By Jeff Burns
Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai! The Year of the Horse is here. Celebrate by reading some Chinese and Chinese-American history.
Unfortunately, the world lost author Iris Chang much too early. She was the author of two excellent books I highly recommend: The Rape of Nanking and The Chinese in America: a Narrative History. The Rape of Nanking is a disturbing but necessary account of the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s, particularly the atrocities committed in the city of Nanking. Japanese troops systematically ransacked the city and brutally murdered more than 300,000 Chinese civilians. Unbelievably, the story’s full scope was not very well known in the West until Chang’s book, and the incident is still a source of tension in Sino-Japanese relations today, with some Japanese still denying that it happened.
The Chinese in America covers the entire history of Chinese immigration to the US, beginning with the first Chinese laborers who came for the California gold rush and stayed on to work on the railroads and build communities here to the present day. She covers the whole experience, including the nativist backlash, the effects of the communist-nationalist conflict in America, and the wave of immigration that followed the Revolution.
On Gold Mountain by Lisa See focuses on the gold rush experience. In China, those who went to California were said to have “gone to Gold Mountain.” She personalizes the story by making it a family history, supported by years of research, sort of like a Chinese –American version of Roots. She succeeds in making the story universal and enthralling.
Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation by Moon-Ho Jung is not quite as entertaining since it’s more academic in tone, but it introduced me to a fascinating aspect of southern history that I had never known about. During Reconstruction, southern landowners needed labor to replace slavery; as a result, sharecropping, basically a new face of slavery, developed. Some planters came up with an innovative idea: encourage Chinese immigrants to move to the South. Many Chinese seized the opportunity and moved to the Deep South, creating a very unique situation. In the racially charged atmosphere of the Jim Crow world, these new arrivals were neither black nor white, and they found themselves suspended between the two worlds in many ways. The book is about that unusual situation and the contradictions that were highlighted by the experiment and its effects on both the Chinese and on the South itself.