Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am

Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans

by Jean Pfaelzer

Random House, HK$224

'Americans are very rich people. They want the Chinaman to come and will make him welcome. There will be big pay, large houses, and food and clothing of the finest description. You can write your friends or send them money any time, and we will be responsible for the safe delivery ...' So ran an advertising flyer circulated in villages across southern China in the 1840s, selling the dream on the other side of the Pacific.

Although such lures were probably not intended to be deceptive, the fates of those who found passage from China to the so-called Gold Coast would embitter the most pragmatic of pioneers. Jean Pfaelzer's exhaustive volume Driven Out chronicles 50 years of persecution of the first Chinese-Americans in California. It was a slice of American pie that didn't taste so sweet.

In 1848, the California gold rush drew growing numbers of Chinese to the New World. The face of the wild west was changing - mining towns and cities were cropping up around major dig sites. Initially successful gold runs brought prosperity, and white pioneer women came to settle their families where their husbands worked. The gold provided capital for development, and politicians promoted California as a state of industry and commerce.

In San Francisco, elite Chinese families formed into ruling houses, based on village and clan affiliations, known as the Chinese Six Companies. 'By 1855, nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants had registered with the Chinese Six Companies, who brokered their passage, found them jobs, provided medicine, organised transportation to the mountains, adjudicated disputes, and demanded discipline.'

But when the gold ran out within the year, most people were still searching for a little nugget of wealth. As reality set in, so did the hardships of frontier life, and the tensions between whites and blacks, native Americans, Mexicans and Chinese grew rapidly. White prospectors cast about for scapegoats - and, as the Chinese stood out more than most ethnic groups in social habits and appearance, they were quickly singled out. A vigilante movement across the state gained momentum, and towns such as Chico, Truckee, Arcata, Cheyenne and Emigrant Gap became synonymous with lynchings and torchings of Chinese neigh-bourhoods. Although many whites were tried, few were found guilty by local and state courts - a pattern that would continue for decades.

Racist legislation targetted the Chinese communities. According to Pfaelzer, 'between 1852 and 1870, years in which one billion dollars' worth of untaxed gold was mined in California, Chinese miners paid a staggering fifty-eight million dollars to the state, ranging from one fourth to one half of California's revenue'.

The likes of the queue ordinance of 1873, which allowed jailers to shave the braids of Chinese prisoners, became increasingly prevalent. 'In 1855-56, the California legislature's powerful Committee of Mines repeatedly declared the Chinese were 'odious and degrading', and the legislature shuffled through a series of bills that sought to expel them,' Pfaelzer writes. 'Where will be the end of it?' The answer remains not soon enough.

Although Pfaelzer's detailed research is impressive, much of the information reads like recounting of a series of events (and often not even chronological) - particularly in the middle of the book, where she itemises numerous violent acts against the Chinese in the 1880s. More directed themes - such as the development of second-class citizenship, or comparisons between white and Chinese domesticity, marriage and family on the frontier - are lost in the litany of hate that drives the book to an anti-climactic conclusion: the statement of Franklin Roosevelt's repeal of a 61-year Chinese exclusion act in 1943.

It would be a stretch to describe Driven Out as a seminal work on the Chinese-American experience, but it does serve to remind us that freedom and prosperity ought never be taken for granted. What happened to Chinese immigrants - some from Hong Kong - in California 150 years ago can and does happen here today.

Growing numbers of Indonesian and Thai workers are joining the Filipino domestic workforce in Hong Kong. These groups, along with Gurkha children and first-generation Nepalese immigrants, aren't so much 'driven out' as confined to cramped, hidden spaces. We would do well to examine the plight of our own second-class citizens.