Kwong's book rethinks history of Chinese Americans

By Lee Bedard
From the Northwest Asian Weekly
Nov. 26, 2005

“ Nobody comes to the United States to be assimilated. They come to make a living.”

With his sixth book, Chinese America, author Peter Kwong hopes to change the terms of the debate on the status of Chinese Americans, which he calls “America’s oldest new community.” Kwong teaches at Hunter College in New York City.

Kwong was in Seattle last week promoting his newest book, written with his wife Dusanka Miscevic, a writer and translator. Both credit the civil rights era of the 1960s for informing their political views.

A big part of the current problem, as Kwong sees it, is that Chinese Americans are stuck in a civil rights debate formed largely by the African American experience, with its large-scale protests, sit-ins and poor education of many of its underclass.

Speaking before a small audience at Elliott Bay Book Company, Kwong pointed out that most Americans do not see the crucial distinctions between “downtown” Chinese — older immigrant populations who are poorly educated, struggling with English and working in family-owned small businesses — and “uptown” Chinese.

“Uptown Chinese” live outside traditional Chinatowns (think Bellevue) and are either the children of the downtown Chinese or, increasingly likely, recent migrants from mainland China. These most fortunate recent arrivals, prepared for the global economy and probably working for firms that do business across the Pacific, are finally enjoying the fruits of dreams born in the 1840s by the first Chinese to come seeking gold.

Kwong and Miscevic had been honored a day before their Elliott Bay talk at a reception at the University of Washington sponsored by a host of local organizations. Turnout at that event was large. The smaller event at Elliott Bay, which was taped by TVW, the statewide cable-TV channel, will air in the near future.

Chinese America begins with the 1840s, when the first Chinese arrived in the West. The book takes pains to note that they were far from meek, describing the Chinese’s full participation in the “leisure activities” of gambling, prostitution and drug use in frontier settings. An early chapter of the book details not only the escapades of the Chinese immigrant communities, but the resourcefulness of the early entrepreneurs.

The resourcefulness extended far beyond laundering, shopkeeping and cooking, with many of the early fortunes made by traders. Kwong cannot resist pointing out that many of the early and blue-blooded American fortunes of New England came from importing opium. When housing was in desperately short supply on the frontier, early entrepreneurs figured out how to ship prefabricated houses, selling them in the West for $3,000. Most who bought them praised their superior quality.

Kwong describes the early period of immigration, from the 1880s to the 1940s and ’50s, as a “silent” period when Chinese immigrants pursued their individual destinies without political entitlements. As the familiarly docile, underpaid “coolie” laborers of the transcontinental railway or the launderers of westerners’ clothes, the early Chinese Americans were widely seen as representatives of a weak nation unable to rise up from tyrannical emperors.

The reality was much more varied. With the majority of the early migrants coming from a small area west of the Pearl River Delta, close to Canton and its long history of international trade, even the most humble immigrants understood world trade and knew how to find opportunity.

Still, “Americans (in the 19th century) looked down on China because it was weak,” Kwong said.

All that changed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. China soon became an important ally in the second World War.

“As China is respected, Chinese Americans are,” Kwong noted.

“Chinese Americans have a very strong belief that their future is directly related to the status of China,” he added.

As China’s fortunes have expanded, Chinese Americans have progressed from the weakling image to the present-day dilemma of the model minority, with high-achieving children and incomes well above those of inner-city minorities.

Americans are confusing the older “downtown Chinese” communities, which often harbor youth gangs and have a constant need for neighborhood revitalization, with the affluent, usually suburban, Chinese Americans, who contribute so heavily to the rising incomes of the group as a whole.

These would seem to be the best of times for Chinese Americans, given the rising prosperity of the “uptown Chinese” and the rising prosperity of China itself.

But Kwong is not so sure.

As recently as this past April, the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, commissioned the respected Zogby Poll to determine current attitudes towards China.

The survey found that though attitudes towards China have improved dramatically in the past 10 years, those surveyed believe China presents a potential economic threat to the U.S., as well as a potential military threat.

The groups surveyed included businesspeople doing business with China, Chinese Americans, the general public and members of Congress. All four groups felt China potentially represents a commercial and military threat. Concerns were also expressed about its human rights record and its threats to the environment. The survey can be found online by searching for “Committee of 100.”

Kwong said his book is so recently published that he has not received much published feedback yet. But, he added, The Washington Post is the first of the national publications to assign a reviewer to the book.