A Chinaman's Chance (11 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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John Adams said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Think of Liu Kuo-yun as John Adams, studying war. Think of me, the grandson, doing the closest thing I can to architecture and poetry: writing books. It's a nice parallel, a cross-cultural statement of obligation, ever oriented toward making a better life for the sons. What Adams's little chronicle hides, however, is the fact that each successive generation's freedom to pursue a “higher” art or calling brings along with it a quantum of compounded, unearned advantage.

One way to interpret the story of my uncles and their migrations is to see it as a parable about meritocracy. They went where their talent was properly rewarded. But another is to see it as a parable about privilege. They went where their privilege could be leveraged. They were all immensely capable, even gifted. At the same time they grew up the sons of a general, members of the political-civic elite of their country. They started life with tremendous social and reputational capital, and with the networks and ability to tap networks, especially once they returned to Taiwan, that can be shorthanded as
. It is true that none of them squandered his
inheritance. But all of them did have one.

My own story is no different. I have worked hard all my life. I have achieved, and because of that I have been on occasion pointed to as a “model minority.” But I was born with advantages. Though I didn't grow up wealthy, there was so much I could take for granted—starting with a family history of success and skill and even some glory. You can look at me and say I am proof of the ideal of equal opportunity and meritocracy in America: talent finding reward in the open market. But that's not quite right. What you can say also is that I—like many Chinese and Asian Americans who are cited as “overachievers” so that other minorities can implicitly be branded underachievers—began my American life with a nice allotment of opportunity. And I haven't blown it.

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, in their book,
The Triple Package
, say success is mainly a matter of culture. They'd argue that I, like other Chinese Americans, have a civilizational superiority complex, some status insecurity, and an ability to defer gratification—all because of my Chinese culture—and that this is why I've achieved. But culture is a coarse and deceptive filter. If it were true that Chineseness alone conferred this “triple package” advantage, then all Chinese Americans would be thriving. That's how it may seem in the popular imagination. But it's just not true. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese Americans, and not just in urban Chinatowns, stuck in poverty or struggling to get a fair shot in life. The Chinese American poverty rate is higher than the average for Asian Americans—and higher than that of whites. Class matters. It matters profoundly. By ascribing primary importance to ethnic culture, one can easily—willfully—overlook the fact that the most powerful generator of poverty and disadvantage is poverty and disadvantage, and that wealth and advantage are similarly self-reinforcing.

The question for America is why more Americans, Chinese or otherwise, do not begin with an allotment such as I had—why access to opportunity is, indeed, narrowing. Deliverance of
nation in this century is not going to be measured by whether our GDP is greater than China's, or whether our blue-water navy is greater than theirs, but rather by the degree to which we manage to break up monopolies of opportunity in our own territory. This century's teenaged immigrants, landing on American soil, must not decide at midlife to go back from whence they came. This century's children of immigrants must not wonder at midlife whether their American Dream is a mirage. The mythology of meritocracy can make us think that our lots, good or bad, are simply what we've earned. But there is far more talent in America than is ever noticed or activated. Until that changes, none of us has truly earned a thing.


Shortly after my daughter, Olivia, was born, Nai Nai came to Boston to see her. As Olivia napped, her little rose-petal mouth puckered into a shape I recognized: it was Nai Nai's mouth, exactly. In the years since, there have been many occasions when I've wondered how my small-framed daughter has such a big, forceful voice, with such a commanding, insistent tone. Then I remember: she is her great-grandmother's great-granddaughter.

It's difficult to imagine Olivia growing up in Taiwan or China. She's just such an American kid. But it's even more difficult to imagine what Nai Nai would have been like had she grown up in America. America in the early decades of the twentieth century did not reward vigorous, savvy, strong immigrant women of color. Even if that era's legal restrictions on Chinese immigration hadn't existed, even if she could plausibly have raised six sons in, say, the Chinatown of New York or San Francisco, what would Nai Nai and her husband have been? What kind of arc of opportunity could she have imagined for her family?

Then again, China in the early decades of the twentieth century wasn't generally great for a woman like Nai Nai either. Even in her station as the wife of a senior military officer, my grandmother's full range of ability and ambition never were fully expressed. And so I am led to imagine a country where it could have been. A place where she would have found glory not through the men in her family but wholly in her own right. A nation where her dreams could come to fruition not indirectly but directly. Can you imagine such a nation? I can. My daughter lives there now.


I've always been drawn to counterfactual “what-if” history. I have two favorite works of such writing. The first is Philip Roth's novel
The Plot Against America
, in which Lindbergh beats FDR in 1932, accommodates Hitler, keeps America out of war, and ushers in a program of “friendly” forced assimilation and de-Judification of Jews in the United States. The other is Winston Churchill's little-remembered but ingenious 1930 essay, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” in which he poses as a historian from an alternate time reflecting on the South's triumph in the Civil War.

These works prompt me to wonder: What if the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had never been repealed? What if America had remained an essentially non-Chinese and non-Asian nation to this day? What if there were only a few hundred or thousand Chinese in America, instead of a few million? What would be the mindset of Americans now toward Chinese people?

Consider how Roth and Churchill each might have played with this question. Roth could expertly conjure up a fictional America sans Chinese people that in many respects would be similar to the one we know. That's what made
The Plot Against America
so chilling: how otherwise familiar and normal everyday life under a “softly” anti-Semitic Lindbergh administration seemed.

Churchill's approach, though, requires a double loop: we have to pretend to be someone (a historian from an America without Chinese people) who is trying to imagine an America
Chinese people. And this makes Churchill's method perhaps even more powerful than Roth's.

Try it. Get in the headspace of an American who has known only an America devoid of Chinese. Then, from that vantage, try to speculate about how Chinese people, had they had the chance to stay and get rooted here, might have influenced American cuisine, education, commerce, science, slang, culture. Try writing that essay as Churchill did, in the style of a detached scholar who now dares, as if it would be a radical act, to envision an America that wasn't so un-Sinicized. You could call the essay, “If Chinese Exclusion Had Ended.”

Or, better yet, “If There Were Such a Thing as Chinese Americans.”

Letter and Spirit

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

—Section 1, Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified July 9, 1868


The Empire of China acts like a threatening cloud hanging over the virgin states of the Pacific
. . . .
Her people may swarm upon us like locusts. Their coming will unhinge labor, damage industry, demoralize the country, and by claiming and receiving the ballot may upturn our system of government altogether.

—Senator La Fayette Grover, Democrat of Oregon, March 2, 1882

How absurd would be the idea of undertaking to naturalize a Chinaman? When the question would be put to him, “are you attached to the laws and Constitution of the United States” what could be his answer? Why, sir, the whole proceeding would be a farce.

—Representative Horace Page, Republican of California, March 15, 1882

The Chinaman of twenty centuries ago is unquestionably the Chinaman of today. The operations of time, of climate, of foreign conquest, of emigration have made no visible impression upon his rooted national characteristics. He is original, immovable, and inveterate in the preservation of his race distinctions. He never amalgamates.

—Representative Addison McClure, Republican of Ohio, March 21, 1882


Perhaps the most striking thing about the 1882 debate in Congress over whether to ban Chinese from the United States is this: it is honest. The members of the House and Senate who harbored racial animus did not try to hide it. They candidly declared their disgust for the Chinese. They unabashedly, even eloquently asserted that whites were superior in every respect.

The debate proceeded in two stages over several months. First both chambers considered and passed legislation to ban the further entry of any Chinese for twenty years. President Chester Arthur vetoed the act, not because it was noxious race-based legislation but because the twenty-year term of exclusion went beyond the spirit of the treaty the United States had recently renegotiated with China, which had allowed for some constraints on the immigration of Chinese laborers but hadn't contemplated a generation-long ban. After a veto override failed, Congress went back to work for a second round, debating and approving a ten-year ban. This time the president signed the bill.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the culmination of decades of anti-Chinese violence, physical and legal: riots, racist ordinances, midnight roundups fueled by white resentment of the cheap Chinese labor brought in to mine our mountains and lay our railroad tracks. The Exclusion Act marked the first time in the history of the republic that we had banned a group by race from entering our territory, let alone from ever becoming citizens.

Note that I say, “
had banned.” To which one might properly respond, “What do you mean, ‘

I often say it. We—America; Americans. We won the Second World War. We sent a man to the moon. We invented the mass middle class. But “we” cuts both ways, doesn't it? We enslaved Africans and barred them from citizenship. We betrayed, besieged, and beheaded tribe after tribe of Native Americans. We rounded up and interned Japanese neighbors. We excluded the Chinese. That is,
. We hated me. We blamed me for our troubles during the years of depression and labor unrest and social dislocation across this land.

There is so much packed into the casual “we.” Of course, that's most obvious in the first three words of the Constitution. Just who are we, “the people”? Another notable aspect of the Congressional debate over exclusion, captured in Martin Gold's comprehensive history
Forbidden Citizens
, is that each side in the debate based its appeals on fidelity to the Constitution—and in particular, on the sanctity of American citizenship. Like the Lincoln-Douglas debates—which had taken place only twenty-four crowded years earlier—this was a contest over the founding principles of the republic and the basic question of who is “we.”

Thus Senator Samuel Maxey of Texas: “The Constitution of the United States, in my judgment, never contemplated the bringing of people of all colors, climes, races, and conditions into the country and making them citizens. . . . The only people ever dreamed of to be naturalized citizens of the United States by the Framers of the Constitution or by the people of the states which ratified it were people of the Caucasian race.” And to punctuate the point: “I trust that the refuse and dregs of the countless hordes of China will never find a welcome here.”

Opponents of exclusion, like Senator George Hoar of Maine, responded that the bill at its very core was anti-American. The Constitution, he pointed out, contained provisions for uniform naturalization laws, not laws “which shall distinguish between races and between nationalities.” The Fourteenth Amendment provided for birthright citizenship, and the Fifteenth protected against abridgments of the right to vote based on race or color. The essence of the American creed, the putative teaching of the Civil War, was that any contradiction or ambiguity in the founding documents should be resolved in favor of a race-neutral, universal freedom.

Other exclusion opponents, like Oliver Platt of Connecticut, pointed out that the anti-Chinese argument was a self-fulfilling prophecy: harassment and ostracization of the Chinese had prevented their assimilation; their nonassimilation then became the pretext for more harassment and ostracization. The exclusion bill was the natural culmination of such logic: unwelcome because excludable, excludable because unwelcome. And it played into the hands of the racists of the old Confederacy, who were happy to give the Western states latitude to mistreat and ban one kind of nonwhite so that they in the South might be more at liberty to oppress another.

In the end, voices like those of John Miller, Republican of California, prevailed. Miller had been a major general in the Union Army. He had fought at Shiloh, had chased rebels across Tennessee and Arkansas. He had bled for freedom. And after the war, when he became a California lawmaker, he had wielded the law in relentless persecution of the Chinese. To Miller, excluding Chinese was entirely consistent with fighting to end slavery. The Chinese had become virtual slaves in America, he reasoned. By disposition and physiology they worked like animals and were drawn into subhuman conditions of peonage. They were “unfit for the responsibilities, duties, and privileges of American citizenship. . . . If they should be admitted to citizenship, there would be a new element introduced into the governing power of this nation, which would be the most venal, irresponsible, ignorant, and vicious of all the bad elements which have been infused into the body politic, an element disloyal to American institutions, inimical to republican liberty, scornful of American civilization, and unfit to participate in the government of others.”

That the support for exclusion was bipartisan—that men of the party of Lincoln should embrace race-hating laws so soon after the Civil War—was a measure of Reconstruction's failure. This was an era when white Northerners had tired of the cost of good intentions, had grown weary of the Freedmen's Bureau and of civil rights and the complexity of so much unfinished business; when white Southerners had sensed in this national fatigue an opportunity; when, as Du Bois put it, “Negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud.” White supremacy was to have a revival of legitimacy, by code and by custom, not only in the unreconstructed South but on the virgin Pacific Coast as well and in the grimy cities of the North.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law by President Arthur on May 6, 1882. It was made more stringent in 1884 and again in 1888. It was renewed for ten more years in 1892. It was renewed again in 1902, indefinitely.


A year after exclusion first was enacted, Denis Kearney was in New York City to generate support for his cause. His cause was race hate. An immigrant from Ireland and a rough-hewn sailor who'd settled in San Francisco, Kearney was the voice and face of the anti-Chinese movement. He'd begun his American career as hired muscle to help put down striking workers and their sympathizers, but he soon realized there was more fame to be won agitating against capitalists and the Chinese “coolie labor” they'd imported to drive down wages. An incendiary speechmaker with a rolling brogue, he held forth in an empty lot by City Hall and came to fame as “the sandlot orator.” His orations often ended in a refrain heard in riots across the West: “The Chinese Must Go!” Kearney helped found the Workingmen's Party of California in 1877 and hijacked the state's constitutional convention in 1878, filling the charter with provisions to bar Chinese from voting and from being hired by California corporations.

In his classic study
How the Irish Became White
, Noel Ignatiev described the way Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century, who began at the bottom of the East Coast urban hierarchy alongside blacks, managed to climb their way up and claim their Americanness: by showing the WASP power structure in word and deed that they, too, were willing to trample blacks. The same story, substituting yellow for black, obtained in California. The Irish made themselves insiders by leading the stigmatization of the most marginal of the outsiders. Among the beleaguered scattered settlements of Chinese in the United States, Denis Kearney was feared and reviled.

But by 1883, Kearney was already in decline as a political force. His party didn't have money or infrastructure. With exclusion already achieved, he no longer commanded attention as a demagogue. He'd traveled to New York hoping to find patrons and political allies but found few. Instead, on July 18, a hand-delivered letter arrived at his hotel from one Wong Chin Foo, publisher of a newly created newspaper called the
Chinese American
. In the letter Wong invited Kearney to engage in a public debate of “the Chinese question.” The letter pulled no punches:

I belong to the most ancient empire on this globe. You, by your own statements, belong to the most dependent and ill-treated nation of serfs ever deprived of its liberties. The flag of my country floats over the third greatest navy in the world. Yours is to be seen derisively displayed on the 17th of March in the public streets and triumphantly hoisted on an occasional gin-mill. The ambassadors and consuls of my nation rank at every court in Europe with those of Russia, Germany, England and France. Those of your race may be found cooling their heels in the lobbies of any common council in which the rum-selling interest in politics predominates. The race which I represent is centuries old in every art and science. That of which you are the spokesman apologizes for its present ignorance and mental obscurity with the plea that your learning and literature are lost in the mythical past.

Kearney, notes historian Scott Seligman, “could see no percentage in a face-off.” He dismissed the challenge. But Wong had already let the papers know about it. He soon wrote, and shared with the press, another even more provocative letter challenging Kearney to a duel, adding, with a wink, “I would give him his choice of chopsticks, Irish potatoes or Krupp guns.” Kearney again tried to swat away the irritant, telling a reporter, “The Chinese question is a dead issue, and I don't propose to spend time in discussing it now. . . . I'm not to be deterred from this work by the low blackguard vaporings of Chin Foo, Ah Coon, Kee-Yah, Hung Fat, Fi Feng or any other representative of Asia's almond-eyed lepers.”

Wong had referred to China in his first letter as “my country.” But his actions, his status, and the name of his own newspaper belied him: he was American, a Chinese American original—and, in a sense, the original Chinese American. The excellent Seligman biography of Wong,
The First Chinese American
, indicates that he was the first to use that label in print, and had used it quite intentionally, even reversing the order of the characters in the Chinese name of the paper so that it would read
Chinese American
American Chinese.
He possessed, in his feisty letters and his penchant for what today would be called “sound bites,” full command of the English language. He had a thoroughly American instinct for public controversy and publicity stunts. He had deep knowledge of the government, laws, and politics of New York, California, and the United States.

And he had American citizenship. He had been brought to the United States at fourteen by a missionary family in 1861. In 1874, he hustled his way into a court in Grand Rapids, lied about his age, bypassed a two-step paperwork process, and on that very day became one of the first Chinese immigrants to be naturalized as a US citizen. Throughout his life as a citizen, he looked his country in the eye and told it what he saw. As a polemicist and itinerant public speaker, he became renowned, initially purely as a curiosity—this Celestial who could speak and argue in American English—and then, perhaps, as some kind of harbinger, of a future few could imagine. He cut off his queue and adopted Western dress, but he published controversial broadsides against the missionaries, who, in his view, were enablers of imperialism in his native land. “Why Am I a Heathen?” he asked, in his most famous essay, denouncing Christians for all the sin and exploitation they had visited upon China in the name of the Lord. He started the Chinese Equal Rights League to seek to overturn Chinese exclusion. He wrote for
and other national periodicals. He got involved in local party politics.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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