- Introduction to "Guests and Strangers:Asian Workers in Transnational Perspective"
"Being a dog would be better than being a worker in the United States." This comment was made by a Chinese immigrant worker employed in San Francisco's Chinatown as part of a participatory action research project led by the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). Inasmuch as Asian Americans continue to be figured as "model minorities" in most mainstream accounts—whether it be in popular culture and the media or by politicians—this quote is a sobering reminder that "model minority" status is very much a myth for many working-class Asian immigrants. Films like Crazy Rich Asians and even television series like Fresh Off the Boat paint Asians and by extension Asian Americans as, at worst, relatively comfortable, upper-middle-class, small business owners living the suburban good life or as extravagantly wealthy, jet-setting members of the "one percent." Certainly, the Pew Research Center report on "The Rise of Asian Americans," initially published in 2012, did little to challenge the idea that Asian Americans are "model minorities." Based on original survey research as well as census data, the report framed Asian Americans as "milestones of economic success and social assimilation."1 Here, quantitative data have the effect of seemingly validating "model minority" status as an undisputable fact.
Asian American studies scholars have long insisted that "model minority" status is a myth that obscures the complexities of Asian immigrants' lives in the United States. Asian American historiography and sociological scholarship has long focused on the experiences of working-class Asian immigrants. Broad surveys examining early Asian labor migration to the United States have been produced.2 There is also research interrogating [End Page vii] the interplay and intersection of race, gender, and citizenship status on the employment experiences of low-wage Asian workers as well as focused case studies of the socioeconomic issues and struggles of the most dominant Asian ethnic immigrant groups (namely, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Punjabi) working and settling in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.3 Indeed, scholars have also expanded the scope of our understanding of Asian "American" labor migration in this period by situating it within the broader context of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as North America as the economic, political, and cultural dynamics shaping possibilities for and limits to Asian immigration, labor, and ultimately settlement have been regional and transnational.4 Alongside these accounts are those specifically focused on different Asian ethnic groups' labor organizing efforts, tracking the interethnic and even intergenerational solidarity that is often forged between and among them.5
Some scholars periodize Asian immigration history in a way such that the 1965 Immigration Act is used as a demarcation point signaling "new" forms of immigration. The act, in addition to ending racial exclusions, offered opportunities for family reunification and preferences for highly educated, professional workers, which thus signaled a tremendous shift in the demographics of Asian immigrants as well as community formation. This was the main focus, for instance, of Ong, Bonacich, and Cheng's edited volume published in the early 1990s, The New Asian Immigration in Los Angeles and Global Restructuring (1994). The "new" immigration they were referring to was post-1965 immigration and the emergence of "professional-managerial immigration." Ong, Bonacich, and Cheng as well as many others were quick to point out that new immigration patterns did not necessarily mean that Asians were not still working in low-wage, low-skill manufacturing or service jobs. They were.
Though the 1965 Immigration Act did create new preferences for highly educated and skilled professional workers, the family reunification provisions of that law would later draw more working-class immigrants. Just as importantly, Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States during the 1970s and 1980s would also join the ranks of the immigrant working class. Indeed, scholarship on Asian American immigration and employment attributed the heterogeneity of the community not only to the 1965 Immigration Act (and its subsequent revisions) or the post–Vietnam War refugee settlement but also to broader global processes.6 Scholars note that these dynamics created a "duality" or "bimodality" in Asian...