Fu Manchu doesn't live here
The struggle and triumph of Chinese-Americans are an integral part of US history
In the final chapter of "The Chinese in America," Iris Chang writes, "I can only close this book with a fervent hope: that readers will recognize the story of my people - the Chinese in the United States - not as a foreign story, but as a quintessentially American one." Indeed, covering the huge expanse of almost two centuries, Chang's story offers a thought-provoking overview of how the Chinese have been an integral part of American history - that in fact, the country as we know it could not possibly exist without the participation and contributions of Americans of Chinese descent.
"There is nothing inherently alien about the Chinese-American experience," writes Chang, best known for her 1997 international bestseller, "The Rape of Nanking." "Chinese shared the same problems as all other immigrants - universal problems that recognized no borders."
Chang carefully traces the evolution of this American people through an interwoven history of both China and the United States, including written memoirs and recorded oral histories, countless interviews, and pieces from her own family's narrative.
From building railroads to the earliest rockets, from agriculture to pioneering AIDS research, Chinese-Americans have been at the core of the American infrastructure. At the same time, to celebrate Chinese-American achievement is to recognize and understand institutionalized racism.
But throughout American history, Chinese immigrants, later joined by other immigrants of Asian descent, have maintained a legacy of political activism: They upturned laws that not only excluded new Asian immigrants but those that kept whole families apart for decades, laws that robbed Asian-Americans of their basic civil rights, including testifying against murderers and other criminals who happened to be white, and laws that banned Asian immigrants from being naturalized or owning property or marrying white people.
Asian-Americans have endured other struggles, including perpetual anti-Chinese violence, from early "yellow peril" purges to dehumanization in the media, symbolized by such insulting representations as Fu Manchu to Icebox.com's animated Mr. Wong. They have survived unfounded challenges to American patriotism, like Tsien Hsue-shen, who pioneered the US space program only to be deported on false charges.
In spite of such a legacy, Chinese and other Asian-Americans have achieved vast success in virtually every field. They have also gained considerable status economically. Even now, however, writes Chang, "Despite this long legacy of contribution, many Chinese-Americans continue to be regarded as foreigners.... Accents and cultural traditions may disappear, but skin tone and the shape of one's eyes do not. These features have eased the way for some to regard ethnic Chinese as exotic and different - certainly not 'real' Americans." That sense of being perceived as foreign is not limited to the ethnic Chinese, as most Asian-Americans, regardless of how many generations their families have been American, can remember being asked, "Where are you really from?"
Chang, herself the American-born daughter of immigrant parents, developed her interest in Chinese-American history during the mid-1990s after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. Inspired by the Chinese-American leaders she met, she "feared the subject might be too broad, but I couldn't let go of the idea of exploring the history of my people."
While Chang's book might first appear basic in its history lessons, even the most knowledgeable Asian-American scholar will likely find little-known facts and challenging theories within. Chang tells how gold-rush miners - both Chinese and Caucasian - sent their laundry to Hong Kong for lack of local services, hence opening up a business opportunity for entrepreneurial Chinese to take over the "women's work" that Caucasians would not do.
She writes of "Gold Mountain families" - the families of immigrants left behind in China - who lived so well on wages sent back from the US that entire generations, especially in Toishan County, lost any working skills and lived a life of leisure devoted to pursing pleasure.
Chang also weaves little-known stories about Chinese-American communities in the deep South and their long history of intermarriage as they navigated the tensions of being neither black nor white.
A few tiny points might raise grumbles. For example, her use of the term hapa, which refers to someone half Asian and half of a different ethnicity, is problematic. Also, Chang writes that in the 1960s, Chinese-Americans in the South won "acceptance as honorary Caucasians," but two pages later she claims, "They could not earn full acceptance ... even as honorary Caucasians." But nit-picks aside, this is an exemplary achievement.
The book's publication follows the recent PBS-airing of "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience," a three-part Bill Moyers special that irked numerous Asian-American communities, not least due to its telling title. "When will we just be American? Why are we always becoming?" some Asian-Americans asked. Unlike Moyers's message, Chang's is clear: People that look like her (and me), with ancestors that originate from Asia, are indeed true Americans.
• Terry Hong is project director of the Korean-American Centennial Commemoration at the Asian Pacific American Program of the Smithsonian Institution.