Blogs > Cliopatria > Tony Platt: Review of Jean Pfaelzer's Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans

Jun 6, 2007 1:14 am


Tony Platt: Review of Jean Pfaelzer's Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans



[Tony Platt is professor emeritus at California State University Sacramento and author, with Cecilia O'Leary, of"Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler's Nuremberg Laws, From Patton's Trophy to Public Memorial" (2006).]

Between 1840 and 1900, more than 2 million Chinese laborers left their homeland to work in plantations and mines around the world. Twenty-five thousand of them joined California's Gold Rush. By the 1860s, Chinese immigrants were a vibrant part of the state's economy, accounting in some rural counties for one of every five residents. But by the turn of the century, more than half of a Chinese American population that once reached 80,000 was gone - deported, exiled or dead -- and the survivors herded into urban ghettoes.

How and why this happened is the subject of "Driven Out," a complex and riveting portrait of one of the most neglected episodes in American history. Its author, University of Delaware Professor Jean Pfaelzer, pulls no punches: What the Chinese experienced in the Pacific Northwest reminds her of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and Nazism. Does she make her case and, if so, how come most people don't know about this reign of terror?
Pfaelzer is not the first historian to address this topic. Alexander Saxton's "The Indispensable Enemy" (1971), for example, explores how anti-Chinese racism drove a divisive wedge through California's labor movement; in "This Bittersweet Soil" (1986), Sucheng Chan reclaims the role played by Chinese immigrants in California's agricultural development; and in "A Different Mirror" (1993), Ronald Takaki humanizes the experiences of previously anonymous Chinese immigrants.
But Pfaelzer's book breaks new ground. It provides the first in-depth account of a protracted racist campaign that culminated in what the Chinese called pai hua -- the driven out; it rescues for history the hitherto forgotten story of a sophisticated and tenacious Chinese resistance movement; and it invites us to consider the relationship between anti-Chinese persecution and mainstream American racism.

Written for the most part in straightforward prose, "Driven Out" comes to life in its extraordinary illustrations and in the stories of the Chinese themselves, recovered by the author's enterprising research from letters, diaries, songs and legal documents. Pfaelzer traveled to many small towns throughout Northern California, where she excavated records from local historical societies and oral histories from longtime residents. Her base for many of these forays was the small coastal community of Big Lagoon (where, I should disclose, the author and I discussed race and eugenics in California, and for which she thanks me in her acknowledgements).

In gut-wrenching detail, "Driven Out" takes us from the first "race war" that took place locally between miners competing over gold diggings along the American River in the early 1850s, through the U.S. government's Exclusion Acts of 1882 and 1902, which banned immigration of Chinese people for 60 years. The campaign to identify, target, humiliate, segregate and "disappear" the Chinese was a tour de force, involving the participation and collusion of a wide swath of good Californians.
One hundred pogroms took place throughout the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the 19th century. Thousands of Chinese were rounded up and "violently herded into railroad cars, steamers, or logging rafts, marched out of town, or killed," writes Pfaelzer. The violence was regionwide and systematic. In Los Angeles in 1871, a mob lynched 16 Chinese men and one Chinese woman. Chico's Chinatown was destroyed by fire in 1876. Around the same time, arson, murder and terrorism forced the Chinese out of Truckee. In 1885, after a night of "exuberant violence," a gallows was built in Eureka as a warning to any Chinese who stayed in town. "It took barely a century to virtually clear the coast of the redwood forest," observes Pfaelzer. "It took barely a weekend to clear Eureka of the Chinese."

Mob violence was supported by local elites and backed up by anti-Chinese legislation, police and judicial collusion, and a barrage of humiliating images documenting the "yellow peril" -- portraying the men as sneaky, feminized and sacrilegious, the women as diseased and racially disposed to "hygienic lassitude." Pfaelzer scours the scarce evidence to bring us the lives of the women, who made up a small proportion of Chinese immigrants. Most were imported as sex slaves and locked up in brothels. The small number of upper class women married to Chinese merchants experienced their own kind of imprisonment: their feet bound to enforce immobility and chastity, they were "locked," writes Pfaelzer, into an "invalid's seclusion."
"Driven Out" is not only a litany of hate and despair; it is also a chronicle of extraordinary opposition and resistance. The Chinese, Pfaelzer demonstrates, "did not go quietly." They went on strike in Shasta, formed their own fire brigades in Truckee, organized a militia for self-defense in Amador and refused to leave Monterey and San Jose. With the support of the Chinese government, they made the case that anti-Chinese terrorism was an international crime. With the active involvement of merchants in the Chinese Six Companies, based in San Francisco, they sued for compensation for damage to property and injunctive relief against police brutality. In the decade following the first Exclusion Act, they filed more than 7,000 legal suits.

Pfaelzer convincingly argues that Chinese Americans were pioneers in the struggle for "reparations." By combining civil disobedience with class action legal suits during the 19th century, they anticipated tactics of the 20th century civil rights movement. Their resistance peaked in 1892 with widespread opposition to the Geary Act, known popularly as the Dog Tag Law because it required Chinese Americans to carry an identity card or face deportation. Pfaelzer describes this nationwide legislation as the country's "first internal passport" and the protests it triggered as "perhaps the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States." The Six Companies ordered all 110,000 immigrants to refuse compliance; in China, the lives of American missionaries were threatened in retaliation for the abuse of Chinese Americans.

But in 1894, the Chinese government betrayed the movement by abandoning its migrant workers in exchange for a profitable trade deal with the United States. The Six Companies dutifully followed suit, advising all Chinese workers to "comply with the law." Meanwhile, some 10,000 Chinese were arrested, with many languishing in jail for months. They paid for their mass civil disobedience, concludes Pfaelzer, "with lynchings, night raids, and deportation."

Pfaelzer certainly makes the case that California engaged in ethnic cleansing. She also demonstrates how genocidal policies against Native peoples and post-Civil War Jim Crow policies shaped attitudes to the Chinese, and vice versa: "The Ku Klux Klan assaulted blacks in the South, the military and volunteer militias drove tribal people off their lands, murdering thousands, and the Order of the Caucasians, the Workingmen's Party, and the Democratic Party rounded up and expelled the Chinese in California, burning Chinatowns to the ground. "
Pfaelzer draws upon her academic background in women's studies and practical experience as a labor organizer to give us a multi-dimensional view of the cultural, class and gender anxieties that fuelled "apocalyptic violence" against Chinese Americans.

The core of the book is thoroughly and convincingly documented. Its subjects are fully realized, with the exception of the Six Companies, which remain something of a cipher. There are some areas, too, where the author whets our appetite but doesn't give us enough to chew on. I'm hungry for more information about the Mexicans who sometimes joined the white vigilantes in hunting down Chinese victims, about West Coast Jews who supported the Anti-Coolie League, about the African Americans who distanced themselves from the Chinese struggle, about the white women of Chico who deplored their men's violence, and about the personal relationships between Chinese men and American Indian women. I'm also not convinced, without evidence, that the wives of Chinese merchants were "true pioneers, forging settlements and building communities in new rural towns."

If you grew up in California, think back to what you learned in school about Chinese history. Perhaps you remember a homogenous group of nameless hard workers, who were here for a while and then mysteriously gone. A typical primer, written in the 1940s, includes a graphic of happy Chinese laborers waving to a train as it steams by on the tracks they helped to build. No mention of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who died on the job.

If you were educated during or after the Vietnam War, you no doubt learned that everyday life was not so sunny for 19th century Chinese immigrants. They were "not welcomed and were not treated fairly," as a widely used social studies textbook, published in 1984, succinctly understates some 60 years of persecution.

For most of the 20th century, California's leading professional historians facilitated the cultural disappearance and degradation of Chinese Americans. My personal library includes a popular 1930s textbook that warned students about the dangers of "Oriental domination of the land." Similarly, Robert Cleland, an influential historian based at the Huntington Library who shaped the teaching of California history for generations, promoted the view that the Chinese were to be distrusted because they "kept almost entirely to themselves, did not understand the white man, had no desire to associate with him, and refused to adopt his customs or manner of life." To late California historian Rockwell Hunt, exclusion of the Chinese was "a distinct benefit to the United States."

"Driven Out" sets straight not only the historical record but also the historians who made racism respectable. Pfaelzer's book ensures that we can no longer treat the ethnic cleansing of Chinese Americans as an exotic, albeit deplorable footnote to the California story. Now that we know better, we are obliged to act: It's time to offer sorrowful apologies, create public memorials, honor Chinese resistance and rewrite the textbooks and lesson plans.



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