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Reviewed by:
  • Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War by Laura Madokoro
  • Shelly Chan
Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War. By Laura Madokoro (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. xviii plus 313 pp. $45.00).

Recently refugees have been at the epicenter of intense political, scholarly, and popular discussions. Grounded in the Cold War period, Laura Madokoro’s new study of Chinese migrants is not only timely, but also successful in showing how Asian refugees emerged as a social group, a humanitarian agenda, and a political problem for historically white settler nations. These encounters have left palpable effects on the present, argues Madokoro. Contrary to long-held assumptions, a “refugee” was not one who was in need of help, but one who was deemed “de-serving” of help. Despite the ascent of liberal humanitarianism after WWII, racism persisted in the West against Chinese, previously excluded from immigration and now suspected for being “rice refugees” and not “genuine” ones. Further complicated by anti-Communist struggles, the “refugeeing” process, suggests Madokoro, was not intended to facilitate but to restrict migrant resettlement.

A significant contribution to the study of migrants and refugees, the book fills a gap by focusing on the fates of millions of Chinese fleeing Communism and war in the twentieth century. Drawing on extensive archival, library, and newspaper research over a vast terrain—the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Britain—it uncovers a history, geography, and group of actors thrust together by refugee assistance and protection. Neglected in national historiographies and even many global ones, the book places at the center the conflicting yet interconnected ideologies of Western liberal countries and humanitarian and missionary organizations, and the ways in which Chinese migrants shaped and were shaped by them. The multifaceted inquiry unfolds over a total of seven chapters, spanning the 1951 United Nations Convention, colonial responses in Hong Kong to refugees entering from the mainland and later Indo-China, intense battles between shared responsibility and regulation, Cold War images and discourses about Chinese refugees, and the human experiences of those who eventually found refuge.

Quite remarkably, Madoroko makes visible how postwar Hong Kong was a crucible of powerful forces, arguing that developments there “had a profound impact on how refugees were conceptualized and how notions of refugee protection evolved globally.” By insisting on the importance of Asia and Asians through a focus on Hong Kong, the book challenges the myth that formerly white settler nations were champions of humanitarianism in the post-WWII period. Instead, Asians escaping communism were only partly welcomed, and often seen cynically as opportunistic migrants and not “freedom fighters” like their European counterparts—a reminder that the story of Asian migrants was part of an ongoing struggle with racism rather than a clear departure from it. A small number of oral interviews included in the study also highlights the deeply-felt stigma among individuals who arrived as refugees, thereby exposing the fraught racial politics behind liberal humanitarianism. All this suggests that structures of white settler societies were far from becoming obsolete by the mid-twentieth century, [End Page 529] but instead continued to be operative—making this historical geography relevant for scholars of the contemporary world.

Another important contribution made by Madoroko’s book is the juxtaposition of migrants and refugees in her approach. She emphasizes the analytical value for doing so, namely to draw attention to the making of refugees to con-form to Western expectations. However, there also lies an opportunity to advance her argument further by engaging the fields of critical race, migration, and refugee studies. Scholars of these fields have long recognized how WWII and Cold War struggles helped end racist exclusion in immigration policies and shaped civil rights movements in white settler nations. What followed in the U.S. and Canada, for example, were new identities as nations of immigrants and multicultural societies. Replacing racial selection was a system of immigration based on individual skills, wealth, and family ties. Indeed, Madoroko’s research supports how Western liberal societies, facing new global conditions, created a new divide along old racial lines—“refugees” versus “immigrants.” In sum, Madoroko’s book is an important addition...


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pp. 529-530
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