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