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

By Lim, Julian | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

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


Lim, Julian, Labour/Le Travail


Elliott Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2014)

BEGINNING IN THE MID-19TH century, millions of Chinese left the southeastern coast of China for new opportunities in other parts of Asia and across the Pacific Ocean. For many readers, the history of Chinese immigration to the United States is well-trodden ground. In recent years, scholars have also begun to pay closer attention to Chinese migration to other destinations in the Americas. But while much of this work has been transnational and attentive to borderlands approaches, they have still remained largely constrained by a national or binational focus.

In a welcome departure, Elliott Young's Alien Nation provides a hemispheric and global perspective that builds on these earlier studies, bringing them together into one comprehensive analysis. Young allows the immigrants themselves to "determine the parameters of the study," (10) and thus follows the circuits of Chinese migration across the Pacific and to the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Peru from the 1840s to the 1940s. In doing so, he makes more clearly visible the extensive and complicated networks that brought at least 670,000 Chinese to Anglo North America (i.e., the United States and Canada) and close to 340,000 to Latin America over the course of a century. At the same time, he provides a more hemispheric view of the patterns of migration, arrival, discrimination, and exclusion that so many of them experienced throughout the Americas. He also provides a longer vision of Chinese migration to the Americas, bridging the "coolie trade" period of the mid-19th century with the post-1882 US exclusion period. While much of the scholarship on Chinese immigration treats these two periods as distinct, Young emphasizes continuities over time and place, connecting the strands to show how the racialized debates about immigrant Chinese labourers transformed anxieties about coolie labour into regulations to exclude or police the "illegal alien."

Divided into three parts, the book proceeds in roughly chronological order. Organizing the book thematically rather than by country, Young is equally committed to understanding the transnational experiences of immigrant Chinese labourers as well as the responses of various nation-states. In Part I, Young begins by exploring the ways in which the first wave of Chinese migration to the Americas from 1847 to 1874 was shaped by debates over coolie labour. The term "coolie" was typically associated with Chinese labour in Cuba and Peru--where conditions were frequently described as akin to slavery--and differentiated from the supposedly free or voluntary emigration to Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Advocates of Chinese labour migration thus emphasized freedom of contract principles that they saw inherent in the labour contracts and credit-ticket arrangements that facilitated Chinese migration. Critics of the Chinese, on the other hand, attacked Chinese labourers as cheap and easily exploitable coolies who were no different from slaves.

By focusing on the actual migration and labour experiences of the Chinese, however, Young erodes any sharp delineation between the migratory streams, showing how both groups were subject to varying degrees of extreme coercion and choice. The differences between Cuba and Peru, on the one hand, and the United States, Canada, and Mexico, on the other, "were distinctions of degree and not kind." (46) Moreover, Chinese labourers were not wholly victims and could exercise choice, even under extremely constrained circumstances. Though many were vulnerable to greedy recruiters and traders who frequently manipulated, deceived, and sometimes kidnapped young Chinese men, Young insists that most willingly chose to emigrate, "motivated by the eight-dollar advance and the prospect of earning three to four dollars a month" (42) to support their families. …

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