In America, A Great Wall

By Lisa See,
the author of "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan"
Tuesday, December 27, 2005


The Untold Story of America's

Oldest New Community

By Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic

New Press. 518 pp. $29.95

For about 140 years, Chinese American history was lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up. After all, we don't like to think about or acknowledge, let alone teach our children, how we have treated people of color in this country. But 25 years ago, Maxine Hong Kingston ("China Men") and Jack Chen ("The Chinese of America") lifted the veil on the subject. Their work bristled with indignation and gave readers a visceral understanding of an experience that was nearly as bad as that of African Americans. Since then, those who have written about Chinese American history remain few and far between, and fewer still have found a broad audience. (Ronald Takaki's "Strangers From a Different Shore" and Iris Chang's "The Chinese in America" are notable exceptions.) These writers have been as intrepid and persistent as the Chinese Forty-Niners, who were pushed out of the big gold fields, left to pan leavings that were reputed not to have enough gold "to fill the tooth of a bug" and still found treasure.

In "Chinese America," Peter Kwong (a Hunter College professor) and Dusanka Miscevic (a writer and translator) have chosen to tell this shocking, depressing but ultimately uplifting story by linking the history of racism and labor to the Chinese American experience. They begin with a list of accomplishments: The median family income for Chinese Americans is higher than for Caucasians; Chinese Americans complete college at twice the rate of white Americans; and Chinese Americans are over-represented at elite schools. It wasn't always so.

For many of us, the history of Chinese Americans begins and ends with their participation in the building of the transcontinental railroad. But the Chinese -- one of the nation's oldest immigrant groups -- were already here as scholars, merchants, gamblers, doctors and cooks. The first big wave of immigration came with the discovery of gold in California. By the time the railroad was completed in 1869, a pattern had been set: The Chinese were willing to work harder than their white counterparts, under worse conditions and for less pay. They couldn't testify against white men in court, own property, become naturalized citizens or marry white women. (Unlike other immigrant groups, they couldn't bring in their wives either.) The predominantly Irish laborers who headed West felt entitled to jobs the Chinese had held and set about systematically driving them out. Chinese men and boys were shot, killed and hanged in massacres and riots; they were burned out of their homes and removed from towns and settlements.

As a nation, we have obviously been conflicted and confused about race. George Washington "expressed great surprise in 1785 when told that the Chinese were not white. He had previously thought them merely 'droll in shape and appearance.' " In Louisiana, Chinese were "expressly counted as white" until the 1870 census. Beginning in the mid-19th century, as Kwong and Miscevic brilliantly outline, the U.S. government moved forward with three seemingly connected plans for the "containment" of all people of color. After the historic compromise in the presidential election of 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote by one, "the U.S. government withdrew its troops from the South and tacitly abandoned federal responsibility for enforcing civil rights for freed slaves," thereby opening the door to decades of lynchings, segregation and disenfranchisement. Native Americans were forced onto reservations, where to this day they are "plagued by poverty, low life expectancy, high infant mortality, rampant alcoholism, and suicide." Against this background, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This not only served as the culmination of years of governmentally approved anti-Chinese racism but sanctioned even more relentless harassment and punitive laws.

Much of the old abuse wouldn't have occurred if China hadn't been perceived as "the sick man of Asia." The corrupt Qing government, having lost the Opium Wars and been forced to open ports that allowed the British to flood the country with the narcotic, was seen as leading "a weak, subjugated nation." Furthermore, the Qing government "ignored overseas Chinese, who in its view had broken its laws and ethical codes by emigrating." Lowly merchants and laborers "were hardly deserving of imperial protection."

When the United States entered World War II and needed China as an ally, the exclusion acts were finally overturned and Chinese were at last allowed to become naturalized U.S. citizens. (Still, the annual quota remained a paltry 105.) When the Cold War began, Chinese Americans were again targeted, this time as possible spies and communists. Not until the Immigration and Nationality Act was amended in 1965 were Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China given a limit of 20,000 immigrants per country, in line with those from Western nations.

No one has yet written convincingly of the transition from the grimness of the past to the tremendous successes we see today. Kwong and Miscevic propose the usual theories of the rise of Chinese America: strong families, a belief in education and the post-1965 shift from "Downtown Chinese" -- mostly poor, uneducated, Cantonese-speaking laborers who had to live in urban ghettos -- to "Uptown Chinese" -- wealthy, Mandarin-speaking Chinese, who arrived already highly educated and moved into leafy ethno-burbs. Perhaps it will take another 50 years not only to understand this unprecedented transformation but also to put it in the context of China's rise as a superpower and the continuing racism in this country.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company