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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The UNwelcomed Dreamers                                  Mina Kwon


Jean Pfaelzer is professor of English, East Asian, and American Studies at the University Delaware. She is an expert on nineteenth-century history, culture, women’s literature feminist theory, and cultural theory. She has published four other books, worked as the executive director of the National Labor Law Center, been appointed to the D.C. Commission for Women, and worked for a member of Congress on immigration, labor, and women’s issues.



“I make no claim, however, for my wife’s insanity or the anguish I have suffered.” 1, said Lum May, one of the many men who suffered during the Chinese expulsion during the nineteenth century. The sad, but mythical, story started from the gold rush – the ultimate motivation for Chinese entrance into California. Caught up in the successful stories of the New Frontier, the Chinese immigrated to the United States. Eventually, the white men’s belief in their superiority over the Chinese, led to heartless mass Chinese expulsion from California. Jean Pfaelzer, in Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, not only portrays the exile of Chinese Americans, but also presents the confrontation from the eyes of the marred, but determined Chinese.

In the beginning of her book, Jean Pfaelzer illustrates the settlement for the gold rush and the beginning of “ethnic cleansing” in California. Chapter One, “Gold!” starts with the time when gold was discovered in 1848. Dreaming of wealth on “Gold Mountain”, Chinese immigrated to the United States. However, favoring the majority, the California government wrote a new constitution for California, in 1849, in which the convention denied the vote to all women and Indians and Africans, as well the right of minorities to testify against whites in court. Pfaelzer then goes on to describe, in Chapter Two, Dead Branches”, how the race war began in Shasta as white miners purged the Chinese with arms; this eventually emptied the gold fields of Chinese miners. Hated and unwelcomed, Chinese were often called coolies—a term for kidnapped, enslaved, or indentured servants. As a sheriff testified to the white miners in Shasta: the Chinese “ought to have been able to protect themselves, but they seem to be great cowards and [would] not fight under any circumstances”2. Because of the doctrine of states’ rights, California could bar Chinese miners from entering or settling in the state, because they reserved the power of expelling people from their borders. Expulsion of early Chinese immigrants stood on the legal and ideological shoulders of the Foreign Miners’ Tax law of 1850 that effectively eliminated the immigrant’s rights to sit on a jury and deposit a ballot. In 1858, with the gold rush settling down, the Chinese seemed to enter an even greater level of expulsion and hardship.

After illustrating Chinese settlement and expulsion, the author demonstrates the changes in policies toward Chinese expulsion and Chinese woman. Despite the fact that they received a seemingly unlimited source of low paid workers from China, in 1867, early unions worked with the Democratic Party to pressure San Francisco to pass anti-Chinese ordinances and make it difficult for Chinese to earn a living. For instance, the Burlingame Treaty and Fourteenth Amendment, which shielded the Chinese by granting the Chinese the rights to file lawsuits and enjoy equal protection and due process of law, were destroyed along with the Civil Rights Act and Page Act of 1875. Those acts removed the right of Chinese immigrants to become citizens and banned the immigration of most Chinese women. Hopeless and distrusted, in 1870, Chinese eventually migrated to the northwest with dreams of finding easy gold. Some formed their own mining companies, and some invested in hydraulic or drift mining. However, the Democratic Party’s attempt to rewrite local anti-Chinese codes into California’s second constitution did not end. In Chapter Three, “The Woman’s Tale”, the author also shows interest in Chinese woman during the nineteenth century. In the 1870s, with the serious debate about the righteousness of Chinese prostitutes, all Chinese women were declared to be one of “the most abject and satanic conception[s] of human slavery and the source of contamination and hereditary diseases.”3 Consequently, the 1875 Page Act was passed which prohibited the immigration of any Chinese woman who was not a merchant’s wife.4 As the economic depression worsened, the alleged disease and contagion endemic to Chinese women posed a real threat to jobs, culture and the country.

After Pfaelzer details the Chinese expulsion, in the next two Chapters, she discusses the Eureka and Truckee methods. In Eureka, by the late 1870s, on-the-job actions against the Chinese became more organized. Also, anti-Chinese feelings arose with the growing labor movement, and in turn thrust the labor movement into political power in California. White laborer’s perception that they suffered from Chinese competition was pervasive but flawed. Chinese workers mostly took jobs that white workers refused. Thus, after Chinese left, the towns suffered from the loss of Chinese laundries, shops, herbalists, and vegetable growers. As California laborers turned to the Democratic Party, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act emerged, and closed the door on Chinese immigration. In addition to the plight of the Chinese Exclusion Act, in 1886, Chinese faced another struggle with the emergence of the call for expulsion of all Chinese from the country as the Knights of Labor won the election. However, businessmen could not rehire Chinese, because if they did, people would have boycotted their businesses. Attracted to the opportunity to build the Transcontinental Railroad, the Chinese entered Truckee, eventually making one third of that population. It was the editor of Truckee’s rural newspaper who launched a plan that would destroy Chinese towns across the state. The “Truckee Method” expelled the Chinese by essentially starving them out. For instance, Charles McGlashan, editor of the Truckee Republican, set a plan to “impose leadership from the better class of citizens who would demand that all individuals, companies, and corporations…discharge any and all Chinese man.”5 He argued that Congress withdraw from the Burlingame Treaty and amend the Exclusion Act so that Chinese persons leaving the United States could never enter again. As Sission, Crocker, the Chinese Six Companies, and the Central Pacific Railroad, canceled their contracts with Chinese workers, Chinese who were expelled moved to San Francisco, British Columbia, back to China, or others simply made secret contracts with their employers. 

Finally, as the highlight of her book, Pfaelzer portrays the Chinese resistance. In Chapter Seven, “A Litany of Hate”, by end of 1880s close to two hundred towns in the Pacific Northwest had driven out their Chinese residents, and hundreds of acts of Chinese resistance were suppressed or ignored by the media. However in Chapter Eight, “The Dog Tag Law”, Pfaelzer shows how Chinese resistance became more evident as “thousands honored the call to disobey the “Dog Tag Law,” which “created perhaps the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States.”6 The Geary Act and the Dog Tag Law required the Chinese to carry around their identity cards. The law had significance in that it finally erupted the potential anger of Chinese; they were on the verge of losing their true identities. The Chinese eventually brought this issue to the court case, Fong Yue Ting. As a result, the court allowed the Chinese to be deported for failing to register or carry identity cards, or if proper provision for payment was not available. In response to these acts, the Chinese government eventually asked president Cleveland to give protection to the Chinese. Consequently, Cleveland announced a sudden halt to arrests until Congress decided whether to repeal, amend, or fund the Geary Act. The Chinese ultimately had to follow the deadline, and those who did not follow were imprisoned.  In 1894, while there were hostilities against newly arrived Japanese workers, China abandoned its countrymen to forge a trade agreement with the United States. Despite Chinese resistance to an identity card, eventually, Chinese registered for their new identification. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed in 1902, the legal gate on Chinese immigration slammed shut for another forty years. The legal immigration of Chinese people was over.
Pfaelzer does not only focus on the political, social, and cultural struggles of Chinese in California during the nineteenth century, she also focuses their brave and determined resistance against their enemies. Pfaelzer argues that although Chinese were treated brutality, they “fiercely and tenaciously fought for their right to live and work in the United States.”7 Starting from the gold rush, Pfaelzer clearly demonstrates how Chinese were unwelcomed. In the beginning of the book, to clearly reveal the ruthless expulsion of the Chinese, the author reveals the white miners’ attempts to drive out the Chinese from mining fields throughout California. Pfaelzer, however, emphasizes and concludes her book by revealing major lawsuits, strikes, and boycotts enacted by Chinese Americans to show their resistance against a society that turned against them.

Pfaelzer provides a variety of colorful and accurate facts and historical anecdotes to support her argument. Not only does she portray the status and resistance of the Chinese, from the gold rush to the start of the twentieth century, but she also provides readers with a Californian history. For instance, she argues that the California’s first constitutional convention” began the process of transforming California from a territory into a state”8 in 1849. Furthermore, the author testifies that it was hard for her to find true information about the Chinese Americans during the nineteenth century, because most of it was fabricated and damaged through decades of history. Though she has a formal tone, the author seems to have compassion toward the Chinese Americans. She has a broad point of view that not only talks about the history of early Chinese-Americans but also about the history of Latin, Italian, and Japanese Americans. She also provides the point of view from the United States, as well as from China. For example, Pfaelzer vividly reveals the two-faced Chinese government, as she describes how China somehow abandoned its citizens abroad for its own trading benefits with the United States. Her variety in point of view helps the readers to understand the hidden history easily and insightfully. Pfaelzer is New Left because she demands the inclusion of those features of our history that explain how we came to be the violently racist repressive of the late 1880’s.

Pfaelzer’s book is highly valued by the professional critics such as Patricia Nelson Limerick of the New York Times who praises Pfaelzer’s “stride [for its] clear and insightful passage of analysis.”9 Limerick thinks that Pfaelzer deserves the reader’s attention because of her fresh reinforcement of Chinese American history and her implications of Chinese litigation as a model of memorable historical interpretation. However, Limerick criticizes Pfaelzer’s lack of a uniting theme in paragraphs by saying that “it gives the reader an unintended relief from an otherwise unrelenting confrontation with human cruelty.”10 She advises that if Pfaelzer wrote her book with sharper phrasing, clearer narrative and more thorough analysis, she would have sealed off the reader’s route of emotional escape. Additionally, Heloise of Blog Critics Magazine also praises Pfaelzer’s work. Describing how Pfaelzer argues that racism and genocide recur, Heloise claims that the book’s most valuable parallel is the “undeniable intersection between emancipated black slaves and immigrant Chinese.”11 Heloise points out that the author successfully uses various sources to support her argument as well as “meticulously and individually, [identifying] the Chinese who were affected.”12 Not only does Heloise recognize Pfaelzer for her research ability and depth of knowledge, but she also recognizes Pfaelzer’s influence on the world.

Pfaelzer is, indeed, a notable literary and historical pioneer. She has great strength and “morality” to search through the hidden and shameful history of the United States. Pfaelzer has quick and meticulous insight that she does not only focus on the victimization of the Chinese, but also on their braveness and righteousness to fight back against the “evil” repressors. Pfaelzer argues that the white miners did not hate Chinese because of economic rivalry and different skin colors, but because they “saw in the Chinese their most profound anxieties about their own identity and destiny.”13 This shows that the white men did not want to see their own hardships in the eyes of the ones whom they believed they were superior to. Also, in the beginning of the book Pfaelzer introduces different racial groups during the gold rush such as African Americans, Latin Americans, and Italian Americans. The author reveals that the Chinese Americans were actually discriminated by all races. Although Pfaelzer excellently provides the information about the Chinese Americans during the nineteenth century, her spontaneous structure of her argument confuses the readers. Her writing would have been better if she had provided more clear boundaries between the events. Overall, her work is notable and highly recommendable as it is shown in her career as a college professor at the University of Delaware and as shown by the praises from her peer historians, such as Kevin Starr.

Evident in Pfaelzer’s history, eastern America during the nineteenth century influenced California, as it was the cause of the massive migration into California, the beginning of western culture, and a place for the exhausted Chinese to rest. California, before the East entered, had diverse cultures. Chinese, though working for the white miners, still wore queues, the long braid which was a Manchu tradition. However, such tradition of the Chinese were destroyed by the westerners from the East who enforced “the Queue Ordinance, which allowed prison wardens to shave the heads or cut off their braids of Chinese prisoners.”14 Not only did the East bring western culture, it also brought epidemics to California.  Consequently, numerous people died and forced the California government to pay attention to health issues. The East also was a place to rest for Californians. For instance, in 1892, when thousands of Chinese tried to escape from the chaotic west, they moved out, “seeking respite in New England, New York, and the South.”15 Places such as New York, allowed the Chinese to leave the suffocating and violent atmosphere in the West. Not only was eastern America the station to regenerate and energize the Chinese-Americans, it was also the place the Chinese Americans organize petition drives, and coordinated diplomatic intervention.

According to Pfaelzer, the events that occurred in California were distinctive because they supported and provided the idea that history recurs overtime and shows more diversity of people than the rest of the world. In the introduction of her book, Pfaelzer argues the “expulsion of the Chinese from California towns in the nineteenth century anticipated the history of Poland and Greece in the 1930s and 1940s,”16 when they encountered massive ethnic disputes because of WWI and WWII. The events that occurred in California were different from the other parts of the United States because no matter what race the people came from they were in equal status from the time they left their homeland. Though there were more harsh laws for the Chinese and other minorities that did not mean that all white men were treated well. Additionally, California’s ethnic diversity and unique social structure makes California different from the rest of the world. California had people from numerous continents: Asia, Europe, Australia, and Africa, where as the East’s racial and cultural diversity was limited. Consequently, California ended up with a unique and globally united culture—that still exists in California. For instance, Chinatown, which was first built in San Francisco, became the core of Asian culture: food, art, and performance. California should not be considered distinct from the rest of the world because of its uniqueness in the nineteenth century, but because of its long endurance of traditional culture and history.

Jean Pfaelzer’s Driven Out: the Forgotten War against Chinese Americans, indeed, succeeds in providing vivid and accurate information about a rarely discussed history, showing that both tears and passion exist in Chinese-American history. Pfaelzer’s effort in “seeking Chinese voices that tell of the Driven Out,”17 should be highly praised since it broadens the perspectives of the narrow and closed-minded historians as well as the common people. The book notably memorializes the emergence of the heart-breaking story of the Chinese Americans. However, Pfaelzer believes the readers should not only view the Chinese Americans as the victims, but also as the economic builders and the fighters for their permanent and safe settlement in the United States.


1. Pfaelzer, Jean. Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans New York: Random 1.House, 2007 xvii.

2. Pfaelzer, Jean 36.

3. Pfaelzer, Jean 98.

4. Pfaelzer, Jean 101.

5. Pfaelzer, Jean 153.

6. Pfaelzer, Jean 291.

7. Pfaelzer, Jean xxvii.

8. Pfaelzer, Jean 24.

9. Limerick, Patricia. “Witnesses to Persecution.” New York Times (July 29, 2007): July 29, 2007. July 29, 2007 <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/29/books/review/Limerick-t.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin?>

10. Limerick, Patricia.

11. Heloise, N/A. “Americans by Jean Pfaelzer.” Blog Critics Magazine 30 May 2007 <http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/05/30/193535.php>.

12. Heloise

13. Pfaelzer, Jean 166.

14. Pfaelzer, Jean 75.

15. Pfaelzer, Jean 293.

16. Pfaelzer, Jean xxix.

17. Pfaelzer, Jean xxvii.