Monthly Archives: March 2009


As I mentioned on Friday there are two options for a final project in VIAL. The first of these would simply be another paper with the same general requirements as the last. The second would be a final exam of two parts, a (cumulative) identification section and an in-class essay focused on readings we’ve completed since the first paper. A week in advance of the test day I would hand out two prompts, one of which would be the basis of your essay. A fairly straightforward arrangement. Indicate your preference for either the paper or the final exam by commenting to this post. In a week or so I’ll tally the results.

Breaking for Spring

Odds are we won’t finish China Men in 50 minutes tomorrow. We’ll likely need to spend two days the week after Spring Break on that text. Then it’s a quick dip into Mary Crow Dog’s memoir, Lakota Woman. Over the next week, then, finish Kingston’s book (which we were already supposed to have done anyway) AND complete Lakota Woman. This will put us in a good position to think about Native America.


Nation and nativism

One thing we need to remember when we think about Chinese America is the fact that many of the first immigrants did not even consider themselves to be Chinese. Life in China was structured by the village, the family, perhaps even the province, but there was no developed sense of national identity of the sort that you and I take for granted. Ironically, prejudice against these immigrants in the form of discriminatory laws and brute force was one of the forces that caused them to coalesce as a single group. For Euro-Americans, the Chinese were all one and accordingly whites made no distinction in terms of dialect or political antagonisms specific to China.  

In a more general way, that situation might encourage us to entertain the question of what, exactly, a nation is. Nations and states are not identical. Consider Kurdistan or Palestine, two nations without formal (or in the case of the latter, effective) state structures. As practical institutions nations give rise to nationalisms and frequently– as was the case both before and after the Exclusion Era in the United States– nativism

I’ve been watching documentaries on Chinese American history. Most recently Becoming American: The Chinese Experience. See what you think of the following excerpt from that film:

MOYERS (voice over): Under assault, the huiguan leaders set aside their rivalries to form a united group, the Chinese Six Companies. In the long journey of becoming American, one of the first steps … was to become Chinese.

WANG GUNGWU: To these people at that time there’s no such concept. The basic idea is that I’m from Guangdong, I’m from the Pearl River Delta and you’re a Hakka — they know who is who and they speak different languages, they don’t understand, mutually unintelligible. But once you’re treated as Chinese … then they are Chinese!MOYERS: The California mines had become treacherous places for the Chinese. They were learning to compete head to head with whites was to risk one’s life.

GELING YAN (translated from Mandarin): So basically they were already kind of afraid. So whatever they encountered they just endured with all their might – “If I endured this maybe it will pass; and I try to keep a low profile, make myself low-key, as if I didn’t exist.” Only doing their work, never daring to cause trouble.

MOYERS: Whites had given them a generic name: ‘John Chinaman,’ they’d be called, at work or on the street. They knew better than to argue, and they had more pressing concerns: their families were counting on them.

CHARLIE CHIN: They’re pushed into other occupations: starting a garden to grow fresh vegetables and then realizing that you could also sell these vegetables to non-Chinese. Chinese labor was brought in to clear land. They began the process of digging irrigation ditches and channels to drain the water out. They become fishermen. They notice immediately the abundance of sea life in the coastline, shellfish, squids, octopus, all kinds of things which are delicacies in China which by and large European Americans ignore. They would begin drying it, salting it, sending it back to China. There were no women here, and men are willing to pay money for somebody who can cook food or wash clothes. Men would begin crude restaurants, making a huge batch of what we call chow, stir fried vegetables and meat. You stepped up to a place, usually outdoors, and somebody came along, gave you a mound of rice, put chow on top of it. And this was a quick and fast way for people to fill themselves.

MOYERS: Triangular yellow flags began appearing in San Francisco – the sign for a Chinese restaurant,a place to get abalone and shrimp, tamarind and ginger. “The Chinese carry off the [prize],” marveled one travel writer. ”They anticipate your wants, and secure your patronage.”

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: This was the kind of work that a Chinaman could get at that time. They did women’s work. A lot of them were nannies, and they had restaurants, and cooking, and they did the laundry. 

MOYERS: In the women-poor West, there this was one sure supply of jobs: domestic help. It was work white men wouldn’t take, so the openings were plentiful for new arrivals like Huie Kin.

SUE BELL (great-granddaughter of Huie Kin): I think it was the only work that my great, great grandfather could sort of find as a Chinese immigrant. And I think there were a lot of other Chinese immigrants who were doing this sort of domestic work.

KEVIN STARR: It’s very common for upper class Californians not just to have Chinese on their staffs, but to have Chinese living with them, becoming really part of the family – albeit in a feudal relationship of servant and master, master and retainer. Nevertheless, a close intimate relationship.

MOYERS: In his old village, Huie Kin had been a farm boy — he and his father and the  livestock, all sleeping in the same room. Only fifteen and still wearing his queue – the traditional Chinese pigtail – Huie Kin found himself in a new world.

[Words of] HUIE KIN: The Gardiners had a big house on Telegraph Avenue and Twentieth Street, with a beautiful lawn and big, shady trees. Mrs. Gardiner taught me to read and write, and I learned much also by listening in when she gave lessons to her children. It was here that my American education began…

KEVIN STARR: I think that relationship is very profound. between upper class Californians who could bring the Chinese into their families, It works as a kind of underground current against the anti-Chinese agitation that’s going on in the larger society. It’s an assimilation, literally through nurture, through family life – it’s assimilation of two races to each other. But it’s in truncated form, unacknowledged, subliminal.

MOYERS: They had found shelter, steady wages, even some human affection – but at a high price. Over time, the image of the Chinese as servants – slave-like and submissive — would come back to haunt them. 

SHAWN WONG: The more that Chinese went into that profession; the more that visual image was embedded in the American mind – the stereotype began to grow and to be reconfirmed and reconfirmed over and over….

Mapping the Asian Diaspora: Take One

Americans, it has been said ad nauseam, don’t know much geography. Even further, the geographical knowledge they have managed to amass generally comes from the wars they fight. On the other hand this observation might be too optimistic. Want to prove it? Go here and take the quiz.

Let’s attempt to conceive of Chinese immigration to the United States and the development of Chinese American culture as part of a larger historical and geographical process: the Asian diaspora. We’ll need new ways of visualizing that phenomenon. To begin, consider our assumptions about the way the world looks. Below is a Mercator map, the most common representation of the world, one found in classrooms throughout the United States:


Now here’s a Peters projection map.

Followed by a map of the Pacific Rim:


and a map of China:




Here are the reading assignments for the coming weeks. Ideally, students simply read the book we’re working with as soon as they can. Baseline expectations are as follows:

Week of Mar. 9-13

Mon: Look at this chronology of Asians in America

while not exhaustive (no mention of Filipino “Manilamen” who settled in what is now Louisiana in the 1760s) it offers a good foundation.

Read “On Discovery” and “On Fathers” in Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men.

Read this article, An Alleged Wife.

Wed: Read “The Father from China” in China Men.

Fri: Read pp. 74-122  in CM.

Week of Mar. 16-20

M: pp. 123-162

W: pp. 163-234

F: pp. 235-308

Our goal is to complete our study of China Men and Chinese American history by Spring Break. We’ll see if we can meet that target.

I’ve added some interesting links to the blogroll, including SF’s Chinese Historical Society of America and a website for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF)