Iris Chang, the daughter of second-wave Chinese immigrants, has written a narrative that encompasses the entire history of one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, an epic story that spans 150 years and continues to the present day. Chang takes a fresh look at what it means to be an American and draws a complex portrait of the many accomplishments of the Chinese in their adopted country, from building the transcontinental railroad to major scientific and technological advances. A sensitive, deeply moving story of individuals whose lives have shaped and been shaped by this history, The Chinese in America is a saga of raw human tenacity and a testament to the determination of a people to forge an identity and destiny in a strange land.
I feel guilty finding interest in Iris Chang, author of this book and The Rape of Nanking, because she committed suicide, and because there is both a book and a documentary about her life (The book is Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen.). I probably should have read The Rape of Nanking instead of this, but this was available in audio at my library...
As for the book itself, in some ways it's very good and important and in some ways I felt it was only OK. The reader, Jade Wu, was kind of dull, which didn't help.
Chang put together a big history of Chinese immigration to the US from the mid-19th century railroad workers, through to today's immigration of highly educated Chinese from the People's Republic of China. She fits every stage into the context of Chinese and American history of the times. And it's entertaining in that she has such a negative, but probably accurate view of US. From her perspective the US is a xenophobic madhouse looking for cheep labor to exploit without giving up it's white male European center of power.
And what comes across is a history of racist hatred and violence against innovative hardworking Chinese. The first Chinese were looking for gold in the 1849 California gold rush, until California law basically gave whites a free pass to take over Chinese owned prospects (and there were unpunished massacres). The next phase was the Chinese labor used to build the first railroad from California, across the western deserts and mountains, across the Rocky mountains to the plains - the hardest part of the railroad. There was a lot of dying. And upon completion all these Chinese were immediately laid off. Then there is a long stretch of Chinese labor in San Francisco and other China towns, almost exclusively men, as Chinese woman simply could not immigrate, even if their spouses were in the US. So, as China collapsed, there were whole areas around Guangdong of wives supported by their US husbands. In the US the Chinese men labored hard and long to make very little money and send it to China. But in China this little bit was a lot of money and supported large families. When funding was cut for various reasons, these families starved.
US xenophobia led to the Chinese Exclusion Act - laws that cut Chinese immigration to almost zero for the first 50 years or so of the 19th century. After Mao took over all of China, almost all Chinese immigration came from Taiwan - a country ruled by it's own control-freak government. Large numbers of Taiwanese strived to come to the US or elsewhere, and their ticket out was education. They had to be the top students to have a chance. So, for a generation the US saw a pool of remarkably intelligent Chinese from Taiwan, who were raised to be quiet, obedient and industrious. The combination of xenophobia and culture clash meant that these Chinese excelled far less than whites of equivalent education....but still they excelled. The latest wave of Chinese immigration comes from the PRC, and again they are generally highly educated and have become critical parts of certain parts of the US, such as in medicine where Chinese Americans make up a huge percentage.
So now you don't need to read the book. Of course there is plenty I didn't cover. But, I was bothered by how simplistic this history was, without a lot of critical documentation, or doubt in the tone of the author. Focusing so much on the negative leaves a reader like me wondering how much of this history was an expression of frustration with US xenophobia (When the US overreacted to worries about potential Chinese spies in the defense technology groups, they chased away the best Chinese minds, including, in one case, a Nobel laureate quality scientist who was forced back to China where he helped develop China's missile technology. This was a big deal when Chang was writing). I'm not saying this all wasn't true, or that it isn't important. But I couldn't help but think there must be more to the story. And, sure, an author must limit their coverage, but they can still wave their hands at the complexities they don't cover. That kind of nuance was missing here.
So, I'm mixed on this and it was long, and the reader was dull. If the topic interests you, I think you will find value here.