MIDDLEMEN ARE NEVER HEROES. EVERY immigrant community has middlemen because they serve an important function: they help immigrants deal with the larger society. Their work is often controversial. They may expect payment in loyalty, coin, tribute, or souls. Often, middlemen became immigrant communities’ most visible public figures, but their profile in history does not match their prominence in life.1 This book explores some of the most controversial political middlemen in the history of Canada and the United States: Chinese immigrant leaders during the Chinese Exclusion Era.2 It also probes the mystery of why their past became obscured.
Between the 1880s and 1940s, Canada and the United States implemented policies that excluded and harassed Chinese immigrants. In the face of immigration exclusion, anti-Chinese laws, and mob violence,3 Chinese sought political power to combat this discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943) barred the entry of all Chinese workers to the United States. Canada implemented a Chinese head tax (1885–1924) on entering Chinese workers, followed by the total exclusion of virtually all new Chinese immigrants (1923–1947).4 In this setting, Chinese political middlemen improvised, creating unofficial ties to mainstream institutions. Their persistence heightened public unease about nonwhite immigrants, as many Canadians and Americans felt that Chinese political middlemen threatened democracy. Frequently, they saw the middlemen as exploiters of non-English-speaking Chinese workers, who treated the