The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1983, Volume 29, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor
Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
A Place Called Chinese America. By Diane Mei Lin Mark and Ginger Chih. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1982. Appendices. Bibliography. Photographs. Index. 192 pages. $12.95. Paper.
Reviewed by David Du Fault, Associate Professor of History at San Diego State University who specializes in Asian and Asian-American history.
Immigrant groups in the United States have never ceased to attract interest. Often faced with extreme hostility, newcomers to America struggled to establish themselves in their new land. Coming from cultures much different from the culture dominant in the United States, immigrants labored strenuously to improve their lot. No group worked harder than the Chinese. And it is to explain and to celebrate the experiences of the Chinese that the authors have written this brief book-a volume “proposed and sponsored” by the Organization of Chinese Americans, “a national advocacy” group.
In twelve chapters the authors present the “dynamics of Chinese-American history, culture, and community.” Moving rapidly from the beginning prior to and during the Gold Rush in California through times of intense anti-Chinese hostility, to the arrival of new immigrants, the authors pause to look at the formation of Chinatowns, the role of women, contemporary social problems and change, achievements by Chinese Americans and finally in the penultimate chapter, the present conditions of Chinese America.
The authors’ attempt to encompass the totality of Chinese America in relatively few pages has positive and negative results. Chief among the positive features are the many photographs and the interviews conducted with Chinese Americans throughout the United States.
The photographs come from various sources. Many are especially expressive of the vitality of Chinese America-for example, those of an old man and a baby (p. 77), the Chung Hwa Four, a vaudeville quartet (p. 89), and two second-generation Chinese Americans standing next to an automobile (p. 85). Although most pictures are published here for the first time, a few have already appeared in In Movement, A Pictorial History of Asian America(1977).
Oral interviews are clearly a major source for the authors. Although quotations from the interviewees sometimes reinforce what is already well known (for example, that first generation Chinese Americans wanted to choose spouses for their children), they, nonetheless, effectively personalize the narrative.
Unfortunately, the book also has some less attractive features than the authors’ use of interviews and photographs. Foremost among these is the volume’s brevity. This necessarily limits some topics to one or two paragraphs. The authors characterize the 1950s in America in one half a page. The situation of various Chinatowns in that decade receives only one paragraph while health conditions in Chinatowns in the 1960s and 1970s get another one-half page.
Also, Mark and Chih mention so many organizations and achievements of Chinese Americans that their explanations of just what these organizations and individuals accomplished are superficial. For instance, what came from the organized protest about police brutality in New York in May 1975?
The authors are also especially favorable to “progressive organizations,” that is, to groups with “radical points of view.” These include the Communist Workers Party and other like organizations. The authors believe that in the 1970s these groups “presented persistent challenges to establishment leaders and the status quo,” even though the organizations lacked the “resources to transform the dominant structure of Chinatown. . . .”
The book suffers occasionally from overuse of impressionistic evidence. Mark and Chih employ footnotes sparingly. In their discussion of Asian Americans’ reaction to the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, the authors point to the obvious fact that Asians were being killed by Americans. This affected the American public’s “perception of Asian Americans.” But in what degree? The only source cited is an article written in 1971. Historians certainly will be bothered by the lack of solid evidence in this and other places.
Although the authors look at Chinese-American experiences throughout the country, the Chinese in Hawaii receive less emphasis than those living in San Francisco and New York. Finally, the bibliography is somewhat selective. Where, one wonders, are citations to the works of Stanford Lyman, Ivan Light, Clarence Glick, and Peter Kwong?
If scholars will find some faults, readers who want a basic understanding about life in Chinese America will be pleased with this book. The authors have caught in words and pictures the “beautiful spirit” of the Chinese who came and are still coming to the United States.