The Journal for Scholars, Students, Community Leaders and Sustainable Developers

Volume 16  No. 1 2015
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Alien Nation, Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II.  Elliot Young. Chapel Hill; The University of North Carolina Press. 2014. 360 pages.

Listless and dazed after a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean, Libyan refugees (Christian and Muslim, adults and children) were rescued from a sinking boat that was supposed to convey them to Europe. En route Muslims started pushing Christians off the boat. Terrified passengers swarmed to one side and capsized the vessel, dumping women clutching their infant children and men of both denominations into the frigid water. The catastrophic plight of these migrants flashed across screens within hours, alerts pinging out to anyone with an Internet connection. Another grim chapter in the history of human migration was written in front of millions of eyes. Shortly before, at the beginning of 2015, we also witnessed the Syrian stowaways adrift in an abandoned ship off the coast of Italy. These vivid scenes of our own time should serve to remind us of the perils faced by those who arrived in the Americas by ship back in the nineteenth century. From the daily events concerning migrants/immigrants to the ongoing debate raging about immigration in the United States and countries in Europe, history is never short of bitter narratives about those who strive for better lives where they are unwelcome.

Elliott Young’s diligent and important book Alien Nation documents the adversity and triumphs of Chinese immigrants. Rather than confining the scope to the North American experience, Young tells the broader history of migrants from ports in the Pearl River Delta to various destinations in the Americas: Cuba, Peru, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The trajectory begins in the 1840s, when the coolie trade started, through the 1940s, when the geopolitics of World War II forced Cuba (1942), the United States (1943), and Canada (1947) to end their exclusionist policies that targeted Chinese laborers.

A blurred reading of the title “Alien Nation” produces “alienation,” at once an objective nominal term and subjective connotation. Young’s deft play on words invokes the vortex of political, racial, and cultural warfare still vividly contested along the borders of the so-called “global” economy across which capital and goods move with greater freedom than workers. While “alien” and “nation” describe their status, “alienation” is a psychological state. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 not only made the Chinese the first group to bear the stigma of illegal aliens but also to be entangled in a federal bureaucratic and legal system that rendered them criminals. They endured a double alienation: culturally and legally.

Traversing borders and national histories, Alien Nation illuminates corners of the Chinese migration/

immigration history that earlier discussions in Asian Studies have often obscured. As the first transnational history of Chinese migration to the Americas, the book offers its readers a comprehensive view of the abusive treatment migrant workers received in the five nations from Cuba to Canada. 

Organized in three thematically coherent parts beginning with the Chinese migrants leaving home from the coast of southern China in the 1840s and ending with them being expelled from northern Mexico in the 1930s, the chapters are arranged to give emphasis to historical content rather than locale. Part I examines the debate over the ownership of Chinese laborers and the implications of the standard labor contract. Was it a symbol of freedom or a mechanism of bondage? Part II offers a glimpse into the birth of immigration bureaucracies, a laughable legal jungle still entangling families today. Part III moves naturally to the twentieth century’s immigration history, along with the undercurrents of xenophobia, racism and nationalism that persist despite the official lip service rendered to “diversity.”

Long before the end of slavery in the United States, Chinese coolies had been consigned to indentured labor in the Americas, originally through Cuba and Peru. During the coolie trade (1847-1874), about 1.5 million Chinese laborers came to the Americas, half of whom eventually arrived in the United States through subcontracting or clandestine border crossing. Although slave literature in the West discusses the injustice foisted on Africans and African Americans, it hardly ever devoted attention to the slave-like status of the Chinese coolies. Exclusively male natives of southern China from the Pearl River Delta region, many were forced into labor contracts they could not read nor understand but signed without representation. Alien Nation provides a concise and detailed account of the coolie trade chronologically and it seems to urge readers to consider the significance of the absence of the Chinese coolies in modern narratives of the slave trade. Slavery, an African-American phenomenon, is etched in historical accounts as a shameful episode comparable to the genocides of Nazi Germany or other disasters. Little mention is made of the suffering of the 1.5 million Chinese laborers who left the Pearl River Delta in today’s Guangdong Province for Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Over half a million Chinese came to the United States as putatively “free” laborers. Like slaves from Africa, Chinese laborers often found themselves on the auction block in Havana, Cuba and Callao, Peru. But historians persist in considering them “free,” as each coolie had signed a labor-for-hire contract through a coolie shark. “A society based on contract is a society of free and independent men,” sociologist William Graham Sumner asserts, as quoted by Young (66). The illusion that Chinese migrants were voluntary free laborers camouflages the reality of the coolie trade. It sparked debate about free wage labor and slavery at the time but liberal thinkers, on the heel of the proclamation of emancipation in 1863, seized the term “free wage labor” to describe contract labors. Plantation owners sought these laborers as the ideal workers, without wives or children, and extremely disciplined. Furthermore, coolies were not citizens with rights, except those explicitly set forth in their contracts. In essence, the Chinese coolies enjoyed less liberty and freedom than the newly emancipated slaves, who, as recently invested citizens, enjoyed social welfare and certain political privileges. The Chinese laborers on the other hand were not even allowed to purchase their freedom through manumission. Given the fact that most, if not all, were illiterate, lured by better prospects to better lives back home, they either willingly or were coerced into entering an agreement that was tantamount to slavery. Serving as guarantee that employers and their employees enjoyed equal protection under the law, the terms of these contracts were invariably “weighted toward the former and short on the latter” (Young 68). They were de facto slaves who “live[d] only by hiring out their arms. They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free?” according to Linguet, as cited by Young.

Young provides the facts that confirm the slave status of the Chinese laborers. In the twenty-seven years the coolie trade lasted, the Cuban government intervened to control the Chinese coolies to benefit both the state and the plantation owners by stifling coolie riots and improving productivity. Jails were built to corral Chinese runaways or “cimarrones,” a Spanish term used for escaped African slaves as well. Further muddying the status of free wage laborers as slaves was the denial of the right to manumission, an option that had been opened to African slaves. Faced with little or no choice for freedom, mass suicides were committed by Chinese laborers on Cuban plantations and barracoons, “100 times more frequently than whites, and 14 times more frequently than African slaves” (Young 84). Sadly, such an extreme gesture was the only means available to the coolies to make an active, political statement. Stripped of any freedom, the Chinese coolies suffered discrimination in Cuba and Peru first. They were then subcontracted to the United States before the U.S. prohibition of the coolie trade in 1862. After the abolition of slavery in 1863, Chinese laborers became even more important as replacements for emancipated slaves. There was a mass emigration of Chinese laborers from Cuba to the U.S. In 1867, so many had made the move that it constituted more than a “scattershot attempt by a few entrepreneurial planters,” Young writes. An 1869 “convention with 500 delegates from all over the South” jump-started the wholesale recruitment of Chinese laborers. This massive importation of Chinese cheap labor prefigured today’s vast outsourcing of low-skill manual labor to the very same region in China, the Pearl River Delta, where the largest migrant labor concentration in the world works under deplorable factory conditions. America’s first illegal aliens are the ancestors of the largest migrant labor pool, often indebted to the point of slavery yet working in their own land due to the same economic forces: the need for low-cost, disciplined labor to ensure high productivity. Like the cheap Chinese coolies in the 19th century, today’s millennials are also contract workers without representation nor the standard union protections of their health and social security. Regardless of the nomenclature (illegal aliens or legal migrants) the phenomenon is the result of an effort to maximize profits and reduce cost, with scant attention to the laborers’ rights and living conditions. On the backs of young Chinese migrant workers, hundreds of whom have committed suicide over the past decade.

Young’s book, with its detailed historical account of this labor force, serves to remind us that history manages to rewrite itself under different guises. Although a book focused on Chinese migration, Alien Nation prompts a somber reality check: Are we any better dealing with aliens and labor today than in the 19th century? Young in his book not only raises awareness about the historical role of Chinese migrant workers in the Americas; it also reminds us of the sad reality of today’s globalized economy, which has created a vast army of coolies across the universe: from the Americas to the Persian Gulf region. This vast labor migration dwarfs the coolie trade of yesteryear. Millions of foreign workers, mostly south Asian, including Chinese, imported to Qatar to prepare for the 2022 World Cup, account for 94 percent of its workforce. These workers, like the coolies in 19th century America, work long hours and earn low wages, live in squalid and segregated housing compounds with their passports held by sponsors, limiting their mobility and rights.

Why do so many migrants take the risk, endure the hardship and humiliation to enter a foreign land? To make the sacrifice to provide money to their families back home and gain respect in their hometowns. Migration has become the chief source of village income, but for these migrants whose lives were blurred by journeys to strange places, there was one fixed point in their universe: a village called home.   





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