Review: Asian American Histories of the United States

Asian American Histories of the United States, Catherine Ceniza Choy. Boston: Beacon Press, 2022.

Summary: The multiple, interleaved histories of the diverse Asian American peoples who migrated to, built communities in, contributed to, experienced discriminatory acts in the United States.

If you look closely at the title of this book, you will note that it is not a singular history but rather plural “histories.” Asian American peoples have been migrating to the United States from various countries in various waves over the past two hundred years. Catherine Ceniza Choy sets out in this work to sketch the outlines of these multiple stories. Two aspects of that methodology stood out to me in the reading. One was that she followed a reverse chronology, taking more recent key events and migrations first and working back in history to 1869. The other aspect of this work is that it is a people’s history, sketching not just the large contours and key events but the stories of individual persons and families–showing us the hopes, hardships, and particular experience of anti-Asian discrimination at different periods

She considers:

  • 2020. The outbreak of Anti-Asian hatred during the pandemic, blaming those of Asian appearance for the origin and spread of the disease. At the same time, Filipino nurses, a mainstay in many hospital systems, were dying in disproportionate numbers.
  • 1975. The journeys of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees to the United States at the fall of Saigon. We learn of Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian who became the “donut king.”
  • 1968. The student strike at San Francisco State College and the growth of the Asian American Movement on campuses across the country.
  • 1965. The passage of the Hart-Cellar Act equalizing the numbers of immigration visas for all countries, allowing for expanded immigration from Asian countries, both highly skilled entering the professions as well as less-educated working in businesses like nail salons and restaurants, including the Filipino nurses among which came the author’s parents.
  • 1965. The Delano Grape Strike was part of the birth of the United Farm Workers, led by Filipino American Larry Itliong, often overlooked in the histories that focus on Cesar Chavez.
  • 1953. Permission to adopt transracial children of mixed birth from Korea and Japan, left behind when American soldiers returned home. This history raises the specter of the anti-miscegenation laws preventing inter-racial marriages.
  • 1942. Executive Order 9066 resulting in the forced removal of Japanese Americans in western states, losing property and belongings without due process to be interned in camps. George Takei and many others have told the stories of these camps.
  • 1919. The story of both Korean Americans and Filipino Americans seeking independence from Japan and the United States, respectively. The U.S. would remain silent about Korea due to their own hegemony in the Philippines.
  • 1875. The Page Act, ostensibly passed to keep out prostitutes, was used to keep Chinese women out of the United States, representing various laws that would keep Asians out of the country. This episode also reflects the sexualized stereotypes of Asian women as dragon ladies, lotus blossoms and prostitutes.
  • 1869. The completion of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese workers build much of the Central Pacific Railroad, yet were excluded from the celebratory photographs at Promontory Point and treated hostilely.

As may already be evident, Choy addresses three themes throughout the work: violence, erasure, and resistance. I was aware of both the violence and resistance but Choy makes evident that strategies of erasure are not new, whether it is blocking the publication of photographs, the scrubbing of stories from our history books, or even overshadowing the celebration of the centenary of the gurdwara in Stockton, California with a brutal mass killing at another gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. She also makes us aware that perhaps the greatest tragedy is the “othering” of those who have contributed so much as Asian Americans. Choi gives us not only Asian American histories, but also histories of the United States that both confront us with our failures to live up to our highest ideals and the opportunities before us to do so.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.