A global vision of the “Chinese question” or the perceived threat of Chinese immigration from the mid to the end of the 19th century
that of Mae Ngai The Chinese Question: The Gold Rush and Global Politics explores a defining period of Chinese emigration that took place between the mid to late 19th century. Ngai takes a close look at how today’s governments in South Africa, Australia and California created and confronted their own “Chinese question”, as in questions she defines as determining whether the Chinese were a “threat.” racial for white Anglo-American countries ”and whether they should“ be prohibited ”. With this in mind, Ngai explores how Chinese emigrants were received by Anglo-controlled territories and the methods of exclusion, exploitation and violence inflicted on them.
She effectively uses her knowledge and thwarts the dominant Coolie Chinese narrative that describes early Chinese residents and emigrants as poor indentured servants. Recounting individual experiences of 19th century Chinese emigrants, she connects how this Chinese diaspora influenced global trends of their time and today. She relays important facts and statistics to readers both as a third-person researcher and through the eyes of the people whose stories she tells. It is the personalization of these stories that Ngai uses to highlight the humanity and resilience of Chinese people in South Africa, California and Australia in the mid to late 1800s.
Besides the relations between Chinese and white immigrants, Ngai highlights a multitude of interactions between Chinese among themselves and with other communities. Among those important but often historically neglected groups that were addressed were the indigenous peoples. Throughout the book, Ngai acknowledges how the presence of the Chinese in the colonized territories contributed to the general displacement of indigenous communities as well as the participation of indigenous people in the Gold Rush.
Another interesting aspect covered by Ngai’s work was the romantic relationships of Chinese workers, such as the partnerships of Chinese men with indigenous, African and white women. The presence of same-sex relationships among men within these Chinese communities was also included. Through the inclusion of these partnerships, Ngai creates an insightful reading on the politics surrounding these relationships, but also on how early Chinese emigrants navigated these different ethnic relationships.
It cannot be denied how impressive Ngai’s research and efforts are in covering the many facets of the Chinese question. A broader exploration around the experiences of Chinese women would have strengthened the narrative. Although there are far fewer Chinese women than their male counterparts in these territories, their presence has always had a huge influence on how local governments have treated Chinese people in general. As Ngai explores the origins of the Coolie myth as well as other racist propaganda against the Chinese, it would have been interesting to learn more about the lives of these early Chinese female emigrants and how they navigated the settlements of white settlers as well as Chinese men. Additionally, due to the sheer amount of information Ngai reveals in this novel, it can be difficult to keep track of the names, locations, and issues discussed and I have found myself referring to the index quite often. . While this may interrupt the reading, it demonstrates Ngai’s thoroughness.
Overall, The Chinese Question does an incredible job of explaining Chinese resistance to racial and economic suppression both as individuals and as a collective. by Ngai
Extensive research is presented in how she navigates the complex historical contexts of political campaigns, legislative policies and the origins of racist feelings towards Chinese emigrants. Moreover, Ngai’s ability to link the perceived threat of Chinese emigration from a period nearly 200 years ago to contemporary attitudes and stereotypes in our society towards immigrant and Asian and Pacific Islander communities shows relevance and the relevance of really understanding this story.