Modern Chinese Immigration:
The Conflicts of Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation
review written by David Ko | book written by Min Zhou
The Chinese immigrants were one of the first to set foot in America. However, upon arrival, they immediately faced challenges and difficulties of settling in. Holding onto hope, the immigrants worked hard towards their success. Min Zhou, the author of the book, is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The founding chair of UCLA’s Department of Asian American Studies, Zhou has supported the modern understanding of social capital and its interaction throughout her work.
Min Zhou thoroughly explores the topic of Chinese immigration to the United States in Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation. Analyzing gender, ethnicity, education, and intergenerational relations, Zhou effectively recalls the history, reasons, and effects of Chinese immigration from early immigrants. She says, Chinese America is a part of the Greater Chinese Diaspora.”1
Zhou begins her book by briefly explaining Chinese history and the first immigration. The Chinese Americans are the “oldest and largest Asian-origin group in the United States.” 2 Chinese immigration first occurred thousands of years ago. However, the mass immigration occurred from the mid 19th century to 1949. The main reason behind immigration was due to issues and conflicts within the nation of China itself. China suffered from famines, wars, rebellions, civil disorders, natural disasters, and corruption. As China was still recovering from previous wars and conflicts with Europe, it did not provide a stable life for the Chinese people. With hopes of establishing a stable life without corrupted government policies and laws, Chinese immigrants arrived to America in search of a new beginning. Throughout most of the early immigration in the early 19th century, only diplomats, merchants, and students and their dependents were allowed to travel to the United States.
After briefly touching upon the history of the first Chinese immigrants, Zhou dives into the main topic of the book—the journey of contemporary Chinese immigrants. In contrast to earlier immigration counterparts, contemporary Chinese immigrants have arrived not only from mainland China, but also “from the greater Chinese Diaspora,” including Hong Kong.3 Linguistically, contemporary Chinese immigrants come from a much wider variety of dialect groups than in the past: Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, Kejia (or Hakka), Chaozhounese, and Shanghainese. These dialect groups were not always mutually intelligible. The settlement patterns of Chinese Americans can be characterized by concentration as well as dispersion. To some extent, they follow a historical pattern; similar to the past, Chinese Americans still continue to settle in the West and urban areas. Over half of the ethnic Chinese populations reside in large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Contemporary Chinese immigrants “come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.” 4 Some immigrants arrived with little money, limited education, and very minimal trade skills. These poorly skilled immigrants were forced to take low-wage jobs and settle in deteriorating urban neighborhoods. The more privileged arrived with wealth from family savings, higher education, and skills far above the level of average Americans. Nationwide, levels of educational achievement among the Chinese Americans have been significantly higher than the general population since 1980. Adult Chinese Americans—25 years or older—have attained four or more years of college education. However, regardless of the status and wealth of the arriving immigrants, they all faced challenges in United States. The contemporary Chinese immigrants had to endure through abusive labor practices, over-concentration of jobs that offered low wages with poor working conditions and only a few benefits, and a lack of prospects for mobility. Contemporary Chinese immigration had heightened the salience of ethnicity. In the past, Chinese immigrants were concentrated in ethnic enclaves and had to rely on ethnic organizations and social networks for their daily survival because of pervasive racism, discrimination, and exclusion in the larger society. Furthermore, ethnic members’ lacked English proficiency, marketable or transferable skills, and information about their new homeland.
The Chinese American community in the United States underwent enormous changes since the immigration period, which began in the late 1840s. The current Chinese American community has become more diverse but less geographically bounded and less cohesive. The ethnic solidarity “no longer necessarily inheres in the moral convictions of individuals or the traditional value orientations of the group.”5 Prior to current times, Chinese exclusion and structural constraints created opportunities for ethnic organizations, prompted the revalorization of the symbols of a common ethnicity, and created a unified Chinese ethic community. While issues and challenges directly relevant to immigration and immigrant settlement occupied a central place in community affairs, new issues and challenges concerning interethnic/interracial coalition have acquired urgency. These Chinese immigrants—intentionally or unintentionally—were socially isolated due to the cultural barriers that secluded them from society. They hindered opportunities for interethnic or interracial interactions at the personal and group level since newly migrated Chinese immigrants did not have good relations with United States-born Chinese people. Many non-Chinese residents felt that they were being pushed out of their own homes and being un-Americanized by the arrival of middle-class Chinese immigrant who displayed higher than average levels of education and household incomes and moved directly into the suburbs upon arrival. While Chinese immigrants were often viewed as foreign “invaders,” American born Chinese or Asians were also stereotyped as outsiders. They received praise for speaking “good” English when English is their first language or being told to go back to their own country when they were native citizens of the United States. Also, Chinese immigrants did not mix well with native-born men and women in ethnic enclaves. This lack of primary-level or intimate impersonal relationships rendered Chinese immigrants—furthermore, their children were also vulnerable to negative stereotyping and racial discriminations. Native-born Asian Americans were also stereotyped as foreigners and felt compelled to prove their loyalty and patriotism in many various situations. Chinese Americans who lived and worked in Chinese communities continued to find innovative ways to collectively stand up against stereotypes and promote interethnic understanding, and they still do today.
In present day America, the Chinese Americans have established their livelihood and spread their influence. Chinese-language newspapers, television, and radio are influential ethnic institutions; pillars of Chinese Diaspora communities are not just in United States, but all over the world. Recently, the Internet has also joined as part of the traditional media as it serves as a crucial source for the Chinese community. Zhou wrote, “The upsurge of Chinese-language media in the past few decades mirrors the linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity of the Chinese immigrant community,” displaying the significant impact Chinese culture had on America. 6 The Chinese-language media thrives today and continues to soar. Many of these media outlets are independent business enterprises, but they collectively serve as an important ethnic social institution in the Chinese immigrant family. This institution affects immigrant life and immigrants’ integration into their new homeland for it works by taking multicultural approach. New immigrants—with limited English-language proficiency, few marketable or transferable skills, and little information about their new homeland—cluster in ethnic enclaves upon arrival and rely on ethnic institutions to find housing, jobs, and local news. Chinese-language media can be understood as a social institution that is complementary rather than oppositional in relation to the host society. While the ethnic-language media serves as a bridge between the Chinese speaking immigrant community and mainstream society, it also keeps immigrants in close contact with the homeland—easing psychological and emotional problems of being a foreigner. Concerned with occurrences in China, new immigrants concerned and affected by events in their home-country as well as in America. They wonder how politics and the economy are affecting families and friends back in China, and the affects that these policies have on their own lives. Furthermore, the ethnic-language media creates a cultural space, enabling immigrants to enrich their lives.
Zhou concludes her book by incorporating her view of the future on Chinese America. She states that the “first-generation immigrants do not usually articulate the process of adaption to their new homeland in terms of assimilation.”7 When asked what they expect of life in America, most immigrants would reply without hesitation that their desire is to be like other Americans. More specifically, the immigrants want to hold jobs that pay well, own homes, and raise children to be educated, occupationally successful, and have financially secure retirements. Overall, their definition of success is to achieve middle-class status and freely pursue their dreams. The Chinese way—the ethnic way—may fit all Asian-origin groups, much less non-Asian groups, because of the different contexts and circumstances under which immigrants leave their various old countries and are received on American soil. In order to strive for social mobility and racial equality, these immigrants must find their own strategies and their own path to endure through many obstacles. As American society continues to increase with a variety of multiethnic groups, the time will arrive when diversity is embraced as a part of America.
In Min Zhou’s Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation, Zhou makes the statement that the Chinese are different from common immigrants. Her thesis in the book is clear and precise as she strongly claims that Chinese immigrants too are people with a common goal similar to those of American citizens—to achieve success. Immigrants should not feel insulted in anyway because the indifference of Chinese immigrants and Americans and foreigners should not feel detached from society. With a solid plan in order to achieve their goals—immigrants can obtain a stable, middle-class life. She concludes her book by stating, “After all, Chinatown and ethnic distinctiveness are quintessentially American.”8
As she introduces the book, Zhou states herself that she "draws on and develops [her] previously published work on the multifaceted Chinese America."9 In each chapter, she reinforces her statement by providing a justified source from her research. Zhou also includes up-to-date graphs, maps, and charts of census calculations of Chinese residency and the wave of immigration. When explaining the history of the Chinese people or a flashback of a certain period, she uses the past tense to clearly inform readers. In the end of the book, she includes after notes for every chapter, a bibliography to reinforce and cite her sources, and an index for an easier search. Zhou mainly uses present tense when describing the current and contemporary situations and events. In certain parts throughout the book, Zhou offers her own opinions and personal ideas and solutions regarding the certain issues and problems that all Asian immigrants alike have to face. Her book is a compilation of her years of research and interviews, making it an ideal resource for further research on Chinese immigration. To avoid being biased, Zhou does not focus only on the positive side of the immigrants but the negative aspects as well. She does not assume that her readers already have background information of the topic, so Zhou provides full details of the immigration from the very first Chinese immigrants that have set foot on America.
Nancy Foner, a distinguished professor of sociology in Hunter College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York presents a favorable review upon Zhou’s analysis on Chinese immigration. She states that the book “is full of richly detailed analysis and insightful interpretations.”10 Her review supports the plethora of information given about Chinese adaptation to America. The fact that Zhou conducted extensive research for the book through interviews with immigrants who recalled their relevant actions in establishing their lifestyles is a vital point upon which Foner attributes credibility to. Subsequently, she agrees with Zhou in her views on the stereotypes of the newly arriving immigrants. Foner sympathizes with Zhou and hopes that this book would influence all immigrants who are recently setting foot in America. As a professor of sociology herself, Foner applauds this book primarily for the fact that it thoroughly explains the true point of view of the immigrants.
Haiming Liu, professor of Asian American Studies in California Polytechnic State University, also presents a positive review on Zhou’s book and the extent of detail. He praises Zhou for solidly outlining the “many aspects of contemporary Chinese America.” 11 Additionally, he favors Zhou’s accuracy and clarity regarding specific topics including family, education, and economy, which provides a closer look rather than an obscure point of view. Liu praises Zhou’s ability to push the field of the topic of Chinese immigration to a new level and states that her scholarship is a must in race, ethnicity, and immigration studies.
Both modern immigration and the past immigration display many similarities and differences. In terms of differences, “the first Chinese immigrants were peasants and manual laborers.” 13 Historically, this specific group of people was “known as coolies.” 14 The early immigrants had to establish their own way of life and adapt to the American culture without any support or knowledge of it. Because of their poor skills and insufficient education, the Chinese immigrants did not have the chance to advance in social class and were limited to hard labor for minimum wage. For example, they worked on the transcontinental railroad, such as the Central Pacific Railroad, and in the mining industry. While industrial employers were eager to obtain cheap labor, the ordinary white public was stirred with anger by the presence of this “yellow peril”—a derogatory label. The immigrants felt both psychologically and emotionally isolated because local Chinatowns and communications did not exist for them. Since Chinese-language newspapers were not available back then to spread the word of positive Chinese influence, newspapers condemned the policies of employers. Even church leaders denounced the entrance of the Chinese immigrants into what was regarded as a land for whites only. So hostile did the opposition last that in 1882 the United States Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting immigration from China for the next ten years. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only United States law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race. This kind of discriminatory law not only prevented new immigration but also brought additional suffering as they prevented the reunion of families of thousands of Chinese men already living in America with their wives and children in China. Moreover, anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited Chinese men from marrying Caucasian women—creating another social barrier. In 1943, Chinese immigration to the United States was once again permitted. However, most immigrants today feel welcome and do not endure the difficulties of the early establishment of life as their ancestors once did.
In terms of similarities between modern and past immigrants, Zhou states that “there still is racism.” 15 Although current discrimination and racism is not as harsh as it was in the past, there are still immigrants that suffer from isolation today. However, the goal of the Chinese immigrant—to live a successful and stable life—has not changed. Chinese immigrants worked hard to achieve their goal and are continuing to do so. The immigrants in the past never gave up in achieving their personal dreams, maintaining their heritage by practicing their traditional religion such as Buddhism and Daoism, and celebrated festivals like the Lunar Festival and the Chinese New Year.
The genuine and authentic thoughts and feelings of Chinese immigrants is revealed and looked upon by Zhou throughout her studies revealed in Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation. Frequent questions on Chinese immigration that readers may have are answered with great depth and detail with supporting evidence Zhou gathered from lifelong research. After interviewing countless immigrants, Zhou clearly depicts the relationship between Chinese immigrants and American born Chinese. She has also identifies and compares the two groups’ points of view towards adaptation to the American lifestyle and illustrates their similarities and differences. America would not be the same today if the Chinese immigrants have not acted upon their arrival. Since the early immigrants responded to the issues and problems they faced in America, the newly arriving foreigners have a chance for a brighter future—a place without discrimination and isolation, a place they can call home.
1. Zhou, Min. Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation. 1601 North Broad Street Philadelphia PA: Temple University Press, 2009. 23.
2. Zhou, Min. 43.
3. Zhou, Min. 43.
4. Zhou, Min. 47.
5. Zhou, Min. 52.
6. Zhou, Min. 89..
7. Zhou, Min. 123.
8. Zhou, Min. 223.
9. Zhou, Min. 235..
10. Zhou, Min. xvii.
11. Foner, Nancy. Cover.
12. Liu, Haiming. Cover.
13. Zhou, Min. 27.