Professor Mae M. Ngai gave a lecture titled “The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics” as part of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series on Wednesday at Boston College. The event was co-sponsored by the History Department.
Ngai is currently a professor of History and the Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies at Columbia University. Her work includes exploring the legal and political history of immigration and nationalism.
Her book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America reshaped the modern discussion around immigration and created new frameworks with which to explore the subject.
“At the turn of the last century, some half-dozen countries enacted laws that prohibited Chinese from immigrating to their country,” Ngai began.
This “Great Wall against China” stretched from the Americas, to Asia, South Africa, and Europe.
“The conventional explanation for Chinese exclusion is that Euro-American workers in receiving countries feared competition from cheap Chinese labor,” she argued.
But Ngai presents the claim that Chinese exclusion was the result of a global racism that reflected the increase in globalization facing the world after World War I. The real question was how anti-Chinese sentiment became a global trend.
“The gold fields were fluid international contact zones on the frontiers of the world’s core societies,” she stated.
In the 1850s and 60s, nativism, or the idea that foreign-born workers do not belong, was a convenient way to exclude people from the mining fields. This belief became stronger as the Chinese arrived because the mines were becoming less productive.
Thus, Sacramento elites coined the myth of the “coolie,” a derogatory term that implies a laborer is unskilled and simply working for the lowest contract.
The California legislature attempted to pass so-called “coolie bills” in order to limit the impact and jobs these Chinese workers could have. Despite none of the bills becoming law, the government used them to incite fear in the public.
This anti-Chinese sentiment was not just a product of the United States. Mining operations in Australia treated Chinese workers the same way, although Australian miners also protested against the colonial government.
“The Chinese question was a core element in emerging Australian nationalism which viewed racial homogeneity and free labor as conditions for democracy,” Ngai explained.
Nations found the Chinese question essential to building narratives around their frontiers. Creating the myth that the Chinese were dangerous because they would always undercut the competition at low prices caused anti-Chinese racism to persist.
Ngai concluded her talk by speaking about the ways in which Chinese immigrants and the Chinese government pushed back against this racism.
“Free immigration undoubtedly begets cultural and commercial exchange. And vice versa,” she said. “If you wanted to check immigration from Asia you would have to check Asian commerce.”
The floor was then opened for questions.
One audience member asked “if there was much commerce in the 19th century” between Great Britain and China and if that restrained anti-Chinese sentiment.
“The British had a long-standing trade with China. In fact China, in the 17th century to the early 19th century, was called the silver sea of the world,” she explained.
China used the silver standard instead of the gold standard, prompting silver prices in China to be twice as high as anywhere else in the world. The relationship between the two countries continuously fostered trade, leading to the British discovery of opium and the displacement of traditional Chinese cotton.
“The United States had a Chinese trade from the beginning of the Republic actually,” Ngai stated.
However, the United States' trade with China was always small, allowing the country to bypass the exclusion laws and then demand entrance into Chinese markets. This was a finessing of the system that usually demanded free immigration in order to attain free trade.
Another audience member asked “if Africans or African-Americans had any interactions with Chinese immigrants.”
Ngai responded that “in California, in the 1850s, there were some. Most of them were former slaves brought by their owners."
Despite the presence of former slaves in California, the Chinese and African-Americans did not have many interactions there. Communities were segregated and strict laws prevented integration from happening.
Ngai’s talk was a precursor to her next book, which shares the same name as the lecture she presented.