Chinese migrants weather war, revolution, and discrimination in America in this sweeping historical meditation.
Aston combines third-person narrative, personal recollections, and interviews into a multifaceted look at Chinese people at home and abroad. Episodes from Chinese history provide background, starting with the 19th-century Opium Wars and other Western incursions, the nationalist revolution of 1911 and the troubled rule of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Guomindang Party, Japan’s invasion during World War II, and the 1949 victory of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party during the Chinese civil war. These upheavals, along with persistent poverty and periodic famines, sent millions of people abroad seeking better lives. The author weaves in the saga of diaspora Chinese, particularly Chinese Americans, exploring their endurance of hard labor and racial bigotry and their evasions of exclusionary American immigration laws. (Many came to the country as “paper sons,” arranging to be falsely claimed as children of Chinese American citizens.) The book also looks at the political rivalries that roiled the Chinese American community. Aston enriches the history with first-person reminiscences of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown by his two Chinese American spouses and their extended families—a colorful bunch who included a professional-gambler father-in-law who was an associate of Chinese criminal gangs and two uncles-in-law who were prominent Communist Party figures with voluminous FBI files. He also throws in recollections of his own extensive travels to Asia—as a sailor on freighters in the 1950s, as a State Department employee in the ’60s, and on his own time in 1986. Aston’s lengthy, often disjointed text goes off on many tangents, including a discussion of black-lung disease among British coal miners and the mechanics of shipboard smuggling. Fortunately, he keeps these excursions engaging with his wide-ranging curiosity, erudition, and evocative prose; for example, he observes that, in Calcutta, “files of dark, scrawny Bengali longshoremen, clad only in a scrap of dhoti around their loins and a sweat rag around their neck, unload upcountry boats” while “vultures gorge on the carcass of a cow.” Readers with a casual interest in China will enjoy browsing this book, and scholars will find a trove of information on immigrant lives.
An overstuffed but often absorbing journey through the Chinese experience.