This article provides several historical facts I was unaware of, including the forced immigration of a group of Southeast Asian sailors to America in the 1500’s. Chinese and Korean serfs were imported to the Americas in the 17th and 18th century to work on the plantations in conditions best described as de facto slavery in the West Indies, and in America, as in fact – due to famine and war in their home countries, they were cheaper than buying slaves. Many of those brought here stayed, after escaping their “indenture”…That is, if they survived in an environment where there were fatality rates as high as 20%.
1928, an Indian immigrant named Vaishno Das Bagai rented a room in San Jose, turned on the gas, and ended his life. He was thirty-seven. He had come to San Francisco thirteen years earlier with his wife and two children, “dreaming and hoping to make this land my own.” A dapper man, he learned English, wore three-piece suits, became a naturalized citizen, and opened a general store and import business on Fillmore Street, in San Francisco. But when Bagai tried to move his family into a home in Berkeley, the neighbors locked up the house, and the Bagais had to turn their luggage trucks back. Then, in 1923, Bagai found himself snared by anti-Asian laws: the Supreme Court ruled that South Asians, because they were not white, could not become naturalized citizens of the United States. Bagai was stripped of his status. Under the California Alien Land Law, of 1913—a piece of racist legislation designed to deter Asians from encroaching on white businesses and farms—losing that status also meant losing his property and his business. The next blow came when he tried to visit India. The United States government advised him to apply for a British passport.
According to Erika Lee’s “The Making of Asian America,” published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act, signed into law on October 3, 1965, this swarm of circumstances undid Bagai. In the room in San Jose, he left a suicide note addressed, in an act of protest, to the San Francisco Examiner. The paper published it under the headline “Here’s Letter to the World from Suicide.” “What have I made of myself and my children?” Bagai wrote. “We cannot exercise our rights. Humility and insults, who is responsible for all this? Me and the American government. Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and bridges burnt behind.”
Bagai could have been speaking for the mass of Asian-Americans—Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Hmong, and Filipinos—who escaped colonialism or economic hardship at home only to encounter a country rancid with racism. Racism, as Lee shows, was the unifying factor in the Asian-American experience, bringing together twenty-three distinct immigrant groups, from very different parts of the world. It determined the jobs that Asians were able to acquire, the sizes of their families, and their self-esteem in America. If Asian America exists, it is because of systemic racism.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump climbed a stage and crassly mimicked a Japanese (or was it a Chinese?) accent, in supposed admiration of the old stereotype that the Japanese are soulless, rapacious businessmen. This was just after Jeb Bush defended his use of the term “anchor babies” by saying that it was “more related to Asian people” than to Latinos. In September, the F.B.I. finally dropped all charges against Dr. Xi Xiaoxing, a Chinese-American physicist at Temple University arrested, in May, for passing on sensitive superconductor technology to China. The F.B.I. had claimed it had blueprints of the technology, but when independent experts examined the blueprints, they found that they weren’t for the device in question. “I don’t expect them to understand everything I do,” Xi told the Times. “But the fact that they don’t consult with experts and then charge me? Put my family through all this? Damage my reputation? They shouldn’t do this. This is not a joke. This is not a game.”
These are just a few recent stories, of course, but they stand in for many others. Asian-Americans are still regarded as “other” by many of their fellow-citizens. And yet one finds among some Asian-Americans a reluctance to call out racist acts, in part because of their supposed privilege in comparison with other minority groups. Meanwhile, much of the history of Asians in America, a history that now spans nearly half a millennium, has been forgotten.
The first Asians to come to North America, Lee writes, were Filipino sailors. They came aboard Spanish ships in the late fifteen-hundreds, and were subjected to such a torrent of vermin and filth on these vessels that half died en route; when they got to colonial Mexico, many refused to cross the Pacific again. They settled in Acapulco and married local women. Asian America began in desperation.
Many of the immigrants in the seventeen-hundreds and eighteen-hundreds came from lands sucked dry by colonialism, such as the Guangdong province, in China, reeling from drought and famine after the Opium Wars. Lured by contractors and agents, Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Japanese men travelled across the globe to toil on sugar and tobacco plantations in the British West Indies, Hawaii, and the Deep South as indentured laborers or “coolies,” working ten hours a day, six days a week, for five or more years before gaining freedom. (Some Asian women were hired as indentured servants, too, mostly in an attempt to pacify the men.) When the men gained their freedom, though, they often chose not to return to their homes—either, Lee writes, out of shame (their earnings didn’t match their boasts to people back home) or because they had married locals during their lonely sojourns and couldn’t take them back. Lee cites a few of their melancholic letters to family members, but one wishes she had gone deeper into the psychology of exile: many immigrants subsist on a diet of denial, believing, sometimes until their deaths, that they will go back.
From the initial ports of entry, Asians, particularly the Chinese and Filipinos, radiated outward, so that, in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, there was a Filipino fishing village in Louisiana and a Chinatown in Havana, as well as active Chinese communities along much of the West Coast. Lee describes life and labor in these communities well, explaining, for instance, why Chinese immigrants got into the laundry business during the Gold Rush. (At the time, it was cheaper for someone living in San Francisco to have clothes washed in Honolulu than to get them laundered in the city. Chinese immigrants seized the opportunity that provided.) Lee is particularly acute on the racism these immigrants endured. Chinese were called, at various times, “rats,” “beasts,” and “swine.” The president of the American Federation of Labor said that the presence of the Chinese in America was a matter of “Meat vs. Rice—American Manhood vs Asiatic Coolieism.” Kaiser Wilhelm woke from a nightmare in 1895 and commissioned a hideous painting showing the archangel Michael beset by heathen hordes from the East—the famed “yellow peril.” When more Chinese started coming after the Gold Rush, employed on large projects like the Pacific Railroad, anti-Chinese sentiment became shrill. In 1882, on the basis that Chinese workers undercut wages, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning low-skilled and family immigration, and making the Chinese, in Lee’s words, “the first illegal immigrants.” (As Jiayang Fan noted in a recent piece for this magazine, “The act, which wasn’t repealed until 1943, remains the only federal law ever to exclude a group of people by nationality.”) Special agents known as “Chinese catchers” appeared on the border with Mexico, and the Secretary of Labor despaired that “not even a Chinese wall” along the border would stop Chinese immigration. In 1871, in the largest mass lynching in American history, seventeen Chinese men were murdered by a mob of five hundred, in Los Angeles…Read the Rest Here…