The Chinese in America
A Narrative History
Viking: 448 pp., $29.95
It is a great story: With the 1849 Gold Rush, about 100,000 Chinese men came to what they called Gum San, “Gold Mountain,” in the California gold fields. They stayed on, to build the western part of the intercontinental railroad, as Irish immigrants built the eastern part.
More Chinese came. They manned the developing agricultural fields of California’s great Central Valley. More Chinese came. They created the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Los Angeles and smaller cities. Jammed in their officially enforced ghettos, they took up the laundry business and introduced Canton-style food to America. Crimped by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they nevertheless endured and in their thrifty way mostly prospered.
Despite humiliation, discrimination and, for their differences from those Americans already here, derision, Chinese Americans -- for they were that now -- by the time of World War II had become, sometimes to their surprise, less Chinese and more American. Those who visited China during or after the war were as horrified by the desperate conditions of Chinese life as the Chinese were puzzled by the strangeness of their visiting cousins.
With the fall of the nationalist Chinese to the Communists in 1949, another great wave of Chinese emigration to the United States came about, this time an exodus of the educated and the prosperous. By now, 150 years after the first Chinese arrived in any numbers, the place of Chinese Americans in American life is assured. In every university campus and research center, the presence of Chinese and Chinese Americans is taken for granted; in California they are as unremarkable as they are commonplace.
Iris Chang of San Jose, the author of the 1997 book “The Rape of Nanking,” tells the story thoroughly and with confidence. Her style is straightforward and without grace. She remarks on the strong emotional content of her tale but does not supply it. That must come from the reader’s imagination, dwelling upon the facts she presents.
And those facts lie ready to produce what the reader can imagine: long years of loneliness in a strange land, for the first immigrants, and longer years of discrimination and uncertainty about identity for those who followed.
A tenacity to succeed prevailed among these particular immigrants, however; even as they were uncertain of their status in the tumultuous new Western country to which they moved, they lived and struggled and built and created a place for themselves so that today, even if some of them feel not wholly secure, non-Chinese Americans without cavil consider them full partners.
Well, almost. Competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China has even now created some nasty surprises, the worst of which was the case of the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee. Roughed up by overly exuberant reporting in the media, and pursued by a hot-headed Justice Department, Lee was virtually accused of being a spy and spent a year in harsh solitary confinement until a federal judge, furious at the government’s treatment of him, found him guilty of a minor charge of mishandling some secret evidence. The Lee case brought Chinese Americans together in strong defense of their very American civil rights.
Much of Chang’s story is reasonably well-known, but she discusses aspects of Chinese American history that aren’t. After the Civil War, defeated Southern plantation owners, knowing that the Chinese had a reputation for hard work and that in America they had no legal rights, decided they would make perfect substitutes for their late-departed slaves.
“Let the coolies come,” the Southerners wrote, and by 1870, about 2,000 did. It didn’t last long. The Southern whites discovered that they couldn’t beat the Chinese as they had their slaves, for the Chinese knew how to sue for their rights in the courts, and by 1915 there were no Chinese farm workers in the South.
And Chang also tells the story of Lue Gim Gong, a lowly immigrant who in the 19th century developed the orange and grapefruit named for him and a new apple, a cherry currant and a greenhouse peach.
“The Chinese in America” is replete with such stories, which our vital to our history. To understand who we are in the early 21st century one must know who we were and how we got here. Iris Chang’s book tells one important part of the American story comprehensively.