2022 Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series: Mae Ngai • Introduction by Takeo Rivera

On Thursday, Sept. 29, Dr. Mae Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History at Columbia University, was the featured speaker of the 2022 Howard Zinn Lecture Series at Boston University. The event was phenomenal, from the introduction by Dr. Takeo Rivera, assistant professor in English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, to Dr. Ngai’s talk titled “The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes, Chinese Migration, and Global Politics,” to the joint conversation. The recording and transcript are published with permission.

Introductory Remarks for Mae Ngai by Takeo Rivera

In 1991, Howard Zinn wrote the following: “I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility.” When I first read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as an eighth grade preteen huddled in a corner alone in the library, I was exposed to centuries of atrocities and injustices that were part and parcel to the settler-colonial foundation and development of the United States. And yet, from Zinn’s tome, the dominant feeling I gained was not despair, not a sense of inevitability to the ongoing oppression of white supremacy, racial capitalism, and imperialism, but indeed, of hope. Hope that, as Zinn said, was not grounded in certainty but possibility, of the capabilities of committed activists, masses of workers both salaried and enslaved, people’s movements consisting not of the Great Men but of the communities of the downtrodden, insistent on liberating themselves. Zinn was a chronicler of terror, but a historian of resistance.

Professor Mae Ngai embodies the very best of Howard Zinn’s legacy. She is one of the most influential and important American historians working today or otherwise, whose works are vital to both Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It is difficult to have a fully informed discussion of immigration in the United States without citing her work. And like Zinn, Professor Ngai is not only unrelenting in her critique, eyes wide open to the crushing cruelties of racism, colonialism, and capitalism, but is constantly mindful that the agents of historical change are not rulers but communities.

Before she became one of the greatest historians of her generation, Professor Ngai was a part of these community movements on the ground. Born in the Bronx to Chinese immigrants, a young Mae came into political consciousness in the milieu of Black civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests. She was no model minority — she dropped out of college to do urgent political organizing in New York’s Chinatown, running a radical newspaper, providing ESL training to residents, protesting against apartheid and police brutality. She was very active in labor organizing, working for the District 65-UAW and the Consortium for Worker Education — making her the perfect speaker today at BU as the graduate students have announced unionization. It was only after this deeply impactful work that she returned to finish her undergraduate work, falling in love with labor history, and when she was done, she graduated with her PhD from Columbia with distinction, where she remains today as Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History. She has been a people’s historian from the beginning.

Most scholars of race, ethnicity, and migration have first been exposed to Professor Ngai through her first book in 2004, the now-canonical Impossible Subjects. The award-winning book is a detailed account of legal history and racialization, brilliantly elucidating how modern racial formation and immigration policy formed in dialectical relation with one another, and how white supremacist nation-building relied on the construction of such deviant figures to racial capitalism. Six years later, Professor Ngai would go from the grand macro vision of Impossible Subjects to the micro, intimate story of the Tape family in The Lucky Ones, one of the earliest Chinese American lineages from the late 19th century, and how their negotiations with and active challenges to dominant U.S. juridical, social, and cultural mores reflect a synecdoche of the history of Chinese America itself. And last year, she published the grand tome from which today’s talk is drawn: The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics, winner of the 2022 Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the LA Times book prize in history. Relentless, Professor Ngai is now already at work on her fourth book, Nation of Immigrants: A Short History of an Idea, forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

Mae Ngai is someone who has stared at the naked viscera of history, yet has the courage to hold us all with its truth to march forward undaunted. We are honored to have her here today. Please welcome Professor Ngai to Boston University.

Lecture by Dr. Mae Ngai

“The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes, Chinese Migration, and Global Politics”

Wow, thank you, Professor Rivera for that introduction. Thank you Dean Sclaroff and Alex MacDonald, and thank you to Boston University and all of you. It is a tremendous honor for me to be here tonight to deliver the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture.

Like many of us here, I read A People’s History when I was much younger, and it’s always been a model of the kind of social history that I myself identify with. My lecture tonight is based on my book, The Chinese Question, published last year. The book is about the origins of Chinese diasporic communities in the West and the rise of the racist movements and exclusion legislations passed against them. I examine the regime of Chinese exclusion that was enacted throughout the Anglophone world — that is in the United States and in the British settler colonies — and the struggles of the Chinese immigrants for respect and equal treatment, as well as that of China itself in the international community.

My own background is in United States history and Asian American history. The book began with an interest in the origins of the Chinese Exclusion Laws in the United States, but it grew to become a comparative and global history. The research and writing of this book posed many challenges, which were at once historic, graphic, linguistic, and archival. I had to learn about the history of the British Empire and China, as well as the history of money. Certainly, I remain a novice when it comes to those fields. But, through my research and thinking across fields and in global context, I developed new insights into the Chinese question.

I came to understand that the Chinese Exclusion policies across the Anglo American world were not only matters of domestic racism in the formation of nation state identities — and that is the gist of where the scholarship has risen to in this last period. But Chinese exclusion was also integral to the development of late 19th century global capitalism and the ascent of Great Britain and the United States as global economic hegemons, as creditors and as colonizers, as nation builders and as empire builders.

Because China was never formally colonized, the Western powers imposed measures like unequal treaties and exclusion laws as instruments of colonialism and containment. Exclusion aimed to contain China, to limit the mobility of its people to the west. So, the book is therefore about the dynamics of race and money — in other words, colonialism and capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Chinese exclusion was part of a new way of imagining, organizing, and governing the world.

The Chinese question was simply this: were Chinese a racial threat to so-called white men’s countries, and should they be excluded from immigration and citizenship? Exclusion was a radical idea in the late 19th century because it contravened prevailing norms of free trade and free migration. I locate the origins of the Chinese question in the gold rushes in the second half of the 19th century — focusing on California and Australia, in the colony of Victoria there — and in the early 20th century — in gold mining in the British colony of Transvaal in southern Africa.

The Gold Rush has launched into motion hundreds of thousands of people from the British Isles, continental Europe, the Americas, Australasia, and China. Notably, these were the first occasions of large-scale contact between Westerners — that is Europeans and Americans — and Chinese.

So, there are three major themes or goals in my book. First, I aim to slay the coolie myth. This is the idea that Chinese were a coolie race, indentured labor innately servile and docile, ruled by despotic masters. And this idea was central to the argument that Chinese should be excluded from the countries of the West because they were a threat to free labor and democratic government. The myth had its origins in the anti-Chinese movements of the 19th century. And it is a major task of the book to disprove that myth, and to analyze the reasons for its emergence, popularity, and circulation.

To slay the coolie myth, then, required that I first approach it as an empirical question. If Chinese were not indentured workers, as it was alleged, what was their social and labor organization on the gold fields and afterwards? This angle led me to a social history of the origins of the Chinese diaspora in the West.

Second, I addressed the coolie myth as a discursive question. How did anti-Chinese politics arise on the gold fields in different national and colonial contexts? And how do they evolve into a global racial discourse? And third, what was the relationship between the exclusion laws in the West, the rise of the international gold standard in international trade and monetary transactions, and China’s position in the global economy?

The general pattern I discovered was that Chinese were both part of mainstream gold field economies, while they also developed their own styles of work and social organization. For example, different ethnic groups introduced methods of work or methods of mining that became universalized. Panning, which I’m sure you all know, has its roots in the Batavia, a woven basket used in river mining in Spanish Mesoamerica. Chinese brought techniques of water management from southern China agriculture that would become adopted by others.

All gold seekers on the California and Victorian gold fields worked as partners, in small cooperative groups, and on wages for large companies. These men shown here at the sluicing operation at Auburn Ravine in central California, likely were working for wages. Like white Americans, Chinese worked with people who were relatives, or from their own hometowns (although village and lineage ties were stronger in the Chinese case).

The Chinese favored two kinds of organization in particular. One was the small company headed by an investor manager — typically a local merchant, who is often himself a former gold digger — who would hire upwards of twenty men, or lease their claims to others. Another type was a small cooperative. These are typically six to twelve men who shared all expenses and profits and had no boss.

In Australia, cooperative groups joined together to work down a creek or gully in a method called paddocking. In both North America and Australia, cooperatives were associated with secret brotherhood societies. Fictive kin collectivities, they’re all associated with the Zhongguo gong, which started as an exile group from the Taiping Rebellion in China and spread throughout Southeast Asia, North America, and Australia.

Both companies and cooperatives were similar to mining organizations found in China and Southeast Asia. In southern China, placer techniques were used to mine tin and iron sand deposits, and also drew from water irrigation practices from farming. Small companies of full-time miners often comprised landless and socially marginal types, who worked for shares under an investor manager. The cooperatives in California and Victoria bear a canny resemblance to the famous Chinese kongsi of the gold mines of West Kalimantan or West Borneo in the 18th and early 19th century. These were egalitarian cooperatives that formed on the basis of equal, shared division. As mining developed, some of these cooperatives joined together into federations and a few became extremely powerful. Their power derived from the position of the Chinese as a force between the native population and Dutch colonizers. Those conditions, of course, did not exist in the United States and Australia, so Chinese cooperatives in the new world gold fields remained primitive.

In 1904, across the Indian Ocean, Chinese miners began arriving in the Transvaal colony of South Africa, which had recently been annexed to the British Empire. This was a novel experiment aimed at reviving the gold mines in the Witwatersrand — then as now, the largest gold producing region in the world — and addressing a shortage and native African labor in the wake of the South African war, also known as the Boer War. Between 1904 and 1910, the Transvaal Chamber of Mines imported over 60,000 Chinese for work on the Rand. The scheme was a ticking political time bomb in the post war context when South African racial politics were still in flux.

The basis for reconciliation between whites — that is British and Afrikaners — remained unresolved, as was land and labor policy with regard to native Africans. Unlike the independent miners in North America and Australia, Chinese mine laborers who went to the Rand went under contracts. The contract set their wages and hours, forbade them from working in any other occupation or industry or from owning or leasing property, and required them to return to China at the conclusion of their contract.

But if these Chinese mining laborers were indentured, they were not docile. They rioted, went on strike, deserted the compounds, and passively resisted by simply refusing to drill more than the daily number of inches required of them. I think that’s something that Howard Zinn would have liked.

Between 1904 and 1907, nearly 25,000 Chinese laborers, more than one third of the total number of Chinese who worked on the Rand, were convicted of various offenses, including refusing to work, rioting, staging work actions, deserting the compounds, as well as assault, manslaughter, and murder. Notably, kinship and fictive kin organizations like I had identified and other areas also existed on the Rand and they were key to organizing resistance among the workers.

The coolie trope originated in California, where it drew from the proximate examples of indentured Asian labor in the Caribbean plantation colonies, especially after the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century there, and with African slavery in the United States South. The association of Chinese labor with slavery was a kind of racial shorthand that cast Chinese as a racial danger to free labor.

It was first used in 1852 by California’s first governor, John Bigler, who raised alarm over what he called, “The present wholesale importation to this country of immigrants in the Asiatic quarter of the globe, that class of Asiatics known as coulies.” He declared that nearly all were being hired by so-called Chinese masters to mine for gold at pitiable wages, while their families in China were held hostage for the faithful performance of their contracts. Bigler called upon the legislature to impose heavy taxes on the Chinese in order to deter them from coming and for a law barring Chinese contract labor from California mines.

So what was Bigler’s intent? The Chinese in California were not coolies or indentured workers, but Bigler was in a tight race for re-election, and he used the coolie myth to agitate voters in the mining districts, where independent prospectors were anxious over the declining placers and the entrance of capitalized deep mining into the scene. This was a classic strategy of nativism, taken from the playbook: Appeal to a grievance, offer a theory of racial difference, and weaponize that theory for partisan gain.

Within days of Bigler’s address, Chinese community leaders responded. Tong K. Achick and Hab Wa were two leaders who both hailed from the region in what is now Zhongshan county in Guangdong province near Macau. They were leaders of the Yeong Wo Association, they were educated men, successful businessmen, and fluent in English.

Tong wrote a letter to the governor. He explained that Chinese in California included laborers, as well as tradesmen, mechanics, gentry, and teachers. Quote, “None are coolies if by that word you mean bound men or contract slaves. The poor Chinaman does not come here as a slave. He comes because of his desire for independence.”

When Shang had been a merchant in South Carolina in the 1820s, and was a naturalized U.S. citizen, he made a pointed analysis of Bigler’s politics. In a letter to the governor that was then printed in The Daily Alta, California’s main newspaper, he wrote,

You have degraded the Negro because of your holding him in involuntary servitude, and because for the sake of the union in some of your states, such is tolerated. Amongst this class you would endeavor to place us, and no doubt it would be pleasing to some would-be freemen to mark the brand of servitude upon us. But we are not the degraded race you would make us. We came amongst you as mechanics or traders and following every honorable business of life.

Tong K. Achick further used his own case as a naturalized citizen to refute Bigler’s claim that no Chinese made the United States their permanent domicile or applied for citizenship. Tong similarly argued, “If the privileges of your laws are open to us, some of us will doubtless acquire your habit, your language, your ideas, and become citizens. And we will become good citizens.”

In the 1870s, anti-Chinese racism became an incendiary political force in San Francisco, with “The Chinese Must Go” becoming the central demand of the so-called Workingman’s Party. The Chinese question was revived in the context of changing economic landscape after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The railroad did not bring unalloyed prosperity to the Pacific coast. Not only did former railroad workers, both white and Chinese, flock to the cities, but the railroad also brought more people from the East coast, both trends adding to unemployment.

The railroad also brought cheap, mass produced goods from the east, cutting into the market of craftsmen and artisans. Chinese workers were not responsible for these broad dynamics but they were useful as a scapegoat. And the Workingmen’s Party was soon co-opted by the state Democratic Party. Eventually, anti-coolieism triumphed in national politics, but only after a revision of the Burlingame Treaty with China in 1868, which provided for free immigration and overcoming the legacy of anti-slavery politics in the North.

This cartoon by Thomas Nast is actually an anti-exclusion cartoon. It shows Colombia, a symbol of America, trying to protect an abject Chinaman in the face of a mob which he has caricatured as Irish.

Chinese Exclusion passed Congress in 1882, the result of a political alliance between the West and the South, the two bastions of conservative politics and white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction era. The coolie trope was so ubiquitous in the United States, I was surprised that it was not part of the anti-Chinese discourse on the Australian gold fields. But it would not have had the same purchase there because the history of bound labor, or unfreedom, in Australia was not African slavery, but convict transportation of the English and Irish poor. Anti-Chinese racism was more encoded on the Victorian gold fields. There was no theory of coolieism, like the one that had developed in California. More relevant was Australians’ insecurity at being a small population at the fringes of the British Empire in Asia. There were only 400,000 whites in Australia in 1850, and they feared being overwhelmed by China’s large population. For example, the Melbourne Argus wrote, “Geographically, we are nearer the pent up millions of China than any other large tract of country occupied by the white man. We are still but a handful of men and women and children.”

The coolie trope entered Australian politics later in the 1870s in Queensland, where whites felt threatened by Chinese and Pacific Islander workers in mining as well as agriculture. Australia poses an interesting case for us: where plantations using cheap colored labor were not on separate island colonies like Jamaica or Mauritius, but in areas that were contiguous to white settlements in the temperate zones, areas that whites had staked out for themselves. In both New South Wales and Victoria, as in California, the coolie trope became adopted by white workingmen’s movements in the cities, even though Chinese labor was not in any of these places a substantial threat to white labor.

The urban labor movement in Sydney and Melbourne adopted coolie themes from California which served to rally trade unions to the nationalist agenda, unabashedly called White Australia. In South Africa, skilled white workers on the mines included many Australian immigrants, including the leaders of the British trade union, so they were direct carriers of anti-coolieism and the White Australia policy to South Africa.

Another source of anti-racism was in Afrikaner politics, which viewed Chinese labor as a threat to poor whites who suffered from high levels of unemployment and poverty after the South African war. Although Chinese indentured labor was strictly controlled, white South Africans feared that they would make their way into semi-skilled and skilled jobs and pave the way for their even greater fear that native African workers would do the same. This was a time when the color line in South Africa was not yet hardened. The Chinese question was a problem that complicated the so-called Native question, and its resolution — that is Chinese exclusion — was necessary for the Native question to be fully addressed.

Chinese labor in South Africa also shot into metropolitan British politics as a key campaign issue in the 1906 general elections in Great Britain. Charges that Chinese on the Rand were kept in conditions “akin to slavery” helped bring the Liberal Party to power, overturning twenty years of nearly continuous conservative rule. It was especially powerful for the liberals’ labor allies, which echoed the abolitionist rhetoric, but which was, in my view, more moved by the question of working class emigration to the British settler colonies which they viewed as their own racial prerogative. So in these ways the Chinese question and the coolie trope circumnavigated the Anglophone world, starting in California and adapting as it moved across the antiquities, and to South Africa and then to metropolitan Britain itself.

To the extent that they criticized the so-called slavery of Chinese workers, they did not call for their freedom, for free immigration, or for equal rights. They called for their exclusion. This point was not lost on the Chinese. Also traversing the globe were protests and resistance by the Chinese immigrants themselves, especially among merchant leaders and Christians who are educated and bilingual. Yuan Sheng and Tong K. Achick in San Francisco, who I mentioned earlier, as well as men like Lowe Kong Meng and Louis Amoy in Australia. They were joined by Qing diplomats and consular officials who were direct conduits between Chinese communities abroad and the central government in Beijing. The Qing Council in San Francisco in the 1880s, a man named Huang Zunxian worked tirelessly on behalf of the immigrants and was instrumental in bringing lawsuits to protest discrimination. Tape v. Hurley, the school exclusion case, which I wrote a book about, and yet Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the famous Supreme Court case that struck down San Francisco’s discriminatory laundry ordinance, but more importantly confirmed that equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applied to all persons, not just citizens, and to matters of economic affairs.

In the last section of the book, I consider the relationship of exclusion policies in the West to China’s position in the global economy and global politics. Most directly, exclusion meant fewer outlets for Chinese merchants and investors in the West. Exclusion meant a shrinking population, and therefore a shrinking ethnic market, and many of the biggest merchants in California and Australia returned to China or relocated elsewhere. For example, many Chinese retailers left Australia. Some of them founded the big department stores in Shanghai and Hong Kong with chains that spread throughout Southeast Asia. This reflects a general trend in which exclusion policies redirected the energies of Chinese immigrant labor and capital to Southeast Asia.

The decline of silver prices relative to gold and the late 19th century had a direct impact on China, whose monetary system continued to be based on silver when the gold standard came to dominate international trade. The declining gold price of silver meant that China’s imports were costlier. But it also spurred nationalist sentiments among Chinese reformers who argued that China should develop her own industries and manufacturers and not rely on imports from abroad.

The gold standard also influenced the second major round of war indemnities imposed upon China at the turn of the 20th century. The Opium War indemnities in the mid-century were 7.5 million pounds, and were reckoned in silver dollars and tails. After the first Sino-Japanese war in 1896, Japan demanded a 50 million pound indemnity — an enormous increase — and demanded that it be paid in gold. China had to borrow on the international market at a time when silver prices were declining, and the indemnity allowed Japan not only to pay the cost of its war, but also to establish sufficient reserves to adopt gold as its monetary standard. Its gold deposits in London established a credit for the construction of Japan’s first steel mill.

The Boxer Protocol of 1901 was even more punishing. The eight powers — that is the Europeans, the U.S., and Japan — demanded an indemnity of 67.5 million pounds in gold, over 39 years at 4% annual interest. By 1938, China had paid out over 91 million pounds.

Two American economists writing about China’s foreign trade in the early 20th century made special note of the role that overseas Chinese remittances played in China’s balance of trade accounts. Remittances ranged from an estimated $50 million a year between 1902 and 1913, to double that amount by the 1920s. Counted as assets, remittances enabled China to carry a modest net surplus in her balance of trade. So, even as exclusion policies shut Chinese out of the social and economic mainstream in the West, the immigrants carried gold dust home to their villages in the linings of their jackets and sent foreign exchange through what they called silver letters. The fluctuating rates of exchange between gold and silver were not just matters for accountants and finance seers; Chinese immigrants followed them as well. They always knew how remittances sent in foreign exchange would translate to local currency in the villages. One of the ironies of a Chinese question is that overseas Chinese in the United States, Australia, and Southeast Asia held on to their savings and remitted large amounts to China when the price of silver dropped.

Finally, it must be said that the circumnavigation of the Chinese question was not only the foundation for Chinese exclusion policies and the West. The Chinese question was also a catalyst for Chinese nationalism in China, which developed in connection with the politics of diasporic communities. Leading anti-Qing figures like Huang Zunxian, actively organized among Chinese overseas. Opposition to the Chinese Exclusion laws in the U.S. led to the famous 1905 boycott of American-made goods in Shanghai and other cities, which catalyzed the reform and revolutionary movements that finally brought down the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

The Republic of China was not able to convince the United States and the British dominions to repeal their exclusion laws. The United States did so in 1943 as a wartime measure, but it kept quotas on Chinese and other Asian immigrants very low — one hundred and five a year. It was only after 1965 in the United States, and in the 1970s elsewhere, that restrictions on Chinese immigration eased. In the last fifty years, the Chinese population in the United States and Australia grew with new immigrations and new, robust communities that were built. Still, the Chinese question never completely went away. It was always just beneath the surface.

In our own time, the Chinese question is tied to anxieties about China’s rise as a world economic power. In the United States, Asian Americans make up less than 6% of the total population, less than 6%. Yet many white Americans still believe there are too many Asians in this country, and that they are a threat — blamed for the coronavirus and myriad social ills. We see the coolie trope repurposed, now embodied in the figure of factory workers in special economic zones in China, and in the Chinese international students and Chinese American students at American universities. Both the factory worker and the student are imagined as robotic, who study or work insanely long hours without complaint under the rule of despotic masters, whether the Communist Party or tiger moms. They are unfair competition because they are not normal.

As a historian, I do not believe that history simply repeats itself. Racism is produced and reproduced in specific historical and political circumstances. This helps us understand that racism is not some innate product of the human condition, and that indeed, if it is political in nature, it can also be opposed and undone. We have choices.

The great African American leader Frederick Douglass spoke out against Chinese exclusion in 1869, and he understood this point. He recognized Chinese exclusion was a backward move that threatened the freedom of the former slaves and indeed of all Americans. In a famous speech he delivered here in Boston, the composite nation, Douglass recognized that migration was a human right. He said we should welcome the Chinese and he was unbothered by the prospect that Chinese might come in large numbers. “Let them come,” he said. “Let us welcome them for they will all become a part of the nation.” And Douglass made a prescient connection between domestic immigration policy and imperialistic foreign policy. He said, “If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes, and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole would become the property only of a part.”

Frederick Douglass offered Americans a choice, a choice between a society based on democracy and inclusion, or one based on white supremacy, inequality, and exclusion. Sadly, it was the latter path that was taken in the late 19th century, in no small part owing to the political alliance between white supremacy in the South and the West.

We still have a choice: Should we choose a path toward a more inclusive future? Should we stand in solidarity against all racisms? Addressing anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism today is part of the larger struggle in the United States that is unfolding between equality and inequality, between democracy and, if I may say, authoritarianism. So thank you very much for your attention. I look forward to our conversation.

Takeo Rivera
Thank you so much. So, over the reception, we were talking a little bit about how this project came to be, and I was wondering if you would be able to recount a little bit, again, for the larger audience, what really inspired this? What catalyzed this project for you? I love that you went into this project wanting to slay the coolie myth, but were there additional kinds of historiographic interventions you wanted to make? What other dominant assumptions, within not just American history, but Asian American history, that you were sort of setting out to change with this book?

Mae Ngai
Thank you. Well, when I said I wanted to slay the coolie myth, the proximate reason was because I had a student who wrote a paper at my university at Columbia, in which he said the Chinese in California were coolies. I said, “That’s not true. I know that’s not true.” And he said, “But it’s written in all these books and articles.” And indeed, this was the dominant analysis and narrative available in the books at the time.

And when I went to examine the original texts that repeated this claim, this charge that they were coolies, it was based on what historians call cherry picking. It’s very selective use of a half dozen witness testimonies given before Congress in the 1870s. Now, if you go get this volume of testimonies it’s over 1,000 pages. And so he chose six quotes that were also very weak. They said things like, “Well, I’ve heard that they’d come on contracts.” It was very weak evidence. If you just even peruse the testimonies, you’ll find that there were many different opinions expressed; that was just one opinion, there are other opinions. And that itself is interesting to the historian, right? Why do people have such radically different opinions? So he cherry picked these quotes, and this book was very influential, written in the 1960s. And then, subsequently, other scholars repeated the same quotes.

Now, to me, it suggested that they didn’t actually go look at the original evidence, but they just repeated the quotes that they had read in this other man’s book, and then put it in a footnote without attributing it to the book that they read it in, but as though they had read it themselves. These are the practices that we teach our students are bad historical methods. You’re not supposed to cherry pick, and you’re not supposed to just repeat somebody else’s research as though it were your own.

So, it piles up, right? The same footnote just piles up. And I realized — and this is the historiographic question — that there’s a real disconnect between histories of Asian Americans and Chinese American history and U.S. history. So people who work in the West, in California, on gold mining are kind of going this way, and people who are writing Asian American histories are going this way. And so, as an Asian American, I knew that that wasn’t true, but I didn’t have the ammunition to tell the student that was wrong. So I said, Okay, I’m going to slay the coolie myth. And the reason why it was perpetuated for so long amongst scholars is because the sources are very scant. So it was an empirical challenge. I guess, if I’m going to say they’re not coolies, I have to say what they were and what they were not. And so that’s part of my talk, I told you what they were doing on the gold fields. So this was a real challenge to find all the needles and all the haystacks in all the libraries and records in California and elsewhere.

Takeo Rivera
That’s great. And what I really appreciate about that work in particular is we can think about the question of whether they’re coolies or not as merely a question of historical minutiae. But the truth is — and I think you laid this out beautifully during this talk — is that there are real stakes in thinking about how the Chinese American subject was conceptualized that lingers to this day with this very techno-Orientalist conception of, like, the Chinese international student. One quote that lingers with me is actually a translated quote from an anti-Chinese Cuban leaflet or something, where they called what they perceived to be coolies as mechanized meat. This idea of this soulless but endlessly working machine. So there’s this relationship of thoughtless labor, deeply efficient, good at maybe cranking out a math problem in the contemporary era, like post-Hart-Celler. But it doesn’t have a soul, right?

Mae Ngai
It has no soul, has no individual identity, has no will. It’s just a machine. And it’s not only deeply racist, but it was the rationale for the exclusion policies. Why do we want a race of robots who are going to work for pennies and undermine white labor? Right? So, if you recognize them as people who actually would like to earn as much as whites — and in some cases they did when they struggled and went on strike and things like that — but if you accuse them of being inherently unable to practice democracy, because democracy requires thought, will, purpose, you can’t have a country of citizens to deliberate on anything if those citizens have no soul and have no minds. So that was what was at stake was whether or not Chinese could racially be citizens. Could they be assimilated? It wasn’t just that they look different.

Takeo Rivera
Exactly. So they’re unliberatable, as it were. And of course the other intervention that you’re doing here is really demonstrating that no, the whole time they were resisting, the whole time they were producing their own local economies, the whole time they were producing their own methods. That they were not passively going on. And yet, the historical blinders are really quite remarkable: All this is in the historical record, but it took your incredible work to be able to show what should be obvious. It’s really quite remarkable. So if I could also ask, this is your third book, full manuscript anyway, full length, so I just want to start with Impossible Subjects and move on to The Lucky Ones. Tell us about the larger story that you see this fitting into in terms of the general trajectory.

Mae Ngai
I suppose, like Howard Zinn, I’m interested in the little people, but with this particular interest in the racialized and marginalized other subjects. And my contention in Impossible Subjects, which was about the origins of the so-called illegal alien, was about how that figure, both experientially and in terms of image, was crucial to the forming of modern America. And modern America is not just who’s included, but who’s excluded. I often will tell people, many descendants of Europeans who came in the early 20th century will say, “Well, my ancestors came the right way. They were legal. And they learned English and they assimilated.” Well, first of all, there were no restrictions, so everybody was legal. So it’s no great honor to be legal when everybody’s legal. And it’s also not true that they all learned English and assimilated. The first generation immigrants from any country, at any point in time, are not the ones who assimilate — it’s their children who do so. In some ways, the Chinese are very, very much like that kind of prototypical immigrant, but they were racially othered in such a way as to permanently exclude them from the body politic and from the the social fabric of this country.

Takeo Rivera
Absolutely. Can you talk a little bit about The Lucky Ones? Like how does that flow into this general narrative?

Mae Ngai
So when I was researching Impossible Subjects, I was in the National Archives looking at records from the Department of Labor. At that time, in the early 20th century, the immigration was housed in the Labor Department. So I came across a report written about an investigation of Chinese interpreters that worked for the immigration service. It was profiles of a dozen men, and it was mostly about how corrupt they were. And the most corrupt person that they talked about was an interpreter named Frank Tape. Now, that is not a Chinese name, and the name jumped out at me because there is a famous California civil rights case called Tape v. Hurley, which is about the exclusion of Chinese from public schools in San Francisco, 1886.

So I said, “Oh, I wonder if this is related to that case.” So, you know, now you can go to the Census manuscripts online, so I looked up Tape and he was the brother of the little girl in that lawsuit. Then, as I’m looking at the census records, I see that not only was he an interpreter, his sister married an immigration interpreter, and another sister married an interpreter in the police court in San Francisco. And the father was an occasional interpreter, but he was an immigrant broker, who was the transportation and ticket agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

So, when you think about that kind of brokering — and interpreting as also kind of brokering — then I started thinking about this family as immigrant brokers. And they are a special section of any immigrant community who help the immigrants and mainstream institutions do business with each other that they can’t do otherwise. So, the government can’t bring somebody to court because they don’t understand what he’s saying, an immigrant can’t buy a ticket for a steamship without somebody who speaks the language, so there’s a special role that they play. And these immigrant brokers in the late 19th century, that was the only way a Chinese person could get into the mainstream middle class. I mean, there were wealthy Chinese in the community who were merchants and leaders of ethnic associations, but the only way you could work for a white company or for the government and have a middle class income was as a broker.

And what interested me about these brokers was that they were both kind of marginal, but also powerful, because both sides depended on them. And they were both for civil rights — you know, the family pioneered this school exclusion case — but they weren’t. Some of them were also corrupt: they extorted immigrants, they took bribes to fix their cases.

So I began to think about inclusion and exclusion not as a linear path. You know, we often think about Chinese or Asian American history, or immigrant history in general, like, we came, we were oppressed, then we assimilated, and then we became included, right? It’s just a linear path from exclusion to inclusion. And I’m saying, “Well, here’s the family that they were doing all those things at the same time, and those things were actually dynamically related as part of the formation of the community. So the book is told as a story about a family. If you’re interested, if you like that kind of micro history, it’s a story about the family, and so it’s kind of an easy read. But it’s trying to make a larger argument about Asian American history that tries to move away from this exclusion to inclusion, but more look at those two dynamics as being interrelated.

Takeo Rivera
There seems to be this kind of lovely accordion playing though, the macro to the micro to the macro. You use the phrase brokerage and I’m thinking about the Tape family, but there seems to be brokerage in the Chinese question as well. That much of the Chinese workers were exercising political power and utilizing this sort of liminal spaces and their positionality to acquire certain gains.

I’m going to ask maybe one more question before we turn to the audience. It’s kind of a detour but I think what’s really fantastic in what you’re doing is so much of the Chinese question. It’s lovely because it’s a transnational scope, while at the same time, you’re also locating the start of the discourse within a specific Californian historical moment, too. So there’s something about California as an exceptional site with respect to the racialization of Chinese in the Anglophone world, for example. And yet, the two of us are both doing Asian American studies on the east coast. So  I sort of want to ask, what do you think about the state of Asian American studies, as a field, as a discipline, on this side of the country, removed from California?

Mae Ngai
Well, that’s in part a political question. I mean, there are many Asian Americans who live on the east coast and around the country, but California was the first major site of settlement and its very old communities. And so in many universities across the West, up and down the west coast, universities and colleges have Asian American studies programs, they have ethnic studies departments and programs. And that’s been very slow to translate to the east coast.

There are some major universities that have Asian American studies or ethnic studies programs. Columbia has a very modest ethnic studies program, of which I’m the co-director. Harvard has a very storied African American studies program, but does not have an ethnic studies program. So Asian American students and Latino students and Native American students at Harvard are always on ongoing protest. And I’m very pleased that Boston University is going to do a search for an Asian American historian this year. So, it’s a process. It’s slow, but, you know, if you want to have a picture or an analysis of Asian American people in this country you cannot limit it to the west coast. And there were Chinese. I mean, even Shang, who I talked about, was in South Carolina in 1821. How do you get there? I suspect he came on one of the clipper ships with the tea trade and got off in New York. But how did he get to South Carolina? I don’t know; we don’t have any records of that.

But there were Chinese settling on the east coast in Massachusetts in the 1870s. There were Chinese that were brought as strikebreakers  — the town of North Adams. And New York’s Chinatown has a very long history. So these are all part of the story. And when you do local histories you begin to see different kinds of patterns. Different stories, different histories, and then we get a richer picture of the country that way.

Takeo Rivera
Thank you. All right, well, I think we’ll turn it over to the audience. I’m sure there are folks who want to ask some questions. There are two microphones. I believe they’re both active and for folks who are watching online, feel free to type in questions. I think there’s a portal for that. Yes, please, sir.

Question 1:
Thank you for your lovely talk. Since history seems to inevitably repeat itself, when I listen to you talk about the plight of the Chinese Americans, and you talk about Frederick Douglass, and I see what’s happening in America now with the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-immigration. When you look at the current world we’re in in this country, through the vantage point of history, how does it make you feel? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Mae Ngai
Well, I have to take my cue from Howard Zinn, who is not a pessimist, and who said it’s about possibility. I mean, things look very dismal right now in our country and in much of the world. That has to be said. But I think we always have a choice. We always have a choice. I mean, hope comes from knowing that we have choices. And any individual may feel their choices are very limited, but collectively we have a choice. And I really do not believe that the majority of people in this country are racists. I don’t believe that. But, some people have rigged the system. They’ve rigged elections, they’ve gerrymandered, so a minority interest has power.

And so there’s a lot of work that we need to do. It’s not just the fate of our democracy, it’s the fate of the planet, it’s the future of the planet. I don’t know this campus, but I would think that students at BU are not unlike students at my university or other places. This is the world we’re giving them, and they are not pessimistic. The most pressing issue, I think, among the young generation is not anti-racism; it’s climate. And they understand race and racism and anti-racism, I think, in that context — that you cannot save the planet if you have divided societies, if you have hate, if you have violence. And so I think that I learn a lot from my students and I’m always inspired by them, because they know that they hold the future of the planet in their hands much more than we do. And so I take inspiration from that. I take hope from that, from young people.

I recently became a grandmother, and I have to look at my little grandchild and think: he’s going to grow up and what kind of world is he going to inherit? But also, what kind of world is he going to fight for himself? I think that I’m not an optimist by nature, but I do feel hopeful. And I guess it’s hope more than optimism, because the challenges are really immense. But I don’t think we’re living through a repeat of history, per se, right now.

I think China is in a very different position in the world, obviously. It’s not a question of containing China, but more what is perceived as a real economic competition from China. And I personally believe that the rhetoric and the leadership of the United States and China are both bad. Biden has continued Trump’s policy that considers China a strategic adversary. That’s very dangerous. Now, Xi Jinping’s rhetoric is also ultra-nationalist and is not positive either. So I don’t see what good is going to come from both countries promoting ultra-nationalistic. Maybe it’s because of the climate and the shrinking resources in the world. The impulse to hoard and to compete for scarce resources is the new scramble for resources going on around the world. But we need to be aware of these things, and we need to say, if we’re going to save the planet we can’t be having a fight over a zero-sum fight over shrinking resources. That’s very different today than it was in the 19th century. We do have more inclusive policies on campuses, and I think students are more apt to have friends across ethnic lines and racial lines than they did fifty years ago. They still hang out with their own people but they have much more cross racial and cross ethnic interactions and friendships. So I think that’s a reason for hope.

Takeo Rivera
I’m really glad you brought up the question of race and climate change together because sometimes conceptually we don’t think of them side by side when they really are conjoined. Particularly, not just in terms of the question of environmental racism, but I think one thing that I’m taking from your book is, I think you use the phrase of yellow and gold, and how, for the Chinese folks transnationally, there was this deep attachment to gold as a physical resource. You do such a wonderful job of laying out the material history of gold in the book.

Similarly, I think about Ping Chong’s play Chinoiserie and how he associates the Chinese diaspora with tea. So there’s always these sort of physical, material things that come from the earth that become associated with their racialization as well, that racialization is not separate from the material stuff of the planet. Which also means that there’s something to be said about climate change and race, maybe even being co-constitutive in a new way in this century. So that’s a very powerful thing to think about. Any other questions? Yes, come on up.

Question 2:
First of all, thank you for a really wonderful presentation. I teach a course on U.S.-China relations, so I will certainly use your book in my classes in the future. I wanted to ask something about the coolies: A colleague of mine in Paris published this 1875 treatise that was published in Canton, in Chinese, which details the hell that migrants to Cuba and Peru were suffering. And those were really bound by contracts, they were kidnapped. So could you maybe make a connection, since your book is about global history, to that phenomenon and how it differs from what was going on in the United States?

Mae Ngai
Thank you, that’s a really important question. So right, not all Chinese were voluntary immigrants, as those that came to the United States or Australia came to the so-called Anglophone West. There were large numbers of Chinese and Indian workers who were recruited to work on plantations in the Caribbean, in South America, and in other places like Mauritius and Fiji. But in the Caribbean, in particular, because after the abolition of slavery there was a need for a replacement labor force. And so these were indentures that were recruited according to various levels of coercion. Some of them signed contracts willingly because they had the hope of something better than the poverty that they lived in. And some of them were literally kidnapped. So it was a range of things. And the conditions on the plantations were horrible.

The Chinese were recruited to work on the Guano Islands off the coast of Peru. Guano is bird poop that’s used for fertilizer and was an extremely important industry in the 19th century. And in Cuba, Chinese indentures, or coolies, worked side-by-side with African slaves, because Cuba didn’t abolish slavery until the 1880s. So the document you’re talking about in 1875, was the report made by Chinese commissioners who had a delegation to investigate the conditions in Cuba. It was a commission that included Chinese investigators as well as Europeans. And so the report is very interesting as a historical document because it includes interviews with the workers and they describe the conditions that they work under.

So I’d like to say two things about that. First, and also less known is that the commissioners also traveled to Peru. So, after that report was issued the Qing government ended all labor contracts to Cuba and Peru. I mean, the Qing is notoriously weak and unable to do anything to protect its people, but in this instance, they ended labor immigration to Cuba and Peru. And in the case of the British controlled colonies — the British are famous for having rules and regulations for everything — so there’s a huge body of law protecting contract labor, immigration, and those rules are probably honored more in the breach than in reality, but it had a semblance of legal protection for the immigrants. But the Qing stopped the immigration to Cuba and Peru.

The second thing I want to say, though, is that this idea that the Chinese who go to the Caribbean as indentures were the really abject coolies, I think, has to be modified somewhat, because they also were not without individuality, will, agency. They also took labor actions, they would go on strike, they filed complaints with whoever they were legally able to file a complaint with. So they had resistance to their condition. And also, they were not chattels; they could buy their freedom, and their contracts had limits. So if they survived, they could return to China, or they could become a free person in those countries.

So, in Peru you have a relatively small population of Asian-descended, Chinese-descended people who, after their contracts, married local women and became members of the community. So even the coolie label for the indentures that go to the plantation colonies, I think, is also kind of freighted with a lot of racial stereotypes that we are accustomed to.

So slaying the coolie myth in North America is one thing. Dare we slay the coolie myth in Cuba? I think that’s a really provocative research agenda. So, there’s a historian at Brown, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, who has worked on Cuba, Chinese and Cuba, and she is the one who started thinking about this problem. Well, after they finish their contracts, they don’t want to have a farm and they marry, so can you really say that they were coolies in that sense, in terms of being completely abject and without any kind of agency? So I think that’s a whole research agenda that could be really generative in how we think about it. But I’m done with this question; someone else is going to have to do that.

Takeo Rivera
Alright, so it looks like we’ve got some questions from the internet.

Question 3:
Professor, can you tell us is there a sequel to The Chinese Question in the works, a manuscript slaying the coolie myth?

Mae Ngai
Well, I think that as we just discussed, there’s a lot that could be, or should be, researched and said about the Chinese question elsewhere in the world. But I’m going to leave that to some enterprising graduate student perhaps to take that up or another scholar.

Question 4:
Hello, I’m Lincoln, I’m actually in one of his classes. So, it’s been my experience —  being an Asian person from Iowa — I’m just wondering how, in the study of Asian Americanism and that kind of thing, we can incorporate not just the west coast and east coast, but also the middle west and the South. Because it’s been my experience as well that the way different regions react to different kinds of Asian peoples and different percentages, is there even enough of this ethnic group for there to be a real population or even an ethnic neighborhood of these people? But I’m also wondering, has it been long enough since Asian people have been in the middle west and sizable enough populations to accurately study this? Maybe that wasn’t a good, pointed question. But I was just wondering, is it too early, maybe, and if it’s not too early, how can we kind of broaden our view?

Mae Ngai
Thank you for that. We absolutely have to look at all parts of the country, not just the west coast and the east coast. I don’t know how many of you have driven across the United States. Anywhere you stop, there’s a Chinese restaurant. And some of them are very old — you can go into towns in Wyoming or Arizona or Texas and they look like they’re from a 1950s postcard. So, why do we have all these Chinese restaurants across the country? In part, it’s because when the Chinese worked on the railroad — because they not only built the western part of the transcontinental railroad, they also worked on a lot of trunk lines and smaller lines — and so often they would stop working on the road and open a restaurant in a town. They would open restaurants that fed other Chinese workers and fed other workers. And so, kind of famous Chinese American food like Chop Suey is not a Chinese dish it’s something that’s made up of leftovers and of things that white people would eat. And so you have all these Chinese restaurants that go across the country, and they sometimes become a kind of nucleus for a little community. So that’s one thing.

Nowadays, Chinese restaurants pop up everywhere. And there’s a network that does this. So if you go to New York’s Chinatown, you can go to an employment agency and they will have jobs in Chinese restaurants everywhere, at least everywhere on the east coast. And there are buses, they call them the Chinatown buses, that take workers to small towns in Pennsylvania, or to Atlanta, Georgia, or wherever. They also have, it’s not really a school, but they have kind of a situation where you can learn to be a cook in a Chinese restaurant.

I mean, not all Chinese people are restaurant chefs, and not all Chinese immigrants know how to run a restaurant. But it’s an industry, so that’s where there’s jobs and there are opportunities. Oftentimes, an immigrant can buy a restaurant from somebody who doesn’t want to work it anymore, or who’s worked there for a long time and their kids don’t want the restaurant. So they sell it and it’s relatively low threshold of capital investment. And there’s a ready-made market and customer base. In New York, they can teach you to make General Tso’s chicken, and they teach you how to make all those dishes. Those dishes are not what people eat in China. They have to be learned here. So there’s a whole kind of network of business acquisition and labor that is centered in New York. And they fan out.

Then in the last thirty or so years, you have really large Asian American communities in the middle west that stem from refugee settlements after the Vietnam War. So you have a huge population of Hmong in Minnesota — of course, that’s the real center — but also in Nebraska, in Omaha, and other places, and they are recruited to work often in meatpacking plants. So they are not huge populations, but they’re substantial, they’re full communities, with all different kinds of social classes, businesses, churches, etc. And they run for office, they’re among Americans who’ve been elected in cities in Nebraska and in Minnesota. So these are important kinds of communities to study, and I don’t think it’s a question of having to wait until we get to a certain threshold of population. Even a small community might really teach us a lot about something. So thank you for your interest and your question.

ABOUT Mae Ngai

Mae Ngai is Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History, and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. She  is a U.S. legal and political historian interested in the histories of immigration, citizenship, nationalism, and the Chinese diaspora. Ngai is author of the award winning Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004); The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010); and The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (2021). Ngai has written on immigration history and policy for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, the Nation, and Dissent. Before becoming a historian, she was a labor union organizer and educator in New York City, working for District 65-UAW and the Consortium for Worker Education. She is now writing Nation of Immigrants: A Short History of an Idea (Princeton University Press).

ABOUT Takeo Rivera

Takeo Rivera is an assistant professor in English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Boston University. He is a specialist in performance studies with a focus on race, sexuality, and gender in U.S. American cultural production. His current project, Model Minority Masochism, is focused on masochism and techno-orientalism in Asian American cultural production across multiple media, including theater, literature, graphic novels, historical archives, and video games.