restricted access Indispensable Labor: The Worker as a Category of Critique in China Men
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Indispensable Labor:
The Worker as a Category of Critique in China Men

In his influential history of Chinese labor in California at the turn of the twentieth century, Alexander Saxton chronicles the ways in which Chinese workers were cast as the “indispensable enemy,” maligned by white workers of the period as “the most dangerous enemy that has yet threatened the interests of the working man” (75). Saxton explains that the antagonism against the Chinese was indispensable not only to the labor organization of the white workers but also, as David Roediger’s study on the construction of whiteness and the category of the “free worker” in the United States indicates, for the European immigrants to articulate themselves as free white workers against the category of the non-white others.1 In particular, as Robert Lee argues, this enabled white immigrant workers to forge the national identity of the “American worker” as that which was not Chinese. Saxton, Roediger, and Lee all point to the ways in which race—and racism—has worked constitutively with labor in the US. Specifically, Saxton claims that because the anti-Chinese propaganda in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War was not “tain[t]ed politically” (260) as it was with the anti-black campaign, the racism against the Chinese workers, which was sanctioned by their ostensible foreignness that justified the notion of an “enemy,” was then rearticulated as racism against African American workers as well (105). Historian Moon-Ho Jung’s recent work extends this line [End Page 63] of analysis by explaining how the racialization of Chinese workers in the South as coolies held together the shifting color line during the age of emancipation, as the racialization of the Chinese workers as neoslave coolies was crucial in upholding the meaning of racial categories (divided along a black-white binary) left over from slavery in the post-emancipation US. In the vein of Evelyn Hu-DeHart’s pioneering work, Lisa Yun calls for viewing the racialized Chinese workers in a transnational and transhemispheric framework, just as Lisa Lowe has argued for viewing what she calls the “intimacies” of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas through the figure of the coolie to help us rethink notions of freedom, modernity, and the very category of the human under the organizing logic of empire.2

These theorizations on the Chinese worker as a category of analysis in history point to something beyond the obvious but sometimes ignored fact that Chinese labor was one of the indispensable components in the development of capital and empire in the US and world wide. More importantly, they highlight the ways in which the category of the racialized Chinese worker prompts a comparative and transnational analytical model of critique that interrogates the intersections of the discourses of race, labor, and freedom in empire that might be unrecognizable in historical narratives viewed exclusively in a national framework. As a discursive category, the racialized Chinese worker calls attention to subjugated epistemological formations, as it reveals the work that it has carried and can carry out in attributing meaning to racialized bodies. In this essay, I think about the representations of those racialized bodies by reading the Asian worker as a category of critique.3 In particular, informed by Victor Bascara’s argument that the workings of empire are showcased in twentieth-century Asian American literary texts, I argue for a way of reading Asian American literature that draws on the history of labor migration under capital and empire. If, as Bascara contends, the state-sanctioned institution of liberal multiculturalism of the late twentieth century—whose ontological rationale was predicated on the disappearance of empire in US culture—carved out a space for Asian American literature in the American literary canon, I argue that the task at hand is not to naturalize and legitimize that inclusion by underscoring a rightful belonging, but to tease out the linkage between the persistent erasure of racialized labor in the dominant historiography and literature and the “disappearing act” of empire in multiculturalism.

In my examination of the Asian worker as a historical category through which we can engage in a transnationalist and comparativist reading of...