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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.3 (2002) 277-282

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Surviving the City: Chinese Immigrant Experience in New York City, 1890-1970. By Xinyang Wang. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.
Seeking Modernity in China's Name: Chinese Students in the United States, 1900-1927. By Weili Ye. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.
Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States. By Ko-lin Chin. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

These three books help to reveal the complex historical processes that have contributed to creating Chinese America, the largest Asian American community today. They deal respectively with three important groups of people who came from China at different historical moments since the mid-19th century: immigrant laborers, students, and undocumented immigrants. All three authors have adopted a transnational perspective. As we can see clearly from their work, the circumstances that motivated these groups and individuals to cross the Pacific Ocean, the ways in which they journeyed to the New World, and their American experiences help us understand both the society they left and the one they entered.

Xinyang Wang's Surviving the City is a well-organized and thoughtfully conceptualized historical study of a major Chinese American community outside California, namely, Chinese New York. Echoing recent scholarship in Asian American Studies, Wang refuses to see Chinese Americans simply as victims of [End Page 277] racial discrimination. He adopts the ethnic economy approach that scholars have fruitfully used in studying other ethnic communities, including Japanese America. Wang insightfully uses the residential patterns of Chinese New Yorkers to demonstrate the extent and nature of the Chinese ethnic economy. His argument undermines a prevalent belief that most Chinese New Yorkers lived in Chinatown during this period. Wang concludes that the concentration of the Chinese in the laundry and restaurant industries explains their dispersal beyond Chinatown. More importantly, Wang argues that economic opportunities available to the immigrants on both sides of the Pacific Ocean help to explain the source and direction of migration. Here, he introduced an interesting factor, which has not been closely examined before: land ownership distribution in China. Wang argues: "the areas where land was fairly widely distributed (and thus potentially available for purchase) send most emigrants to the United States" (57). Beginning in the 1950s, when opportunities to purchase land in China disappeared, Chinese New Yorkers decided to stay permanently in the United States. Reminiscent of Liang Qichao's observation a century ago, Wang contends that the Chinese in New York long maintained greater allegiance to their fellow townsmen and kinsmen than to the entire community, an allegiance that hindered the development of labor militancy. Wang notes that such a strong sense of "group loyalties" is not simply a result of Chinese tradition but is also related to the structure of the Chinese ethnic economy. Owners of small businesses tended to hire "only their fellow townsmen or kinsmen" (88), limiting the opportunity of workers to socialize with others.

Constituting perhaps the most important contribution of Wang's book is his bold and much-needed effort to compare the Chinese with the Italians, who shared many similarities with the Chinese but achieved greater upward social mobility. Building on the work of other scholars such as Sucheng Chan and Roger Daniels, Wang's book constitutes a most systematic and in-depth attempt to compare a major Asian American group with a European immigrant/ethnic community.

Surviving the City will undoubtedly be a welcome addition to American immigration history, a field characterized primarily by European immigration studies. Representing new directions in Asian American history, it shows the promise and necessity of trans-Pacific and comparative studies. I hope it will inspire scholars with knowledge of Chinese and English and Italian or other European languages to conduct this kind of research to even more fruitful ends.

Meanwhile, the limitations of Wang's book highlight the challenges future scholars will face. It relies...


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