The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1988, Volume 34, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

The Chinese Experience in America.

By Shih-Shan Henry Tsai. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Appendices. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 223 pages. $29.95 Hardcover. $9.95 Paperback.

Reviewed by Judith Liu, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology / Sociology, University of San Diego.

San Diego has never had a large Chinatown. Although Chinese were reportedly engaged in fishing as early as 1850, the first enumeration of Chinese in San Diego was not until the 1870 census. The typical Chinese to migrate to San Diego was male, single, or if married, unaccompanied by his wife. With neither family nor the intention of establishing permanent residence in America, the Chinese tended to be a highly mobile population traveling to where work was available. In San Diego, the Chinese were initially employed as day laborers in the construction of local railroads. Later, they were employed in the building of steam and electric motor lines, by the water company, by the San Diego Street Car Company, and by local brickyards.

To better understand the Chinese experience not only in San Diego, but California in general, one might consider Shih-Shan Henry Tsai’s book. Tsai begins with a description of nineteenth century Chinese immigration, moves on to the development of the early Chinese community in America – especially California – and discusses the evolution of anti-Chinese sentiments and their consequences. In the final two chapters, Tsai discusses the Chinese American community from World War II to the present.

This is a difficult book to recommend because it is not entirely clear to what audience this book is directed. Although Tsai’s intent was to provide “a solid statistical analysis that will be accessible to students and scholars as well as general readers,” a general reader could get lost in the historical detail so painstakingly presented in the first four chapters. Scholastically, these chapters are formidable reading, but they reward the reader with a wealth of information not normally found in general texts about the Chinese. By researching Chinese as well as United States government documents, Tsai has provided valuable information for students and scholars interested in both sides of the Chinese immigration question. It is on this point that these chapters are most useful.

Although technically well-written, the text suffers from the typical weaknesses of general overviews. The book is too broad to treat any of its subjects in depth, to have a readable style, to be well-organized, or to offer any thoughtful analysis. Tsai takes the trouble of wading through an enormous number of documents to find the names of individual participants. Once named, however, Tsai goes no farther. Instead the reader is subjected to a seemingly never-ending stream of facts and figures without ever obtaining a feel for the people involved.

The last two chapters are particularly difficult to reconcile with the purpose of the book which is to discuss “the differing experiences of three groups: sojourners, ABC (American-born Chinese), and student-immigrants.” It is a difficult task for any book, much less one of 223 pages. Further, these three categories are not an exhaustive description of the “Chinese experience” in America; hence, the book neglects many groups which do not fit neatly into these categories – principally, the recent Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Moreover, in discussing student-immigrants, Tsai focuses upon students for the Republic of China to the almost total exclusion of the students from the People’s Republic of China.

The value of this book is largely in the fine scholarship Tsai exhibits in the first four chapters. Students or scholars will find it an excellent resource. One only wishes the same could be said for the remainder of the book.