The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1977, Volume 23, Number 4
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Review

Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

The Life, Influence and the Role of the Chinese in the United States, 1776-1960: Proceedings/Papers of the National Conference held at The University of San Francisco, July 10, 11, 12, 1975. San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society, 1976. Bibliographies. Notes. Illustrations. xxxvi, 338 pages.

Reviewed by Roger Daniels, Professor and Head, History Department, University of Cincinnati, author of The Politics of Prejudice (2nd ed., 1977) and other works.

This is an uneven but valuable collection; the 39 separate contributions run the gamut from banal to profound. This review can only mention briefly those articles which make a scholarly contribution. Chief among these is an essay, unfortunately posthumous, by Robert A. Nash, “The `China Gangs’ in the Alaska Packers Association Canneries, 1892-1935”, pp. 257-283. Based on research in the previously untapped records of the association, it gives a clearer picture of the status of labor in that industry than we have heretofore had. Ronald Riddle has given us a brief but illuminating essay, “The Cantonese Opera: A Chapter in Chinese-American History”, pp. 40-47, drawn from his as yet unpublished Ph.D. dissertation at Indiana University. L. Eve Armentrout, “Conflict between the Chinese and Indigenous Communities in San Francisco, 1900-1911”, pp. 55-70, focuses intelligently on the still largely unexplored reactions of the Chinese community-or parts of it-to persecution. Loren B. Chan’s “Example for the Nation: Nevada’s Execution of Gee Jon”, pp. 102-115, is a deft study in local history. Stanford M. Lyman’s, “The Chinese Diaspora in America, 1850-1943”, pp. 128-146, the notes to which have been omitted, while skillful contains little that he has not published elsewhere. Robert G. Lee, “The Origins of Chinese Immigration to the United States, 1848-1882”, pp. 183-193, argues, correctly I think, that the historiography of Chinese immigration has suffered from “conceptual confusion” and suggests that a “Chinese context” is needed. Edward C. Lydon, “The Anti-Chinese Movement in Santa Cruz County, California, 1859-1900”, pp. 219-242, is a useful account of what happened in one of the state’s smaller counties.

In an article that will be particularly useful to advanced students and younger scholars, Jo Ann Williamson, Chief, Archives Branch, Federal Records Center, San Bruno, surveys the kinds of federal records that illuminate the Chinese American experience and lists the relevant holdings of her own institution, pp. 6-15. Appended is a useful 1972 digest of statutes and treaties affecting Chinese immigration by Charles Chan, pp. 15-24.

Much of the rest is either politics or filio-pietism; but special note must be taken of the memoir of Mrs. Wm. Z. L. Sung, “A Pioneer Chinese Family”, pp. 187-192. She is the fourth daughter of eleven children of the Rev. Nam Art Soo Hoo (1855-1920) who permanently emigrated-as a non-excluded missionary-teacher-in 1885. A brief listing of the careers of his descendants—down to the fourth generation—shows the kind of achieving family too often left out by overly sociological scholars.

Of the twenty pages of photographs only four are devoted to history; the rest are of the conferees, although there were slide and film presentations that are unillustrated.

There is one important dimension of Chinese American history that is almost completely ignored here: the role of Chinese as an immigrant group vis a vis other immigrant groups. Apart from an occasional complaint (eg. p. 193) that more attention has been paid to Japanese Americans than to Chinese Americans there is no comparative immigration history.

But more important than that or even the individual contributions is the fact that this meeting was held at all. It is another demonstration of the way in which the “new” ethnic consciousness has spurred the search for a usable past by ethnic groups, whether “melted” or “unmeltable”. If occasionally the organizers’ enthusiasm overstates the historical case–despite the bicentennial “1776” in the title there were no Chinese in the United States in the 1770s-they have done a service not only to the Chinese community but also to all who are interested in ethnic history by publishing these papers.