- Garden of the World: Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California’s Santa Clara Valley by Cecelia M. Tsu
by Cecelia M. Tsu
New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 304 pp. Cloth $105.00; Paper $29.95
Cecelia Tsu traces the successive influence of three Asian immigrant populations—Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino—in the region of California that is today known as “Silicon Valley.” Chinese men worked as field hands during the last decades of the nineteenth century, sending remittances back to their families who remained in China. Because of restrictive federal immigration laws, by 1910 the Chinese population had dwindled, to be replaced by Japanese laborers, who tended to start families and aspired to become landowning farmers themselves. Although state land use laws attempted to thwart these ambitions, by the 1930s the labor supply for fruit-and-berry production in the region was coming from Mexico and the Philippines. Like the Chinese, these immigrants tended to be single men, who were more receptive to unionization than the Japanese, precipitating an era of violent labor conflict in California that John Steinbeck covered for the San Francisco News and novelized in two books, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath.
Tsu’s history emphasizes racial discrimination by white landowners and the white urban population in California. Her approach synthesizes quantitative data from the U.S. Census and from the Survey on Racial Relations with numerous qualitative reports gleaned from a variety of archival sources. She emphasizes white racial discrimination and Asian strategies for resisting and accommodating the efforts of white Californians to create a racially pure society [End Page 204] built on the family farm ideal. Tsu does not neglect the extent to which Japanese farm operators also participated in exclusionary rhetoric directed against efforts at union organizing during the 1930s. Although they are discussed in relationship to Japanese and Filipino immigrants, Hispanic workers and labor organizers are not discussed in enough detail to provide a rich picture of the historical background for Steinbeck’s writing in the 1930s.
Steinbeck himself is given two pages in Tsu’s history of the labor disputes of the 1930s, with most of her attention paid to “The Harvest Gypsies.” Tsu notes that like other white voices from the period, Steinbeck draws a distinction between the racially stereotyped field workers who had been working in the fields for decades and the arrival of whites from the American Midwest in the 1930s. Of Steinbeck himself, she writes, “He argued it was a shame for white American families of ‘good stock’ to live so shabbily, precisely because they were not ‘peons’” (200). Tsu notes that white liberals like Steinbeck believed that the chances for social change were improved by a focus on the plight of white Okies, as distinct from Asian and Hispanic minorities. She observes that racial issues do not appear in The Grapes of Wrath at all.
Tsu might also have noticed that racial issues are absent from In Dubious Battle, in which Steinbeck paints an invidious portrait of communist labor organizers. Steinbeck’s novelization implies that communists working to organize field labor were willing to sacrifice the interests of workers in pursuit of larger political goals. In contrast, Tsu’s portrait of the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) is generally sympathetic, emphasizing especially their efforts on behalf of Filipinos. She writes that party regulars working the California strikes were devoted to Communism and were “among its most talented organizers. To appeal to farm workers, however, they eschewed overtly Communist rhetoric and emphasized issues of decent wages and working conditions, fair negotiations, equal pay for women, and racial equality” (189). Filipino immigrants to California had been subjected to especially virulent racial slurs because of their contact with single white women in Depression-era dance halls.
Tsu’s writing is clear and logical, though not especially fluid or winning. The emphasis on Asian immigrants limits the book’s ability to develop an integrated vision of either white racism or the historical context of California agriculture. Garden...