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BOOK REVIEWS


 

"The Chinese in general brought distinctive cultural traits to America — such as reverence for education, hard work, thriftiness, entrepreneurship, and family loyalty — which helped many achieve rapid success in their adopted country." -- Iris Chang

Link to the the Authors Interview

Chang offers sensitive, scholarly Chinese in America

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History

By Iris Chang

Viking, 2003

Hardcover, 496 pages, $29.95

By Jeff Wenger

No serious student of America should remain ignorant of the contributions of Chinese peoples on these shores. To that end, Iris Chang has written The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. It is a very fine book.

The Chinese in America is a comprehensive narrative that recalls Paul Johnson’s History of the American People and Thomas Sowell’s inclusive works on immigration and civilizations such as Migrations and Cultures.

Though Johnson and Sowell view the world through more politically conservative eyes than Chang, she refers to Sowell’s work and draws some of the same conclusions.

She writes, "The Chinese in general brought distinctive cultural traits to America — such as reverence for education, hard work, thriftiness, entrepreneurship, and family loyalty — which helped many achieve rapid success in their adopted country. Many Chinese Americans, for example, have served an important ‘middleman minority’ role in the United States by working in occupations in which they act as intermediaries between producers and consumers. As economist Thomas Sowell has noted, middleman minorities typically arrive in their host countries with education, skills, or a set of propitious attitudes about work, such as business frugality and willingness to take risks. Some slave away in menial jobs to raise capital, then swiftly become merchants, retailers, labor contractors, and money-lenders. Their descendants usually thrive in the professions, such as medicine, law, engineering, or finance."

Chang continues: "But as with other middleman minorities, the Chinese diaspora generally found it easier to achieve economic and professional success than to acquire political power in their adopted countries. Thus the Chinese became, in the words of historian Alexander Saxton, ‘the indispensable enemy’: a people both needed and deeply feared."

Genocide?

This is an example of how the sensitivity that Chang brings to her subject matter tends toward bias. Writing in the chapter on the Exclusion Act of 1882, Chang says, "During a period of terror now known as ‘the Driving Out,’ several Chinese communities in the West were subjugated to a level of violence that approached genocide." She then relates outrageous instances when mobs of white men rampaged through Chinese enclaves. In one instance in Seattle, the mob ‘beat up several Chinese, cut off a man’s queue, pushed another down a flight of stairs, and threw another into the bay.’

Now, however terrifying for the victims, and however dastardly and craven the actions of the mob, these anecdotes don’t equate to anything approaching genocide.

Genocide is an awfully rough word to use and it ought not be devalued. Viewed through the filter of the 20th century, treatment of Native American peoples by the white establishment certainly was genocide, as was the institutional enslavement of Africans. The worst treatment of the Chinese in America, by contrast, was merely ignorant, cowardly, and hateful. Criminal acts, but not genocidal ones.

In Migrations and Cultures, Sowell looks at overseas Chinese in many other countries and concludes, "The almost universal hostility and resentment they encountered around the world make it unsupportable to claim that Eurocentric stereotypes about ‘the yellow peril’ are at the heart of this phenomenon, when Asians have reacted in very similar ways — and often more violently."

Still, Chang’s book is specifically about the experience of Chinese people in America, and that their countrymen were treated worse in Indonesia isn’t really the point, except that the word genocide is more accurate to use of the Indonesian experience than it is of the American one.

Political participation

Another contrast in viewpoints, the final one mentioned here, is found in the matter of political participation. Chang quotes David Ho, the AIDS researcher who won Time magazine’s 1996 Man of the Year award, as saying, "We (the Asian-American community) need our Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons to scream bloody murder when an injustice is carried out against our community."

Can it really be that Ho, by uttering it, and Chang, by including it in her book, are desirous of an Asian-American Al Sharpton? Really? Al Sharpton?

If, at any rate, we understand this not to be a literal conjuring of an "Al Sharpton" character, but instead to be figurative for political representation, we might consult Sowell’s work again: "Some observers have lamented the political noninvolvement of the overseas Chinese in the countries in which they settled. However, the rise of the Chinese from poverty to prosperity in many countries around the world has generally been more dramatic than that of groups such as the Irish, who were heavily involved in politics and quite successful at it. Moreover, where the Chinese were more politically active, as in Indonesia, there is little evidence that they did better than in countries where they stayed away from politics. Indeed, an argument could be made that they were treated worse in Indonesia than in most other Southeast Asian nations."

Lastly, to say that Chinese in America is biased is not to suggest that it is a hateful screed. And, anyway, it is far less biased than innumerable volumes of history that purport to be of an entire people but are really of white people and often of specific white people in the Eastern Establishment. Paul Johnson’s History of the American People hardly mentions, in over a thousand pages, immigration to America from any place but Europe.

This is why, in spite of some of the foregoing, Chinese in America can be called a very fine book. Chinese in America would have been superior if it had been more consistently balanced, but, to its credit, it is always scholarly. One may dispute some of Chang’s conclusions, but not the accuracy of the narrative. This book is invaluable for being deeper and broader on this important subject matter than anything else around.

 

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