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[HISTORY] Iris Chang Book Review: Southerners Used Chinese to Replace Slaves

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  • madchinaman
    BOOK REVIEW The Chinese immigrant story, all part of the American epic The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. Iris Chang, Viking: 448 pp., $29.95 By
    Message 1 of 1 , May 11, 2003
      BOOK REVIEW
      The Chinese immigrant story, all part of the American epic
      The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. Iris Chang, Viking: 448
      pp., $29.95
      By Anthony Day, Special to The Times
      http://www.calendarlive.com/books/cl-et-book9may09,0,5917444.story?
      coll=la%2Dheadlines%2Dbooks%2Dmanual


      =========================

      Highlight: After the Civil War, defeated Southern plantation owners,
      knowing that the Chinese had a reputation for hard work and that in
      America they had no legal rights, decided they would make perfect
      substitutes for their late-departed slaves.

      "Let the coolies come," the Southerners wrote, and by 1870, about
      2,000 did. It didn't last long. The Southern whites discovered that
      they couldn't beat the Chinese as they had their slaves, for the
      Chinese knew how to sue for their rights in the courts, and by 1915
      there were no Chinese farm workers in the South.

      And Chang also tells the story of Lue Gim Gong, a lowly immigrant
      who in the 19th century developed the orange and grapefruit named
      for him and a new apple, a cherry currant and a greenhouse peach.


      =========================

      It is a great story: With the 1849 Gold Rush, about 100,000 Chinese
      men came to what they called Gum San, "Gold Mountain," in the
      California gold fields. They stayed on, to build the western part of
      the intercontinental railroad, as Irish immigrants built the eastern
      part.

      More Chinese came. They manned the developing agricultural fields of
      California's great Central Valley. More Chinese came. They created
      the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Los Angeles and smaller cities.
      Jammed in their officially enforced ghettos, they took up the
      laundry business and introduced Canton-style food to America.
      Crimped by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they nevertheless
      endured and in their thrifty way mostly prospered.

      Despite humiliation, discrimination and, for their differences from
      those Americans already here, derision, Chinese Americans — for they
      were that now — by the time of World War II had become, sometimes to
      their surprise, less Chinese and more American. Those who visited
      China during or after the war were as horrified by the desperate
      conditions of Chinese life as the Chinese were puzzled by the
      strangeness of their visiting cousins.

      With the fall of the nationalist Chinese to the Communists in 1949,
      another great wave of Chinese emigration to the United States came
      about, this time an exodus of the educated and the prosperous. By
      now, 150 years after the first Chinese arrived in any numbers, the
      place of Chinese Americans in American life is assured. In every
      university campus and research center, the presence of Chinese and
      Chinese Americans is taken for granted; in California they are as
      unremarkable as they are commonplace.

      Iris Chang of San Jose, the author of the 1997 book "The Rape of
      Nanking," tells the story thoroughly and with confidence. Her style
      is straightforward and without grace. She remarks on the strong
      emotional content of her tale but does not supply it. That must come
      from the reader's imagination, dwelling upon the facts she presents.

      And those facts lie ready to produce what the reader can imagine:
      long years of loneliness in a strange land, for the first
      immigrants, and longer years of discrimination and uncertainty about
      identity for those who followed.

      A tenacity to succeed prevailed among these particular immigrants,
      however; even as they were uncertain of their status in the
      tumultuous new Western country to which they moved, they lived and
      struggled and built and created a place for themselves so that
      today, even if some of them feel not wholly secure, non-Chinese
      Americans without cavil consider them full partners.

      Well, almost. Competition between the United States and the People's
      Republic of China has even now created some nasty surprises, the
      worst of which was the case of the Los Alamos National Laboratory
      scientist Wen Ho Lee. Roughed up by overly exuberant reporting in
      the media, and pursued by a hot-headed Justice Department, Lee was
      virtually accused of being a spy and spent a year in harsh solitary
      confinement until a federal judge, furious at the government's
      treatment of him, found him guilty of a minor charge of mishandling
      some secret evidence. The Lee case brought Chinese Americans
      together in strong defense of their very American civil rights.

      Much of Chang's story is reasonably well-known, but she discusses
      aspects of Chinese American history that aren't. After the Civil
      War, defeated Southern plantation owners, knowing that the Chinese
      had a reputation for hard work and that in America they had no legal
      rights, decided they would make perfect substitutes for their late-
      departed slaves.

      "Let the coolies come," the Southerners wrote, and by 1870, about
      2,000 did. It didn't last long. The Southern whites discovered that
      they couldn't beat the Chinese as they had their slaves, for the
      Chinese knew how to sue for their rights in the courts, and by 1915
      there were no Chinese farm workers in the South.

      And Chang also tells the story of Lue Gim Gong, a lowly immigrant
      who in the 19th century developed the orange and grapefruit named
      for him and a new apple, a cherry currant and a greenhouse peach.

      "The Chinese in America" is replete with such stories, which our
      vital to our history. To understand who we are in the early 21st
      century one must know who we were and how we got here. Iris Chang's
      book tells one important part of the American story comprehensively.
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