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A sketch of Chinese and European labourers clearing the last mile for the first transcontinental US railroad in 1869. The Chinese are distinguished by their yellow hats.

The last time US turned nativist, vigilantes attacked immigrants from China – seeing them as a threat to jobs and the vision of a white America

Timely book recalls how early Chinese migrants were pushed to the margins of American society, then excluded, and the reaction of some whites to attacks on Chinese, such as the pastor who said: ‘My God, is this America? Why do we stand and do nothing?’

The Chinese Must Go

by Beth Lew-Williams

Harvard University Press

4 stars

In her skilful retelling of the history of white workers’ violence against Chinese immigrants and the formulation of laws to first restrict, and then exclude, Chinese labourers from the United States in the mid-late 19th century, Professor Beth Lew-Williams weaves a story of racial discrimination and nativism that continues to resonate today.

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She focuses on the interplay of local violence, national politics, and US treaty obligations in arguing that racial violence against the Chinese played a critical role in the creation of the “modern American alien”, for whom citizenship would always prove elusive.

Lew-Williams persuasively argues that “the cascading effects of anti-Chinese violence” reveal how “entangled relations of power”, comprised of “racial boundaries, national borders and imperial relations”, intersected at multiple scales to push “the Chinese to the margins of American society and American memory.”

A magazine cover from 1895.

Lew-Williams uses what she terms a transscalar approach to map the interconnectedness of the different scales that comprise the story. Vigilantes at the local scale in the American West, whose rallying cry was “The Chinese must go!” prompted legislative efforts at the national scale to control the flow of Chinese labour into the US. These events had repercussions at an international scale; as the federal government proved unable to effectively protect Chinese workers from mob violence, tensions arose, not surprisingly, in the US-China diplomatic relationship.

The 1868 Burlingame Treaty with China was premised on the notion of a “cooperative open door”, which included free, unrestricted migration and the granting of “most favoured nation” status to China. The US was interested in friendly relations with China; the potential for vast profits from “the China Trade” beckoned, as did the prospect of the spread of Christianity in China.

An American anti-Chinese poster from the 19th century.

Although they were initially welcomed, Chinese labourers came to be viewed by the white working class as a threat to their jobs, and to colonial settlers in the US West as a threat to their vision of establishing a white American society in the West. Anti-Chinese vigilante violence ensued, and the federal government proved unable to do stop it or protect the Chinese workers.

Negotiations with China resulted in a new treaty that permitted reasonable restrictions on the migration of Chinese labourers. This, in turn, led to battles in Congress where regional and economic divides manifested themselves in the debate over “the Chinese question”. Congress eventually passed a series of laws (in 1882, 1888, 1892, and 1904) to first restrict, and then exclude, Chinese labour migration.

The cover of Beth Lew-Williams’ book.

The first of these laws, the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 (which is still widely referred to­ – incorrectly, Lew-Williams argues – as “The Chinese Exclusion Act”) launched a period of experimentation in border control. The laws became progressively stricter as the loopholes and unenforceability of the Chinese Restriction Act became increasingly apparent, and there appeared to be no reduction in the number of Chinese finding their way into the US. The failure to implement national laws effectively at the local level led to more vigilante violence.

Despite regional differences – with members of Congress from northeastern and Atlantic states intent on expanding “the China trade” and in preserving a good relationship with China, and those from the Western states interested in harsher measures to halt the “Chinese invasion” and stem the violence – there was a consensus that “the Chinaman” could never become American. Because he was “uncivilised” and “heathen” and possessed “non-amalgamating habits”, he would never assimilate.

Lew-Williams complements her analysis of the interplay of the local, national and international spheres with a detailed look at the primary method of violence inflicted on the Chinese in the West: expulsions. In 1885 and 1886, Chinese were expelled from at least 168 communities across the American West.

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Some white Westerners were stunned by what was happening: as a minister in Tacoma, Washington Territory watched the 300 Chinese in his community driven out of their homes by vigilantes in driving rain on a November morning in 1885, he turned to a friend who was with him and asked, “My God, is this America? Why do we stand and do nothing?”

As the US grapples with a re-emergence of nativism and xenophobia today, one of the most enduring legacies of Chinese exclusion is the “plenary power doctrine”, which emerged from challenges to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888.

In rejecting the petition of Chae Chan Ping, a Chinese labourer who was barred from re-entering the US under the 1888 law after his return from a visit to China, the Supreme Court held that the federal government had essentially unlimited power and discretion to decide who could enter the United States at its borders. The Exclusion Act cases have never been overruled, and the plenary power doctrine continues to wield its force today.

Asian Review of Books