A Ragged Tale Of Riches 富人的沧桑故事

THE Chinese, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed in 1888, are “an element ignorant of our constitution and laws, impossible of assimilation with our people, and dangerous to our peace and welfare.” That decade, with its acts excluding fresh Chinese immigrants and even blocking re-entry to those Chinese who had temporarily returned home, broke the myth that the United States was an all-embracing haven for the world‘s huddled masses. But what of the story of the Chinese in America themselves?

Because of anti-Chinese hysteria-from the race riots in western mining towns in Cleveland‘s time to the nasty late-1990s witch hunt by the Clinton administration and the New York Times of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American scientist at Los Alamos who was falsely accused of passing nuclear warhead technology to China-the Chinese in America have generally chosen to keep a low profile. It is time their story was given a wider airing. The strength of Iris Chang‘s book is that she is steeped in her subject, but it has weaknesses.


Narrative history often paints individual lives with too epic a sweep. The turmoil in China that has so often been the backdrop to emigration in the past 150 years is described rather too broadly here to be of much help. The importance among new Chinese arrivals of local clans and identities back in mainland China is not sufficiently emphasised. Why, for instance, do the wealthy snakeheads who organise much of the illegal immigration into America come from one small district in Fujian province? Ms Chang does not travel there-or not obviously even to New York‘s Chinatown-to find out.

Her descriptions of the early Chinese in America battling blizzards, mudslides and mistreatment in the mining and railroad camps have the flavor of an old newsreel. It is not a format for insight, or irony of the intended sort. Thus, where the reader wants to know more about the consequences of the sexual frustration of all-male Chinese communities far from home (there was prostitution and violence, of course, but also an intriguing round of Chinese-Irish marriages), Ms Chang‘s vagueness is unintendedly funny. “Entrepreneurs in the world‘s oldest profession,” she writes, “rode furiously on horsebock from camp to camp, trying to fit as many clients as possible into their schedules.”


Similarly, she fails to look closely at the role of the Chinese in America in the growth, if not of globalization, then of a ring of economic connections and population shifts that have turned the Pacific into a flourishing and unified economic space. What of Chinese-America‘s equivalent of Yip Sang, an early example of what Felipe Fernandez-Armesto calls “Pacific man”? In the late 19th century he left Fujian province for San Francisco and then Vancouver, where he became an agent of the Canadian Pacific Railroad; by the early 1900s, his own company had a flourishing international trade between San Francisco, Vancouver, Yokohama and Hong Kong.

 Ms Chang does not delve into the Pacific ties that might have made such a man. She does say that, during the gold rush, many Californians shipped their laundry to be cleaned in Hong Kong, at $1 a shirt. If this is true-and it is a staggering proposition, given that the Pacific Mail Steamship Company made just a dozen sailings a year, taking 33 days-then the subject deserves a chapter, not just the briefest of mentions.








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