The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1999, Volume 45, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Surviving on Gold Mountain: A History of Chinese American Women and Their Lives. By HuPing Ling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 252 pp.

Reviewed by Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, Departments of Women’s Studies and Asian Studies. San Diego State University.

Surviving on the Gold Mountain records the immigrant experience of Chinese women to the United States. Ling goes back to the 1840s to construct the beginnings of Chinese immigration. Ling does an excellent job in bringing together major references and records pertaining to Chinese women in the United States, but such an exhaustive attempt has led to a lack of depth in her analysis.

Part One deals with the earliest period of Chinese women’s immigration. Though covering almost a century from 1840s to 1943, Ling tries to understand the motives for migration and mainly talks about two classes of women — merchant wives and prostitutes. Part Two discusses postwar Chinese American women who migrated between 1943-1965. In 1943 Chinese exclusion acts were repealed and this proved to be a turning point for Chinese immigration. Ling mentions that there was a favorable image of Chinese created in the public which led to higher levels of employment in the professional sector. But one has to keep in mind that the anti-Asian sentiment had shifted to the Japanese and that is why the Chinese were being wooed by the Americans. In fact one has historically seen that the situation of any Asian American group in this country is directly related to foreign relations between the United States and that particular Asian country. This can be seen presently with the insecurities being expressed by the Chinese American community since the reporting of the nuclear espionage case. Ling explains that most Chinese women in this period migrated because of the political situation in China, and came to study or look for jobs, unlike the earlier immigrants who came as wives and prostitutes. Ling gives many examples of middle class women who came during this period and were able to succeed in life despite the existence of racial discrimination.

Part Three covers the period from 1965 to the 1990s. In 1965 immigration laws opened up the way for a third wave of Asian immigrants. Ling attributes the success of Chinese women during this era to the civil rights movement which led to the liberalization of higher education in universities. The introduction of Asian studies and Asian-American studies, according to Ling, helped in the interest and acceptance of Chinese immigrants to this country. Educational achievement of Chinese Americans largely contributed to their economic success. Ling gives examples of Connie Chung, Michelle Kwan, Maya Lin and others to prove how successful Chinese women have been in this society. Without taking away from their successes, one is left feeling at a loss about the struggles of Chinese women from other classes.

The book ends up being a descriptive narrative of the various immigration laws, dates and reasons for migration. There is no doubt that in trying to handle a monumental task as this, coherence and specificity is hard to maintain; the book suffers from the lack of both. One of the problems with Ling’s analysis is the absence of a class analysis to better understand the status of Chinese women in this society. Another major flaw is her reading of Chinese women’s lives mainly through the experiences of middle class and elite women. While she does mention the situation of working class Chinese women, it is only in passing. Huping Ling’s book, despite certain drawbacks, does add to the burgeoning literature on Chinese American women and should be useful for the facts and figures it contains.

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