Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II

Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II

Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II

Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II


In this sweeping work, Elliott Young traces the pivotal century of Chinese migration to the Americas, beginning with the 1840s at the start of the "coolie" trade and ending during World War II. The Chinese came as laborers, streaming across borders legally and illegally and working jobs few others wanted, from constructing railroads in California to harvesting sugar cane in Cuba. Though nations were built in part from their labor, Young argues that they were the first group of migrants to bear the stigma of being "alien." Being neither black nor white and existing outside of the nineteenth century Western norms of sexuality and gender, the Chinese were viewed as permanent outsiders, culturally and legally. It was their presence that hastened the creation of immigration bureaucracies charged with capture, imprisonment, and deportation.

This book is the first transnational history of Chinese migration to the Americas. By focusing on the fluidity and complexity of border crossings throughout the Western Hemisphere, Young shows us how Chinese migrants constructed alternative communities and identities through these transnational pathways.


Do not deport the Chinese caught to be unlawfully within our
jurisdiction; have the law a mended and put the Chinaman in prison,
make it a felony to come into the United States clandestinely.
—Marcus Braun, “Undercover Report on Illegal Chinese Migration” (1907)

People moving across oceans and land borders are both visible and completely invisible to us. Governments have sought to track such movements since the nineteenth century, and yet millions managed to cross borders undetected by state authorities. These are the strangers, the aliens in our midst, who are excluded, and in their exclusion they give meaning to citizenship rights. the alien has been constructed as isolated, marginal, anxious, and deviant by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, but this is the view of the alien as seen through the lens of the nation. From the vantage point of the migrants themselves, we begin to see a transnational community that fits poorly in the national boxes to which historians too often consign their subjects.

On 2 January 1907, U.S. immigration inspector Marcus Braun witnessed the Chinese Commercial Steamship Company ship, the Alabama, land in Salina Cruz, Mexico, with 450 Chinese from Hong Kong. Braun had come to Mexico to investigate the clandestine migrant networks that funneled Chinese into the United States. His undercover operation began in Havana, one of the hotspots in a global network for clandestine migration. Trailing migrants on a ship bound for Veracruz, Mexico, he found 700 Spaniards looking for work in Mexico and 250 Syrians seeking clandestine entry into the United States, some of whom had already been rejected because they suffered from trachoma. Immigration inspectors had long suspected that Chinese and others crossed illegally into the United States from Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, but the secretive nature of smuggling made it difficult for them to fully appreciate the size and inner workings of these networks. Braun’s investigation cracked open a window on the transnational world of illegal migration that had been barely visible to state authorities.

This book is about new ways of seeing—making visible trajectories, path-

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