculture to prosper in the west, another stretched it still further in aviation and software engineering. Chang doesn’t limit herself to politics and economics; a strong reliance on oral history imparts a good dose of social history, as well, like the evolution of “Chinese” food.
The Chinese-American story is not one I have any experience with — the South’s Asian population is predominately Korean and Vietnamese, at least in my neck of the woods. What little I knew came from histories of San Francisco (particularly Good Life in Hard Times, with a section on Chinese gangs). This was, then, a welcome introduction to another aspect of America’s mosaic.