Iris Chang grew up in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois and graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois. She has also attended the graduate writing seminars program at Johns Hopkins University and has worked as a journalist. Iris Chang has published The Thread of the Silkworm, the much celebrated The Rape of Nanking and most recently The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. She lives in California.
The Chinese in America narrates the 150-year history of the Chinese in the United States. In compelling detail Iris Chang provides a clear picture of the lives of immigrant Chinese and she unearths fascinating and disturbing stories about their experiences and some of the root causes for the sometimes torturous adjustment they suffered in this land of plenty.
Robert Birnbaum: This is the 21st Century. How many books have been written about the Chinese in America?
Iris Chang: When you count all the obscure monographic books, there have been many. I probably have most of them in my library.
RB: How about general histories, such as your book?
IC: General histories—there have been a few that have served as pioneering books. The two big ones, one by Betty Song and another by Jack Chen, they came out in the 1980’s. This history actually brings us up to the present, and it also ends with a message for the reader that history has to be continually updated and rewritten by future generations. This is by no means the last word on the Chinese in America. This is my personal interpretation of the 150-year epic history of Chinese in this country.
RB: Since we were talking about Howard Zinn before I turned on the recorder, I must take note your history has only one mention of the ruling class, and that was in the last chapter. You’ve actually suggested the possibly of class conflict in the USA.
IC: Oh well of course there is.
RB: [both laugh] Had you explicitly referred to class before?
IC: The book is replete with examples of class conflict, both in China and in the United States. Many Chinese left China to come to the US to seek economic opportunities in the mid 19th century. Many of them also left because there weren’t as many opportunities in a system that was extremely corrupt. The Qing dynasty was just on the verge of collapse at the time. And the taxation was excessive and definitely there was a very heavy class oppression in China at the time.
IC: And people’s fates were often determined not only by where they lived but if they were a member of the intelligentsia. If you wanted to assume some position in the ruling class elite, you had to go through these three tiers of tests, which would determine your future. And these tests were really designed by the Manchus to force the subject class of the Hans into assisting in their own oppression. Keeping their young men busy studying instead of thinking revolution. Of course, in the United States, which at the time was a very young country, there were also class distinctions. They weren’t as pronounced, but they quickly evolved as well. As you may remember from some of the earlier chapters, as soon as the population of the Chinese in San Francisco grew into a community of several thousand, class distinctions emerged even within that ethnic community. You had a small elite of capitalists. And you had a much larger pool of wage earners and laborers whose living conditions were impoverished and they were literally often crammed into an apartment on bunks—not too different from how a lot of Chinese illegal aliens are living today.
RB: It seems that it is permissible to talk about a ruling class in this country. It’s not part of the historical orthodoxy and in fact in political discourse it raises accusations of divisiveness…
IC: There isn’t much discussion of ruling class in America even in Boston, probably one of the most class-conscious cities in the country?
RB: Maybe as an abstraction, not as a political issue. Remember George Bush accused the Democrats of fomenting class warfare. Howard Zinn does point out that Republicans don’t like to talk about class warfare–they just like to engage in it.
RB: I was amazed at the events around the Chinese Exclusionary Acts. You might even have used the word ‘pogrom’ referring to what took place in Seattle and Tacoma and San Francisco.
IC: Absolutely. [The Chinese Exclusionary Acts] emerged as a result of an anti-Chinese backlash that followed a major economic depression in the 1870’s. As the Chinese grew in numbers, the immigrant population grew to the extent that it became a huge economic threat, there were efforts among white workers to organize among themselves politically, and what was unfortunate was that both major parties adopted anti-Chinese platforms. California, where the anti-Chinese racism was greatest, became a very crucial swing state during presidential elections, and therefore both parties had to court California. And it was clear that the special interest groups in California really wanted the Chinese to be shut out of the country because that was where the racial tension was the greatest. And so in 1882, the Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which then prevented Chinese laborers from coming into this country for, really, about the next sixty years. The act was renewed…
RB: And strengthened.
IC: And expanded, that’s right. With other acts that would threaten Chinese rights to habeas corpus hearings or even their birth-right citizenship because somebody who was born in this country who visited China would later face difficulty getting back in to the USA. We have to keep in mind that the struggles of the Chinese against these exclusion laws really laid down the foundations of civil rights law. The famous Wong Kim Ark case …
RB: Famous to whom?
IC: [both laugh] Famous to the small group of scholars that study it.
RB: Let’s make it famous.
IC: Wong Kim Ark was an American-born Chinese who went to China to visit his parents, and when he came back they tried to prevent him from coming into the country. This case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and to the credit of the Supreme Court, it was ruled that anyone born in this country, even if their parents are not eligible for citizenship, is an American citizen.
RB: The beginning of the struggles of the Chinese in America were about economic issues: whites feared being displaced in the workplace, and certainly the elite and their managers used that fear to foster divisiveness. At what point did it become racist? When did it go beyond fear for livelihood and become hatred for the other?
IC: Racism is always there underneath, but usually it is exploited in these times of economic crisis, and it’s hard to find out when one slides into another. But it usually does whenever the economic crisis reaches its peak. That’s when you will see these anti-Chinese cartoons in the 19th century vilifying the Chinese as not only taking over jobs but marrying white woman and infiltrating the whole country. It was interesting for me to learn that the Chinese-white interracial marriage was more common than I expected among Chinese men and Irish women during the 19th century, and that posed another concern.
RB: In the last chapter, entitled "Uncertain Future," you anecdotally list a number of instances—like a American Air Force officer sitting with a woman is asked if he is in the Chinese Air Force. Or instances where…
IC: Like Maya Lin? They were saying, "How can you let a gook design the Vietnam Memorial?"
RB: The things you cite took place in the late 20th century. People are still viewing Americans of Chinese descent as foreigners.
IC: That’s right, and even congressmen are not exempt from this. Congressman David Woo when he wanted to give a speech at the Department of Energy— ironically to celebrate Asian History month—they stopped him. They wouldn’t let him in. This was shortly after the Wen Ho Lee scandal and even after he showed a congressional identification, they wouldn’t let him in. The reason I brought up these stories was to show that these episodes of racism occur in cycles. There is a perception that the Chinese started out downtrodden and abused in the 19th century and gradually rose to the top of society as model minorities, and you see them winning Nobel Prizes and getting into our best colleges. But it is not a linear progression. Things don’t always get better. Sometimes they get worse. I find that they occur in cycles. The pattern of acceptance and abuse is closely linked with economic and political realities of that era and the state of Sino-American relations. Often when times are good and when the US is on good diplomatic terms with China, the Chinese are viewed as a bridge between the two countries. [Chinese] Americans are seen as honorary whites and as cultural ambassadors. You saw this in WW II, when China and the US were wartime allies. Also, in the mid-19th century when the US had a severe labor shortage and desperately needed Chinese manual labor. You also see backlashes at different times, such as the Korean War, when Chinese forces clashed with American forces. You saw it in the late ’90s—not a coincidence that it occurred after the disintegration of the Soviet Empire because China then became the second greatest superpower in the world, and there were concerns in the media of China rivaling the US militarily, economically and intellectually.
RB: It’s an oddity that there seems to be this tacit acceptance that we can fuss around about human rights in every place in the world except in China.
IC: The reality is there is an economic reason behind it. There are too many business ties between the two countries.
RB: I have always been fascinated by the role of China in the Red Scare of the ’50s. This whole issue of "who lost China?" as if it was an American possession really strikes me as an unacknowledged irony of the Cold War.
IC: That’s right and during that time Chinese Americans were caught up in that hysteria. At least one person had his career ruined here. In my first book The Thread of the Silk Worm…
RB: You mention this case in this history…
IC: He [Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen] was this brilliant, Chinese-born Cal Tech aerodynamics professor and the founder of the Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena. He was actually treated quite well during W II when they heavily relied on his brain power, but then in the 1950’s he and other scientists—some Jewish American scientists who had been active in socialists clubs in the ’30s—were suddenly accused of being Communists and possibly spies despite all of their contributions to this country. Tsien was interrogated by the FBI and then put under virtual house arrest, not really allowed to leave the country and then suddenly against his will deported to China. Because he was swapped for some American POWs. Here is an example of someone who was just a pawn in this whole chess game of international politics. But the story is so compelling because the intent of the government was to heighten and preserve national security, but the irony is that by deporting him they risked national security. Tsien went back and founded the ballistic missile program in China.
RB: You have written three books, one very specific on the case and person we just discussed, one book devoted to the great war atrocity, The Rape of Nanking, and now a more general history. Was this a deliberate pattern of moving from the specific to a larger view? Part of your own education…
IC: I certainly didn’t have a three-book plan or a ten-year plan when I worked on the first book. The Rape of Nanking, while it is very focused, is about the massacre and rape and torture of an entire city—we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Here we are talking something even more broad because it covers 150 years of history. It’s much more difficult to work on a broad subject than on a specific one because even if it’s hard to find the information, if you look hard enough for something specific you will find it, and you will discover things that you wouldn’t have thought of before. When you take something extremely broad, then it is not a work of expansion or work of compression. It’s hard because you have to decide what to throw out. When you are focused on some small story or one specific person or one city, it is a process of discovery.
RB: Were you surprised that the Rape of Nanking was so well received?
IC: I was, I was.
IC: [laughs] Yes, but pleasantly so. I think that the reason it was so successful was that the same emotions that I had when learning about this were shared by everyone else when they read this book. I learned about the atrocities first from my parents; my family had escaped from Nanking before the massacre began. Then later I remember going to an exhibit of photographs documenting the Japanese invasion of Nanking and other regions and looking at these photos, the decapitations, the torture, the pornographic poses—they would rape women and then photograph them. I remember walking around in a trance. I couldn’t believe that people were capable of such monstrous evil. The ones that committed them were really decent, law-abiding people before and after. That to me is the real chilling aspect of the rape of Nanking, the banality of evil…and I found that not just the Japanese are capable of this, every ethnic group is—if certain conditions are in place. Other people just responded in the way I did. And wanted to know why this atrocity occurred.
RB: There is a list of historic atrocities and genocide; the Armenian slaughter by the Turks, the bombing of Dresden, the Holocaust, the dirty little war in Argentina, and so on that represent terrible black marks on history…
IC: The Pakistani rape of Bengali women in the ’70s…the single worst massacre in world history…
RB: Please say more. I’m sorry that I don’t know about that one.
IC: Many people don’t know about it because the perpetrators are still in power. That’s why it is very hard to go there and research it. Somebody I know did—who came to one of my book signings—he was very happy that I spoke up and said that the rape of Nanking is the second worst mass rape of world history. And that the worst one was what the Pakistani soldiers did to the Bengali women after their failed rebellion. He said, "Look, I have written a book on the subject." And it changed his life because he was trying to publish it and it turned out that some of the perpetrators were highly placed in the Pakistani government and he had to flee for his life. So he was in Philadelphia working as an accountant. He had to start his whole life over again. He is an American citizen now. The book has been written out but not yet translated, and I said, "I would be happy to help in any way that I can." But it just goes to show that it is often very hard to publish in other countries—it’s one of the most open and free countries, and yet even here it is often very difficult to have free discourse.
RB: When I spoke to Samantha Power last summer, she mentioned her original editor turned A Problem from Hell down, so who knows?
IC: Your first duty as a writer is to write to please yourself. And you have no duty towards anyone else.
RB: Another astounding fact presented in your book was that thirty five million Chinese died in WW II.
IC: Yes, 19 million to 35 million is the range of the estimates and millions of other people died across Asia. The whole story of the comfort women, the system of forced sexual slavery, the medical experiments of Unit 731, is not something that is in the US psyche. That is changing because many books are coming out. And new museums are emerging on a grassroots level.
RB: It seems that a subtler but yet virulent form of racism in the US is against Asians. My reading of the anecdotes at the end of your book is not that these are cyclical. They seem constant. For whatever reason it is easy to hate or at least discriminate against Asians.
IC: I think it is cyclical because at certain times in US history the Chinese were welcomed in regions where I didn’t think they would be welcomed.
RB: Like the South.
IC: Yeah, and I think it has to do with economics and because there weren’t as many of them and therefore not as much of an economic threat. Chang and Eng Bunker, those Siamese twins—if you were going to judge people on their appearance alone, I couldn’t think of any two people who were more freakish than that. They were connected by the torso. They are Chinese and yet because they were wealthy and because they were not in a region where the Chinese were feared, they ended up marrying white women and had more than twenty children…
RB: I think twenty-seven.
IC: And more than thirty black slaves. They ran a plantation and networked and befriended all the white plantation owners in the area and their sons fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. All of that suggests that if the conditions were right there could be great acceptance. Often it is only when they pose an economic or political threat that it turns really ugly. When the Chinese first came to San Francisco they were actually welcomed by the mayor and they had special ceremonies for them—again this is when their colony was very small, only a few Chinese. At the time they were seen as quaint little oddities, and the first documented Chinese woman in this country came as part of a museum exhibit. So very quickly a move from a sense of fascination for the exotic to real fear. I saw a cartoon from the 1800’s in one of the anti-Chinese magazines. And it showed a white family in distress in a rented room, where the father has shot himself, the police are pulling the son out of the room because he has stolen a loaf of bread, the daughter is prostituting herself and when you look through the window there is a building across the street filled with Chinese businesses of all kinds, and there are people on their hands and knees outside begging for jobs. And in the distance you see Chinese people pushing whites out windows and slamming doors on them and kicking them in the behind. That suggests to me that they were really afraid the Chinese were going to take over economically. The Chinese encountered great prejudice in places like South East Asia where they assumed these middle-man minority roles as Armenians and Jews have done in other countries. That group, called middlemen minorities, has suffered the greatest persecution because they take on economic niches and capitalistic function in societies that are feudal in nature, and when things go wrong they are blamed for everything. And there is a tremendous amount of jealousy.
RB: Was there a place in the world that Chinese had not immigrated to?
IC: It’s the world’s most populous country, they have gone everywhere.
RB: And so their immigrant status relegated them to these niche positions?
IC: In other words, they would handle transactions of goods between producers and consumers assuming the middleman position as agents, as merchants. It’s a unique function—as often the Chinese, just as the Jews and Armenians in other regions would go into a country, often without anything. Start out at the bottom of society because of frugality and a respect for education, business skills and ability to take risks—what happens within a single generation—they have dominated or controlled certain industries. What is often neglected is that these middlemen minorities built up these industries. These industries didn’t exist before. They created them. Like in the US, like laundries and restaurants and later in a wide variety of fields, high tech among them. These are fields that a lot of native people didn’t want to go into. And then it was very galling for the natives to see the Chinese rise so quickly because they were very aggressive in identifying a need in a society.
RB: That would be one of the anomalies of immigration in the US, this anger about immigrants coming here and taking jobs, when in fact they do jobs that no one else will do.
IC: And create jobs for themselves and others. The reason Chinese went into groceries was that it was easy to start them. It required little skill and served an important function. In the South they almost completely dominated the grocery industry after it became clear to plantation owners that they couldn’t replace slaves with Chinese.
RB: You mentioned that there wasn’t an Asian Barbie doll?
IC: It was the presidential line. They probably do have an Asian Barbie. But what was really insulting to the Asian-American community was they had a special presidential line of female presidents in their Barbie collection and it was supposed to empower young girls to see a little president doll. And there was a white one and a Hispanic one and a Black but there wasn’t an Asian one. Somebody should find out why that is. Unless they think that somehow Asian-Americans are such a small number that they are not going to be a viable consumer group. Or could it be something else. The Committee of 100 commissioned a survey in which they found that Asian American candidates are the most unpopular of all the races. They found that people were less likely to vote for Chinese-American than other minorities.
RB: Why is that?
IC: That is going to deserve more research. It was stunning for me to see that because as my group in the ’80s was a model minority, I thought racism was soon going to be a relic of the past. I had a unique background growing up in a university community, a very multi-ethnic one, in which everyone seemed to be engaging in interracial marriage and working across color lines. I didn’t think the US was racist at all, except I saw the images in popular culture. I thought there were some ignorant people purveying these images to the mass media. I somehow thought that was a relic of the past. Then when I saw these images explode unto the covers of national magazines in the late ’90s, I saw this is still a great palpable. All I can say is that from my own experience I have seen it work, people from all different races work together in harmony where there is not as much racism as you would expect. In fact very little of that.
IC: In Champagne [Illinois ].
RB: Other than Connie Chung, has there been many Chinese American in broadcast media?
IC: Oh yeah, it’s almost a cliche now to see Chinese-American broadcasters and anchorwomen. Every major city has them.
RB: No TV series though?
IC: Actually many people are complaining about this. I have friends who are Caucasian who have pitched ideas for a Chinese-American show, and there is great resistance in Hollywood and the networks to support that. I don’t know if it is that the numbers are too small. Often what is deeply offensive to Chinese-Americans that they are really well represented in medicine and yet on all these doctors’ shows you hardly see any Chinese-American faces. That is not a reflection of reality. Now most of the new immigrants coming to this country are from Asia as opposed to Europe. Perhaps as the racial complexion of this country changes through immigration and intermarriage and all of these trends and China becomes more of an economic power in this country then our concept of what is all-American will change.
IC: I do think that it does come down to something as simple as statistics. Whatever is not commonly seen is condemned as alien. But it becomes less alien when there is more.
RB: Who doesn’t have contact with Chinese or Asians today?
IC: It isn’t that foreign and not only do people go into Chinese restaurants but people are more likely to work with other Chinese Americans, more likely to marry them.
RB: And there is a growing interest in Asian holistic medical techniques.
IC: Yeah, and so it isn’t the lack of contact. Still when it comes to the media they are looking for sheer numbers. Over time that may change. People need to be aware that just because there are larger numbers of Chinese Americans the racism will go away. A lot of their future treatment will depend on the state of Sino-American relations and how the country is faring economically. There are now hundreds of thousands of new engineers that are being trained in China. If people start finding themselves losing their jobs, not to the Chinese here but because China has become such a dominant force —then there could very well be a backlash.
RB: What will be the effect of this recent trend of Americans adopting Chinese babies?
IC: It will bring a lot of people closer to each other.
RB: What are the numbers involved?
IC: It was at least thirty thousand. Men all across China are going to have trouble finding wives in just a few years. There is also an epidemic of infertility in this country. There are more women who have put off child bearing in favor of their professional lives. For them the only way they are going to have a family is to adopt from China. It’s a wonderful thing to see a segment of our population that is open and eager to learn more about Chinese culture. It has filtered into the mainstream. You see credit-card ads on TV with white couples and Chinese babies.
RB: The looting of the National Museum in Iraq was a terrible event, but I was reminded in reading your book about the devastation wrought by the Cultural Revolution. It never seemed to get much attention. Was it exaggerated?
IC: No, it was not exaggerated. Of course, treasures and papers still exist, but a lot was destroyed and many priceless treasures are never going to be replaced as a result of the excesses of the Red Guard in the ’60s. But it is very difficult to hang onto the relics of history—they often don’t survive these current events.
RB: You think Sino-American relations will consciously affect American attitudes toward their Chinese fellow citizens?
IC: It’s not conscious. It’s often shaped by what they see in the media and often what you see in the media is driven by economic forces. In the late ’90s there was a Time cover story suggesting we were facing a new Cold War with China. It seemed that all of a sudden China was slated to be the new enemy. In Washington there was an active group—calling themselves the Blue Team— a coalition of legislative aides, some congressman of the pro-Taiwan lobby and people who were pro labor union who made this an active aspect of their agenda.
RB: Did I read you correctly that Taiwanese operatives were working with impunity in the country?
IC: In the 1990’s they were working closely with elements in our own government to punish people who were communist sympathizers and were even threatening subscribers to pro-PRC [People’s Republic of China] newspapers. They were monitoring the political activism on campuses. There was one professor who was almost certainly murdered when he went to Taiwan to visit.
RB: What is the status of communism in the People’s Republic today?
IC: It’s certainly not a pure communist state.
RB: What is communistic about it?
IC: There isn’t much in the way of pure communist spirit because the whole nation seems to be engaged in capitalistic enterprises. Much of the country still operates under government control. You have a form of capitalism that is governed by an oligarchy of people in China. It’s an unusual situation, but it is a country in transition and no one can predict what will happen.
RB: Can we predict what is going to happen for you?
IC: (laughs) I have to finish this book tour of almost thirty cities.
RB: So next year when you get back home …
IC: (laughs) June.
RB: So do you have an idea on what you are going to do next?
IC: I have some ideas, but it’s best not to talk about them until I have actually decided on one.
RB: You started out as journalist, but your books are far more scholarly than more journalistic accounts…
IC: I started off majoring in math and computer science and then majored in journalism because I knew I wanted to become a writer one day. I felt I needed the life experience and the discipline of daily journalism to get me started. And after working as a journalist I went to a writing program at Johns Hopkins. It was interesting because it was neither journalistic nor historical, but it emphasized writing style, and afterwards I was asked to write my first book, Thread of the Silkworm, and then I proposed The Rape of Nanking to the publisher. The Chinese in America is a much more ambitious project in terms of its scope, and I have learned a lot even though I don’t have any formal historical training. I have certainly amassed many historical research gathering skills in the process. I received an honorary doctorate for my work. Maybe one of these works is considered the equivalent of a Ph.D.
RB: Is this the direction you are going to continue on?
IC: I may attempt a novel. (chuckles) I think that no matter what you write it requires being honest with oneself and you have to pull yourself out of the whirlwind of daily life to mediate upon what you have experienced. That’s a very difficult thing.
RB: I translate that to you have to sit in a room by yourself and stare at whatever writing utensil you are using.
IC: I don’t mind solitude. I love talking to other people, but I do need my space. What you find is that you are interrupted, that even if you wanted to be a hermit people come out looking for you. I don’t want to cloister myself away, but it is important for me to write about issues that have universal significance. One of them that have resonated with me all my life has been the theme of injustice. Some people as they write, they might dwell on love, other people on money or the acquisition of great riches, but for some reason I seem to bothered whenever I see acts of injustice and assaults on people’s civil liberties. I imagine what I write in the future will follow in that vein. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.
RB: Maybe the next time we talk it will be for your novel.
IC: Yeah. And not necessarily about Chinese-American matters.
RB: Great, thank you.
IC: Thank you.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing