California-based historian Chang (The Rape of Nanking, 1997, etc.) searches out common themes in the Chinese immigrant experience over time.
“America is a place with gold floors, diamond windows, tall buildings, and seven-foot-tall whites with red moustaches,” recalls a Chinese immigrant who came to the US in 1979, sounding very much like his compatriots who arrived in America 13 decades before. They too undertook the dangerous business of relocating to a new land only to discover that racist policies were often the rule and neighbors tended to suspect that the newcomers’ loyalties lay elsewhere. Also unchanging over 150 years, however, were the harsh realities at home that prompted the Chinese to what they called “Gold Mountain” in the first place. The Chinese did not arrive in a single wave, writes Chang; although more than 100,000 of them flocked to work in the goldfields during the California rush of 1849, in general they have come (and gone) at a fairly constant rate throughout the last two centuries, with the occasional surge caused by events such as the Communist takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. As with most other immigrant groups, the children and grandchildren of the newcomers readily enter the cultural mainstream. Unlike many immigrant groups, however, the Chinese have long been singled out, stereotyped, and too often attacked. Drawing on interviews and a wealth of documentary material, Chang brings the immigrant experience into the present, writing effectively of the “three pressures” now facing American-born Chinese: “the pressure to excel, the pressure to become white, and the pressure to embrace their ethnic heritage,” all the while contending with a dominant society many of whose members mistrust and fear them.
Though it lacks the gravity and grace of Lynn Pan’s Sons of the Yellow Emperor (1994), which covers much of the same ground, this is a solid addition in a far-from-exhausted field.