Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Book Review - “The Chinese in America” by Iris Chang

NCM, George Koo, Posted: May 14, 2003

Iris Chang in her latest book, The Chinese in America, examines the phenomenon of an immigrant community still regarded as foreign despite having lived in America for more than 150 years. To Iris, the Chinese experience in the United States has been more of a series of repetitive cycles rather than a monotonic progression from victims of brutal abuse to becoming widely accepted as a “model minority.”

Chang chronicles early experiences that branded the Chinese. In 1877, there was Denis Kearney, a demagogue who rose to political power by fanning an anti-Chinese hysteria, accusing them of stealing the white man’s livelihood. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy began a witchhunt to look for communists under every bed and an inquiry on “who lost China” to communism. The Chinese American community especially felt the heavy siege of suspicion and glare of McCarthyism.

In 1853, the conviction of killers for the murder of Chinese immigrant Ling Sing was overturned on the grounds that the “inferior caste of people who were non-citizens,” meaning Chinese, cannot testify against whites. In 1982, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz used a baseball bat to bash Vincent Chin to death. Even though Chin was born in America, Ebens and Nitz did not spend even one night in jail.

Ling Sing’s case prompted the phrase “not a Chinaman’s chance.” After nearly 130 years, Vincent Chin’s chances fared no better.

Everett Drumwright, then U.S. consul in Hong Kong, concluded in his Foreign Service report, filed in 1955, that nearly all Chinese in America were illegal aliens capable of all sorts of dastardly deeds including spying for China.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover also subscribed to the notion that the Chinese community teemed with spies from China. Later, FBI analyst Paul Moore was to refine Hoover’s theory by suggesting that China recruited spies differently relying on “ethnic affinity” rather than the customary blandishments of cash and sex.

Moore’s testimonies before the House Select Committee headed by Congressman Christopher Cox contributed to a sensational report alleging that more than 10,000 PRC company offices in the United States are intelligence gathering stations and all Chinese in the United States regardless of citizenship status are potential spies.

Opponents of President William Clinton used the Cox Report to accuse him of losing nuclear warhead missile technology to China. In response, his administration promptly offered Dr. Wen Ho Lee as the designated sacrificial lamb, the book suggests.

Lee was thrown in solitary confinement for months on 59 charges, all but one of which were later thrown out. He pled guilty to one count in exchange for time spent in jail. One can argue that Lee’s experience was an improvement over the fate of his predecessor scapegoats that were lynched, burned or shot by periodic rampaging mobs in the late 1800’s.

The author also drew positive parallels. Yung Wing became the first Chinese to graduate from a major university (Yale in 1854) and opened the door for others. In the early 1900’s, Chan Chung Wing became the first Chinese to practice law in California. Bessie Jeong was the first Chinese American woman to graduate from Stanford and became a practicing physician.

By breaking the mold, the trailblazers paved the way for others to follow. Today, accomplished Chinese Americans occupy every profession from Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang (Nobel laureate physicists), to I.M. Pei (architect), Yo-Yo Ma (music), David Ho (medicine), Elaine Chao (government), to Gary Locke (politics), Charles Wang (software), Jerry Yang (Internet) and many more.

Of course, all Chinese Americans should read this book to truly understand how their roots in America were planted. They will be better braced for the next time they face a random invitation to “go back to where they come from”—even if this means Peoria. This book is not just for Chinese Americans but also for all newly arrived immigrants and conscientious citizens that care to appreciate the deficiencies of American democracy.

To read Iris Chang’s book is to understand that the only recourse is to stand for what is right and vigorously protect the principles that have made America a diverse nation from which its unique greatness sprang.