Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present

Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present

Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present

Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present


Described by others as quaint and exotic, or as depraved and threatening, and, more recently, as successful and exemplary, the Chinese in America have rarely been asked to describe themselves in their own words. This superb anthology, a diverse and illuminating collection of primary documents and stories by Chinese Americans, provides an intimate and textured history of the Chinese in America from their arrival during the California Gold Rush to the present. Among the documents are letters, speeches, testimonies, oral histories, personal memoirs, poems, essays, and folksongs; many have never been published before or have been translated into English for the first time. They bring to life the diverse voices of immigrants and American-born; laborers, merchants, and professionals; ministers and students; housewives and prostitutes; and community leaders and activists. Together, they provide insight into immigration, work, family and social life, and the longstanding fight for equality and inclusion. Featuring photographs and extensive introductions to the documents written by three leading Chinese American scholars, this compelling volume offers a panoramic perspective on the Chinese American experience and opens new vistas on American social, cultural, and political history.


The story of the Chinese in America has been curiously told. In most accounts, they have been mute. Although they have been integral to this country’s history, their voices have rarely been included by either their historical contemporaries or subsequent writers. Although one historian of their experience even described them as “silent sojourners,” in fact, they were ignored. They were laborers who helped build much of the American West in the nineteenth century, but they were not asked what they felt about their toil; they were the victims of murderous violence, social ostracism, and discriminatory legislation, but they were not asked for their reaction; their lives were described variously as quaint and exotic, as depraved and threatening, and more recently as successful and exemplary, but they were not asked to describe their own lives in their own terms. Missionaries, journalists, and historians may have written about what the Chinese in America did or what was done to them, but they often neglected to consult the Chinese themselves.

The first scholarly book devoted entirely to the Chinese in America appeared as early as 1909. Chinese Immigration, by Mary Roberts Coolidge, a sociologist who espoused many causes, was as much an attack on unscrupulous labor leaders and opportunist politicians behind the anti-Chinese movement as a defense of the Chinese, whom she saw as indispensable labor in the building of the American West. Openly sympathetic to the Chinese, Coolidge tried to discuss their social life, community organizations, and customs, but she fell short because her source materials (government

1. Gunther Barth, Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850–1870 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 7.

2. Mary Roberts Coolidge, Chinese Immigration (New York: Henry Holt, 1909).

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