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Reviewed by:
  • Being Chinese, Becoming Chinese American
  • Xiujing Liang (bio)
Shehong Chen . Being Chinese, Becoming Chinese American. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002. xiii, 239 pp. Paperback $25.00, ISBN 0–252–07389–4. Hardcover $39.00, ISBN 0–252–02736–1.

The process of becoming a Chinese American is elegantly encapsulated in two quotations, one at the beginning and one at the end of Being Chinese, Becoming Chinese American. The author of this book, Shenong Chen, in chapter 1 quotes from Young China:

If we Chinese wish to defend ourselves against such discrimination [USA's Chinese exclusion legislation], we must first of all restore our national independence. . . . We must first restore the Chinese nation. . . . Fellow countrymen, a revolution is the only means to overthrow the Qing government.

(p. 17)

In the last chapter, the words from San Francisco Chronicle testifies the end of a journey toward assimilation:

One should not be surprised . . . to see the Chinese girl, formerly so retiring, so demure, so timid, so modest, suddenly transformed into a vivacious, independent, self-assertive, dressed in the latest cut of fashion as her American sisters are. . . . The younger generation of the Chinese people are so thoroughly Americanized.

(p. 169)

Shenong Chen's Being Chinese, Becoming Chinese American reads like the script of a TV saga, starting with Chinese migrants to America between 1911 and 1927. Its narrative explores how Chinese begin to recognize their American status, fight for a living in the United States, and gradually to become Chinese Americans. [End Page 387]

While China in the 1910s and 1920s fought for modernity by turning its back to traditional Chinese values and embracing modern values and morality, the Chinese in America fought for their right to settle into their new country. The Chinese in the United States were marginalized, and while the immigration ban was in force, their situation remained fragile and exposed. The social justice and well-being they sought, in their perception, depended on respect for them as citizens of a strong home nation, and rights and respect were denied them because China was weak and humiliated. Hence, the American Chinese fought for a strong China to improve their lot. Their nationalist determination, activities, donations, movements, and all sorts of support to their mother country became history, duly recorded in three local American Chinese newspapers: Chinese World, Young China, and Chung Sai Yat Po. Each of these Chinese newspapers represented different political interests and opinions among the Chinese Americans. Shenong Chen has explored these three local Chinese newspapers to piece together a detailed narrative of American Chinese in United States from this early period, elaborating on their identity transformation from American Chinese to Chinese Americans.

The history of the Chinese Americans, of course, has broader significance, not only as a precursor of present large-scale Chinese migration, but also as an important and enlightening long-term case study of migration as a phenomenon. It is, therefore, a pity that the book foregoes a unique chance of bringing together insights from existing scholarship on Chinese migrations in the early 1900s and wider migration theories to join the newspaper material together in a new critical appraisal of existing perceptions. Instead, it tells its own story, discovering a reality in its vast, colorful, and detailed source material, duly chronicled as the "what, who and how" of US Chinatowns in this particular era.

The detailed accounts accomplish vivid impressions and minute evidence of core events such as in 1911 the movement to raise money in support of Sun Yatsen's Chinese national revolution, the rejection of Yuan Shikai's government after its bad performance at the international expositions in Panama and California, the anti-Japanese boycott, the establishment of the China Mail Steamship Company, and the Tsoi Sim and Yee Yuk Lum's cases for the right to stay and have families in the United States.

The book is a captivating read, using a narrative style of human interest, resting on details, juxtaposing trends, visibly inspired from television series. The "footage" of news copy highlights the individual minutiae of American Chinese's struggle with their own identity and their diasporic environment, in an exciting pace that provides trends, deep insights...