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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 293-295

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Book Review

Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882-1943

Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882-1943.By Madeline Y. Hsu. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

There is much talk nowadays about transnational perspectives on Asian Pacific American history. Some of it is idle chatter, filled with theoretical musings and little substantive research. Fortunately, however, there have been a number of groundbreaking studies that are truly transnational in both their approaches and, most importantly, in their archival sources. Madeline Hsu's Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home is just such an outstanding book, an exemplar for how to do a transnational study that captures the often globe-spanning histories of migrants out of Asia.

Focusing on the ways Chinese immigrants continued in their lives to connect southern China and the United States even during the exclusion era of 1882-1943, Hsu details just how thoroughly transnational links provided a foundation for early Chinese American history. One of the benefits of taking on a transnational perspective involves the opening up of new or relatively underused historical sources, in particular non-English language ones. In its imaginative use of Chinese sources, Hsu's book joins earlier studies such as those of historians Yong Chen, Adam McKeown, Renqiu Yu, and Eve Armentrout-Ma. Hsu's imaginative use of both English and Chinese language sources is impressive. For example, her recovery of the financial records of one of the companies who transferred remittances back and forth between the Americas and China (acting as a banking and communication network that spanned the Pacific), provides the kind of solid historical research that is an invaluable contribution to scholarship. In another chapter, Hsu's creative use of Chinese-language periodicals connects the lives of [End Page 293] early Cantonese immigrants to their homes and families in Toysan county (Taishan in pinyin) in Guangdong province. Produced in the home villages of overseas migrants, these popular gazettes spread news about home out to the far-flung locations of the Chinese diaspora. Dispensing gossip at the same time they detailed construction of houses, hospitals, and schools, Hsu notes how they were meant to maintain the potentially wavering ties of men to a distant "home" from which they spent nearly their entire lives physically removed. (Lauding the financial contributions of overseas men to new buildings, for instance, insured that social status was connected to the size of remittances sent home.) Besides being a wonderful archival historian, Hsu also writes well, and she weaves a tapestry of the larger contexts of historical events in both China and the United States by threading in the poignant examples of individual lives. For instance, Hsu uses the figure of Chen Yixi (1844-1928), a Toysanese migrant who became a wealthy businessman in Seattle, to introduce the "elastic" ways in which transnational ties have been at differing times invoked and revoked through history.

Hsu's analysis is truly groundbreaking in its reconfiguration of the so-called "bachelor societies" of overseas Chinese laboring men in North America. Hsu's study focusses on the connections between these male-dominated communities and their wives, children, and other relatives in China, arguing that such extended families were the norm rather than the exception. Because of generations of chain migration, many villages in Toysan, as well as Heungsan (later known as Zhongsan) county, had a significant proportion of men of laboring age overseas, and the economic foundation of these villages depended upon their remittances. Hsu details how this family structure affected gender relations in diasporic Cantonese families. Women lamenting the absence of husbands may have been a stock expression of Toysanese femininity; however, there were possible benefits to marriage with a gum san haak--the wealthy sojourners who returned only sporadically to father children might also leave their wives in charge when they were away. Left alone to...


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