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Journal of Women's History 12.1 (2000) 185-187

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Review Essay

Prostitutes, Wives, and Students: Chinese Women in the United States

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu

Huping Ling. Surviving on the Gold Mountain: A History of Chinese American Women and Their Lives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. xvii + 252 pp.; ill; tables. ISBN 0-7914-3863-5 (cl); 0-7914-3864-3 (pb).

Surviving on the Gold Mountain represents Huping Ling's attempt to fulfill an ambitious goal: a comprehensive history of Chinese American women from the 1840s to the present. She notes that previous studies of Chinese American women were limited in geographic, chronological, and intellectual scope, focusing on women, especially prostitutes, in San Francisco before and during World War II. To write a more complete history, Ling examines Chinese American women in urban and rural communities throughout the country, and includes women who worked in diverse occupations, paying particular attention to the experiences of international students, a group largely overlooked in Asian American studies. Ling's book also traces the history of Chinese American women beyond World War II, highlighting postwar transformations, social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the Immigration Act of 1965. Situating her study in the context of recent gender and ethnic histories that emphasize how categories of difference intersect as well as how women of color respond to structural barriers of oppression, she draws on this literature to compare Chinese American women's experiences to those of women of other racial and immigrant groups.

Ling is more successful in her efforts to write a balanced, comparative history of Chinese American women in part 1, which covers the period from the first migration of Chinese women in the mid-nineteenth century to 1943, the year in which the Chinese Exclusion Law was repealed. Supplementing existing scholarship with interviews, archival research, and analysis, Ling examines Chinese American women's motivations for immigration, their economic contributions and work experiences, and their central roles in families and communities. Because previous studies focused on prostitutes and wives of Chinese laborers and merchants in urban ethnic communities, Ling highlights Chinese female students whose motivations for immigrating and experiences in the United States differed in important ways from other Chinese American women. Unlike prostitutes who were frequently kidnapped or forced to emigrate because of their families' financial difficulties, and unlike wives who came to the [End Page 185] United States to reunite with their families, Chinese students immigrated to fulfill personal desires for education or adventure. Ling views these women as a vanguard of female and national liberation, because they articulated critiques of Chinese gender roles and understood their emancipation as part of a movement to create a modern China. Indeed, many of the female students educated in the United States eventually became political and professional leaders in China.

Surviving on the Gold Mountain is not as successful in providing a comprehensive examination of Chinese American women's history in parts 2 and 3, which examine the post-World War II and post-1965 eras respectively. In these sections, Ling's interest in international students becomes the predominant focus. She conducted most of her oral histories with female students, and she concentrates primarily on their educational achievements and family lives. Consequently, the author neglects to address important developments in Chinese American women's history. For example, she provides little detail regarding the Cold War and social movements of the 1960s. Ling argues that the alliance between the United States and China during World War II fostered more positive attitudes toward Chinese people and promoted a variety of social and economic opportunities for Chinese American women. However, she does not discuss how the souring of relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States during the Cold War reversed some of these gains. The "fall of China" led U.S. officials to pass laws to admit political refugees which benefited Chinese immigrants, especially students. Yet international tensions also fostered political repression of Chinese Americans suspected of being communist sympathizers and...


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