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The Chinese in America: A Narrative History [Paperback]

Iris Chang
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 29 2004

In an epic story that spans 150 years and continues to the present day, Iris Chang tells of a people’s search for a better life—the determination of the Chinese to forge an identity and a destiny in a strange land and, often against great obstacles, to find success. She chronicles the many accomplishments in America of Chinese immigrants and their descendents: building the infrastructure of their adopted country, fighting racist and exclusionary laws, walking the racial tightrope between black and white, contributing to major scientific and technological advances, expanding the literary canon, and influencing the way we think about racial and ethnic groups. Interweaving political, social, economic, and cultural history, as well as the stories of individuals, Chang offers a bracing view not only of what it means to be Chinese American, but also of what it is to be American.

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From Publishers Weekly

In this outstanding study of the Chinese-American community, the author surpasses even the high level of her bestselling Rape of Nanking. The first significant Chinese immigration to the United States came in the 1850s, when refugees from the Taiping War and rural poverty heard of "the Golden Mountain" across the Pacific. They reached California, and few returned home, but the universally acknowledged hard work of those who stayed and survived founded a great deal more than the restaurants and laundries that formed the commercial core-they founded a new community. Chinese immigrants building the Central Pacific Railroad used their knowledge of explosives to excavate tunnels (and discourage Irish harassment). Chinese workers also married within the Irish community, spread across America and survived even the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880, which lost much of its impact when San Francisco's birth records were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906 and no one could prove that a person of Chinese descent was not native born. Chang finds 20th-century Chinese-Americans navigating a rocky road between identity and assimilation, surviving new waves of immigrants from a troubled China and more recently from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many Chinese millionaires maintain homes on both sides of the Pacific, while "parachute children" (Chinese teenagers living independently in America) are a significant phenomenon. And plain old-fashioned racism is not dead-Jerry Yang founded Yahoo!, but scientist Wen Ho Lee was, according to Chang, persecuted as much for being Chinese as for anything else. Chang's even, nuanced and expertly researched narrative evinces deep admiration for Chinese America, with good reason.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Chang is the author of the best-selling Rape of Nanking (1997), a very disturbing but well-prepared and necessary account of the sacking of that important Chinese city by the Japanese army in the late 1930s. Her writerly acumen is again in evidence in her latest book, which, in her words, tells an epic story--and, indeed, it is shown to be exactly that. Her purview is wide: the immigration of Chinese people to the U.S. from the early nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Chinese immigration falls naturally into three waves: those who came here to be laborers during the days of the California gold rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad, those who came to escape the 1949 Communist takeover, and those who came in the 1980s and 1990s as relations between China and the U.S. eased somewhat. The reasons why the Chinese came to the U.S. are only half the story; the other half consists of what they did here and how they were received. But this is not just a bland narration of events. Chang threads personal stories of individuals she came across in her research into her book, making it a much more human account. A final chapter looks at possible future definitions of racial identity. This is history at its most dramatic and relevant, and the book deserves all the attention it undoubtedly will receive. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written; occasionally biased. May 21 2004
Before I start commenting on this book, let me mention my own background: I came to America from Hong Kong when I was 18, and only recently became a naturalized American citizen. I have lived in America for 15 years.
I came across The Chinese In America first because a white friend who adopted a Chinese girl recommended the book to me. Since I have little interest in history, I was reluctant to read it at first; but a few pages later I was engrossed by the book. In history classes in college I learned a little bit about the Chinese building rail roads and the Exclusion Act, but not much more. This book gave much more detail and is so well written that I had no trouble reading it to the end. I am sure my being Chinese helped spark the interest in a subject I normally don't care about. When I was done, I was so impressed with the book that I ordered a copy from so that my kids can read it when they grow up.
I think most of the book is accurate, but there are some errors. For example, the book mentioned the Imperial Examination in China as being initiated by the Ching (Manchurian) emperors. I am quite certain that's not true. That Exam's been around for thousands of years, as a lot of ancient literature mention it, such as the famed Journey to the West, whose background was set back in the Tang Dynasty. Ms. Chang's point was that the Manchurians used the Imperial Exams to control the Chinese people, and her attitude towards them is clearly hostile. But the Manchurians are also considered Chinese these days, so it seems ludicrous that a historian should be incensed about a 400 year old injury.
Throughout the book, Ms.
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By A Customer
Unlike her groundbreaking "Rape of Nanking", in which the combination of explosive new material on a covert history and Iris Chang's biting investigative/pursuit tone worked effectively, this book covers familiar Chinese-American history broadly and in great quantity, but presents little startling new revelations (although some of the original interviews are fresh). Some important historical details are glossed over (and wrong in a few cases). At times, her observations are quite biased. As a longtime student of Chinese and Chinese-American history, I was somewhat disappointed that Chang did not "blow the covers off". Nevertheless, the book does serve as a good overview of the Chinese-American experience. Chang's contribution here is that she allows readers to see it from the viewpoint of a Chinese-American, and understand that the racism, struggle and bitter triumph of this experience is still ongoing. That is the theme that she does a good job underscoring with her choice of focus. The tone of her writing is "essay-like", not professorial or objective.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Nice work May 31 2003
An informative piece about an important and growing minority in America whose accomplishments and trials has not received proportional share of coverage in the educational and mainstream media, as many would argue. I found the prose easy to read, and realized that it filled in many gaps in my understanding about the history of my own culture. The author seems to have done a thorough job in research for this book (I was quite surprised to find one of my relatives interviewed), and while some inaccuracies may exist, overall I feel it lends fair coverage to the various facets of life in America experienced by different members of this population.
One of my few criticisms is the author's tendency to switch back and forth from an objective third-person point of view (e.g. "they experienced....")to a more biased first-person perspective (e.g. "We should...), particularly in the last few chapters, which read somewhat like an imperative call-to-arms for the Chinese community to take action against the continued injustices commited against them by US society.
But overall, a great read, and much more interesting than sludging through a stale history textbook.
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While I cannot attest to the accuracy of the balance of this book, Chapter 5 is an awful mis-statement of the historical facts re: The United States, Railroad History, and the Chinese workers for the Central Pacific Railroad.
Ms. Chang moves redwood trees from the Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks to the railroad grade, then blows them up with 250 pounds of black powder; she invents the Territory of California and the Territory of Texas, and then peoples those 'territories' with folks that misuse people of Chinese origin.
To be fair, a few paragraphs written in Chapter 5 are totally correct, but others unhappily display an error in nearly every sentence.
Chapter 5 tells us of Chinese workers hanging off of Cape Horn in baskets, yet does not tell us that the slope of Cape Horn is some 65 degrees, which would make such a feat totally impossible (See "The Central Pacific Railroad and the Legends of Cape Horn", Edson Strobridge, 2002).
Best to keep this book away from small children, it could be harmful to their health.
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2.0 out of 5 stars journalistic superficiality Jan. 5 2004
By A Customer
The initial portion of the book is a lucid and well organized account of Chinese-American history. The latter half of the book, falters into a jargonistic series of feature stories, which are interesting anecdote, but fail to make any real point. While Ms. Chang is specific in referring to Chinese immigrants by time and place (e.g. "ABC" American born chinese), she uses gross and undefined terms for everyone else (e.g. "Caucasians", "whites" "white culture"). The term "Caucasian" is as meaningless and offensive as the terms "Oriental" Ms. Chang fails to mention that the same opprobrium reserved for the Chinese, was also brought to bear on the Irish and other "white" groups. It is too simplistic to look at "whites" v. "Chinese" as a paradigm for a study of ethnic assimilation. As a journalist, lacking historical acumen or training, Ms. Chang ultimately has little to add.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars wonderful story but slightly emotional
Chang has told a very important history chapter on the overseas Chinese, whose life and history are little known to the world. I was really moved by it. Read more
Published on June 20 2006 by Asia-affairs-watcher
3.0 out of 5 stars illuminating...but
Iris Chang deserves credit for targeting such a broad subject and I found new information frequently during my reading. The prose, however, was average without much elegance. Read more
Published on June 4 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars Terribly biased
This book portrays a skewed and somewhat racist view of history. I.E. it focusses on the "white" vs. "chinese". Read more
Published on May 6 2004 by Jin Daikoku
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
As a 25 year old Canadian Born Chinese I am very greatful for Iris's book. It provided me with huge insights to the movements of the Chinese and why they are the way they... Read more
Published on Aug. 14 2003 by KY Lee
5.0 out of 5 stars Cant put it down
Iris Chang certainly did her research as evidenced by her profuse footnotes and references. Not only is her book well researched, it is well written. Read more
Published on Aug. 13 2003 by Jimmy Yeh
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding!
The most important chronicle on Chinese Americans written to date. Iris did an amazing job presenting the vast amount of information in a concise manner. Read more
Published on July 11 2003 by Bill Lee, Author
5.0 out of 5 stars Political economic and cultural observations deftly blend
Iris Chang provides an intriguing history of one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in this country, telling of the many accomplishments of Chinese-American immigrants and... Read more
Published on June 12 2003 by Midwest Book Review
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and must-read book!
This is a fascinating book. As a Chinese American, I¡m not aware of many historical facts about Chinese in America, especially the contribution of Chinese American in the... Read more
Published on June 2 2003
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