The Worldwide Effort to Bar Chinese Immigration

Review of The Gold Rushes and Global Politics:

In his classic treatise on American pauperdom, “How the Other Half Lives” (1890), Jacob A. Riis, a Danish carpenter turned journalist and photographer, opines, “The Chinese are in no sense a desirable element of the population,” and “they serve no useful purpose here.” Ascribing his own failure in penetrating the inner soul of New York’s Chinatown to proverbial Oriental inscrutability, Riis asserts that each Chinese in America, unlike European immigrants, is “a homeless stranger among us.”

In hindsight, these racist statements from a progressive social reformer may sound shocking, but as Mae Ngai shows in her meticulously researched book, “The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics,” views like Riis’s actually represented the prevailing sentiment toward Chinese, not just in the United States but throughout the Anglophone world in the 19th century. Tracking the migration of Chinese to California, Australia and South Africa, Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia University, locates the beginnings of Chinese communities in those far-flung gold-producing regions, where they faced marginalization, violence and exclusion from self-described “white men’s countries.”

The so-called Chinese Question (at the time thorny social issues were called questions: the Negro Question, the Jewish Question, the Woman Question and so on) boiled down to this: Are the Chinese a racial threat to white, Anglo-American countries, and should Chinese be barred from them?

Excavating rich deposits of the past, Ngai has certainly made striking discoveries. She ties the Chinese Question to a pivotal period in the 19th century that saw the ascendence of British and American financial power spurred by gold production, colonial dispossession and capitalist exploitation. Born out of an alchemy of race and money, the history of the Chinese communities in the West, Ngai cogently argues, were not extraneous to the emergent global capitalist economy but an integral part of it.

However, making the Chinese Question central to global politics and economics is not the most noteworthy accomplishment of Ngai’s important book. From John Bigler riding the issue of Chinese exclusion successfully to the first California governor’s office in 1852 to the role that the Chinese Question played in the landmark 1906 victory by the Liberal Party in Britain, not to mention modern politicians who routinely bash China as a vote-getting ploy, Ngai’s narrative recounts events that sound all too familiar today. The Chinese became mere pawns in a cynical political game.

Ngai not only shows that anticoolieism was foundational to Western identities of nation and empire, she also demonstrates the many ways that the Chinese communities were themselves agents of change, not slavish coolies or passive victims of abuse and discrimination. Facing violence, harassment and institutionalized inequality, they looked within their own communities — forming huiguans (associations) and tongs (secret societies) when denied justice in a courtroom, building networks to the homeland when marginalized by mainstream society, seeking alternative means of influencing local politics when denied citizenship and the right to vote. Woven into these poignant and stirring stories of communal building are Ngai’s colorful profiles of little-known individuals like Yuan Sheng, Lowe Kong Meng and Xie Zixiu — “representative men” who rose to wealth and power from their humble origins in the mining camps. She describes as well accused murderers and petty criminals who tried to defend themselves in pidgin English but did not stand “a Chinaman’s chance.”

To be sure, the narrative pace is somewhat uneven and Ngai is not always successful in keeping a balance between her dry data and her storytelling. Still, her book is a deep historical study, and a timely re-examination of the persistent Chinese Question in America and elsewhere.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: