When the US government ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan, President Biden described this shift as necessary to allow the US to become more competitive against China. Now more than ever, it is essential for Americans (and Chinese) to avoid falling into the trap of a nationalist competition between these two superpowers. One way to do so is to unravel the ways in which the histories and fates of these two countries are intertwined.
With her latest book, The Chinese Question, historian Mae Ngai uncovers how Chinese laborers propelled the economic rise of both the US and Great Britain in the 19th century. As Ngai notes, by 1904, these two countries controlled 88 percent of the world’s gold yield. Where did this gold come from? From the goldfields of California and the British colonies of southern Africa and Australia, where Chinese workers were among the legions who mined for it.
Chinese laborers did not merely operate at the whims of US and British colonial authorities, but they have been remembered as pathetically oppressed coolies—a racist slur used in the 19th century for indentured laborers, imagined as beings without agency or personality. Even today, the figure of the coolie persists. Ngai observes that, in the contemporary American imagination, they are exploited workers in China’s factories and Chinese and Chinese American students at American universities: individuals of Chinese descent “imagined as automatons who endure arduous labor without complaint.”
With her focus on the 19th century, Ngai uncovers the coolie myth’s origins, hoping to address its current forms and, ultimately, dismantle it. After a decade of research and writing, she published The Chinese Question. The following interview is an edited conversation we had over Zoom about her life and latest work.
Development of the Chinese Question
Jilene Chua (JC): You spent 10 years writing your book. How did it develop over time?
Mae Ngai (MN): My emphasis moved around a little bit in the beginning. At one level, I wanted to write a history of the people and their communities. But on another level, I wanted to write about gold, the gold standard, and global capitalism. And then I thought, I’m going to write this mostly as a history of the Chinese diaspora in the West. I wanted to think about it as an Asian American or a Chinese diasporic history about those communities. But, in order to tell that story, I had to think about it in the broadest terms of global politics and global economics.
I realized that the first occasions of contact between Chinese immigrants and whites was on the goldfields. So then I said to myself, “OK, I have to think through the whole question of the gold rushes.” And then I began to wonder, “What did it mean that the goldfields were on the frontiers of Western societies, and that they were a kind of contact zone? How are race relations sorted out in that context of settler colonialism? And where there was sudden untold wealth, as well as failures?” I had to dig deeper into the conditions.
In the end, to me, it’s still an Asian American history, but one that’s broader than most accounts. It’s a history of the Chinese diaspora in the West, its origins, and why Chinese immigrants to the West became so marginalized, became so despised.
JC: A general pattern of your work is that it simultaneously focuses on a community and their experience while also revealing these broader systems and structures that affect many marginalized groups.
MN: I couldn’t write the story of the Chinese immigrant community in the West without writing about race and money—the two huge drivers of 19th-century global politics. Race and money, colonialism and capitalism. I had to consider these two aspects and how they fit together.
But I ended up writing it in such a way that it’s still the story of the Chinese themselves. Of the people, the immigrants, the communities. How they reacted and how others reacted to them. In that sense, those two things—the history of these communities and the history of colonial and capitalist policies and dynamics—go together very closely. In the end, they became inseparable.
JC: You published The Chinese Question after you wrote The Lucky Ones (2012), a narrative history of a Chinese American family, and Impossible Subjects (2004), a pathbreaking monograph on the US immigration state. Before all that, you were a political activist and organizer. How have your life experiences shaped the themes of your work?
MN: I was born in New York, in the Bronx, to be exact. My parents were both physicians who immigrated from China in the late 1940s to pursue their professional training. They actually didn’t intend to stay in the United States, but, after 1949, they didn’t feel they could go back to China. My mother’s father was an official in the Guomindang government who left for Taiwan, so my parents thought it would be a risk to go to back to China. In fact, they were among the cohort called, at the time, “the stranded Chinese students.”
A similar thing happened after Tiananmen, when Chinese international students in the United States received green cards. They said they didn’t want to go back because they would be persecuted. After the Chinese Communist revolution, there were a lot of Chinese international students in the US who said they didn’t want to go back. They ended up staying, becoming permanent residents.
When I was small, my parents moved to the suburbs in North Jersey. I grew up in a town that was half Black and half white—hardly any Asians. My parents wanted to buy land and build a house in an all-white area, but nobody would sell to them, even in the early 1960s. I don’t know if there were racial covenants, but there was still a custom of keeping the area white.
High school was formative for my political development. I attended anti–Vietnam War and civil rights protests. My personal friends tended to be white, because the school was tracked and segregated to a fair degree into college preparatory and those not bound for college. But politically, I identified more with the Black civil rights movement. Moreover, the Vietnam War was, to me, a very clear instance of racism against Asian people by US imperialism.
I began college, but I dropped out. It seemed pointless to go to school when a revolution was going on. Instead, in the 1980s, I became an organizer in New York’s Chinatown. I worked various jobs, including in a radical newspaper and in a labor union, where I helped to run ESL and GED classes for our members. I was also involved in various political campaigns (including Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and David Dinkins’s mayoral campaign). I did coalition work with the anti-apartheid movement and work around police brutality issues. It was a very active period of progressive politics in New York. The labor movement was very central to that.
I went back to school because I hadn’t finished college yet. I attended Empire State College, which was part of the State University of New York system—a wonderful program for so-called returning students. In a nontraditional program for nontraditional students, I had a mentor who encouraged me to do more.
I really fell in love with reading labor history and history in general. Based on my years working in the community and in the union, I was very interested in labor and immigration questions. So, I went to graduate school. At first, I thought it was a crazy idea, but somebody sticks an idea in your head, and it germinates.
Dismantling the Coolie Myth
JC: Let’s talk about some examples from your book that dismantle this idea of the passive Chinese coolie.
MN: Different moments in the book are about the Chinese community’s negotiations with powerful figures, like with the Foreign Miners’ Tax in California. The Chinese support for the Foreign Miners’ Tax has been glibly dismissed as an acquiescence to racism. Some say there was something in it for them.
But I realized from reading the sources that they were actually very canny about how they wanted to deal with the white government officials. It was actually the Chinese miners’ idea; it was their idea.
The Chinese proposed to split the proceeds between the counties and the state. That was really smart. They understood their willingness to be taxed as a bargain: “OK, we pay you tax and, in exchange, you have to protect us.” That was not always honored. But because the counties got revenue from the Foreign Miners’ Tax, they were not always attacking the Chinese. They figured out a way to coexist. The Chinese were playing a long game.
JC: Your book describes these negotiations happening not just in California, but also in Australia and southern Africa.
MN: In Australia, the Chinese organized for many years against unjust taxes. Ultimately, they had a number in their mind—what they were willing to pay. Every time the government modified the tax, they would say, “Well, no, not yet, you know,” and they would keep withholding. A lot of those schemes in Australia failed because the Chinese refused to cooperate until they got down to the number that they were willing to pay. Australian history is written by white Australians, so they have misunderstood this.
You have to understand what people were really doing, what they wanted, and what the stakes were for them.
JC: How would you compare what happened in Australia to southern Africa?
MN: South Africa is really phenomenal. There, you had 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese people who were indentured and had very limited means to fight for their rights. Both in Australia and in South Africa, governmental authorities invested in extreme measures against the Chinese. In both cases, they failed for political reasons. In Australia, for the colonial government to have enforced the protection villages would have required an extraordinary amount of force. But politically, they were not willing to go that far. They would have had to round up people daily and lock them up. It seemed there was a limit to their repression.
In South Africa, it was not that they weren’t willing to be coercive. It was because there was a metropolitan response against the cruelty inflicted upon Chinese workers. On the one hand, you have the resistance of the Chinese mine workers, who just refused to work. And on the other hand, there became a limit to how much you can whip them, because there was an outcry in Great Britain.
JC: What did these case studies about Chinese workers lead you to conclude about this notion of the Chinese as coolies?
MN: The idea that the Chinese on the goldfields were coolies is in some ways preposterous. Nobody could hold people on contracts on the frontier. People just walked away. Sailors walked away. People who initially came on contracts in the very beginning of the gold rush came from Chile or Mexico and even from China. Those contracts were unenforceable. The same thing was true in Australia. In South Africa, they were somewhat enforceable, because the workers were basically incarcerated on these gold mines, but even there they didn’t do the work that the authorities desired of them.
US Racial Relations and US-China Tensions
JC: Excerpts of The Chinese Question frame anti-Asian violence in the US within the geopolitical tensions between China and the US.
MN: President Biden and Vice President Harris are forceful about opposing hate and attacks on Asian Americans. Yet Biden and Secretary of State Blinken consider China to be one of the biggest adversaries of the United States. As long as they consider China to be an adversary, people are going to beat us up in America.
I’m not saying that American race relations should be the main thing shaping our policy toward China. America’s China policy is very complicated. China itself is a bad actor in many ways. But, instead of an adversary, we need to consider China to be an important political global entity to be dealt with and negotiated with. We have to find common ground.
The problem is that both China and the United States consider the global economy to be a zero-sum competition. And as long as global economic questions are seen as zero-sum competitions, we’re all going to pay the price.
JC: What do you think about the way our country is grappling with anti-Asian violence and society’s racism problem more generally?
MN: This country has a long way to go to reckon with racism against Asian Americans. Many Americans don’t even believe it exists.
There’s a lot of education that has to take place. It took a video of George Floyd being murdered in real time for people to realize, “Oh, we have systemic racism in this country. It’s not just bad cops.” Police have been killing Black people for decades if not centuries, going back to slavery.
The fact that Americans are so willfully blind to the realities of racial inequality and injustice says volumes about the polarization of our society and the perniciousness of postracial thinking. People believe we don’t have racism anymore. Americans—whether they believe they are not racist or whether they are stone-cold racists—still struggle to see the structures of racism. They struggle to understand entrenched institutional racism.
If you throw Asians into the mix, many Americans are staggered. It becomes too complicated. Asians do not experience racism in the same way that Black people do. There are privileges that Asians have, compared to Black and Latinx people. There’s no use hiding from that or denying it, but that doesn’t mean there’s no anti-Asian racism or that there isn’t a long history of it.
I have argued that we have to understand racism in its specificities, not as some kind of abstract problem of people’s thinking or prejudices. And there is not one kind of racism against which other forms must be measured.
This country is not, in a general sense, prepared to parse this complicated question. To reckon with anti-Asian racism, we have a long way to go.
JC: How are you thinking about your role as a historian in the midst of this anti-Asian racism?
MN: In this period after Atlanta with all the hate attacks on Asian Americans, a lot of us have been invited to talk to TV reporters and interviewed by newspapers. A lot of what you see is positive, because people are talking about a history that has remained so obscure for so many Americans. But a lot of it is a litany of how we have been attacked: There was this massacre, there was this attack. There was this town that burned down.
It’s a long list of how we have suffered. And I think we can do better than that. I think we have to put it in the context of American politics. We have to have a more sophisticated, more comprehensive, and more intersectional kind of analysis to offer. That’s harder for people to process. It demands more work of the listener. But I think we should demand that of them.
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ vs. Coolies
JC: Your goal with The Chinese Question is to slay the coolie myth—the idea that Chinese laborers were passive and subservient sufferers exploited by various kinds of authorities in the 19th century. How does this myth relate to another dominant representation of the Chinese as greedy rich mercantile capitalists—or “crazy rich Asians”?
MN: The crazy rich Asians stereotype is an update of the oriental despot: a figure that exploits Chinese labor, but also wallows in luxury. Civilizations that support oriental despotism are unable to advance because they are hung up on excess. Oriental culture cannot industrialize because there’s no work ethic. People are either coolies or they are the super wealthy, whose lives are defined by excess.
The movie Crazy Rich Asians is a postmodern adaptation of that. All the wealth comes from real estate and finance; they’re part of a global capitalist transnational elite, the transnational billionaires. A lot of them are in Asia. The stereotype of that kind of excessive luxury is an echo from these old stereotypes about oriental despotism.
People don’t criticize Wall Street one percenters for being “crazy rich white” people. Nobody says Jeff Bezos is a “crazy rich white” dude.
JC: Some would still argue that class is a better analytic than race for analyzing working class Chinese people and the super wealthy Chinese elite, in the context of rising inequality under global capitalism. Why put them together in the same “Chinese” category for your study?
MN: I think we separate race and class at some peril. Class always has a racial dimension and race always has a class dimension, so I think we should not make them either this or that—we have to understand how they operate together.
I tried to do two things with the Chinese gold miners and the Chinese merchants. First, I wanted to identify how they saw themselves; how they understood their own interests; what their aspirations were; how they understand their place in the world; the ties that they had with each other. The importance of kinship and home village; the kinds of organizations that they brought with them from China, but then adapted to conditions in the West. I was trying to understand a culture, an ethnic culture, if you will.
Second, I wanted to identify how they were racialized and misunderstood by the white colonial officials. I wanted to find out how they were caricatured to suit political agendas that had nothing to do with real Chinese people.
Asian American Activism
JC: Your book dismantles the coolie myth by illustrating the ways in which Chinese workers organized and negotiated for their own interests in California, southern Africa, and Australia. This reminds me of your experiences as an activist and organizer in New York’s Chinatown.
MN: In the 1980s, we had a huge campaign with Chinese garment workers. Back then, 20,000 of them went on strike in New York City. There’s always been people in our communities who have fought. Everybody’s heard of Yuri Kochiyama. And Yuri had an amazing life of solidarity, work, and activism with Malcolm X and African American groups. Of course, that was a lot of what she did.
But she was also a figure in the Asian American movement. I used to go to her house, to her apartment. We used to hang out there with her family. I was friends with her kids. She wasn’t just an Asian lady that supported Black people. She was also part of the Asian American community.
She, her husband, and their family helped form an Asian American center in New York, where Asian American activists gathered, had meetings, and held cultural events. They’re always part of the annual day of remembrance, which was an occasion for Japanese Americans especially, but also other Asian Americans, to commemorate the internments during World War II.
Yuri is not just a single person out there. She was part of the Black movement, she was part of the Asian American movement. This is just to say that we’ve always had activists in our communities. But, in general, our communities haven’t been that visible to outsiders.
JC: How are you thinking about Asian American activism today?
MN: One thing that is very positive is that Asian American young people, high school students and college students, are becoming more active. They are speaking out and organizing. I think that’s where the hope lies.
The hope is that there’s a new generation of Asian Americans who are learning about their history, and who are in solidarity with other people of color. They don’t see Asian Americans as living separately from the rest of society. They want to build solidarity ties. The Dreamer movement is a really good example. The Dreamers are not just Latinos and Latinas. They are Filipinos, Chinese, Afro Caribbean, Africans. The diverse nature of the Dreamer movement is an early example of the kinds of organizing that young people are engaged in.
The future of Asian Americans in this country is going to rest a lot on the kids that are organizing in high school, working with their African American peers. That’s what gives me hope and optimism.