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Book Review


Elliot Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. xi + 360. $29.95 (paper).


     Elliot Young's Alien Nation is an excellent contribution to our growing understanding of one of the 19th and 20th centuries' most significant migration flows. Unlike most recent transnational immigration histories, Alien Nation is less interested in comparing sending and receiving countries. Rather, it examines in detail the people, governments and migrants of the various receiving countries in the Western Hemisphere between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. Blending the local, national, and hemispheric, Young takes an innovatively transnational approach that emphasizes the importance of local organizations, officials and communities in the Americas on the size, shape, and directions of Chinese migration. In an introduction, epilogue, and seven tightly written chapters Young argues that the approaches taken by nations throughout the Western Hemisphere to transform Chinese migrants into illegal aliens informed each other, and that Chinese migrants built "an alternative community that overlapped but was not synchronous with the nation-state" (5). Successful on both counts, the prose is liveliest and argument strongest when discussing the ways government officials, migrants, and smugglers negotiated, interpreted, circumvented, resisted, and exploited potentially restrictionist migration legislation.

     Like so much of Alien Nation, the introduction is built around a vignette. U.S. immigration inspector Marcus Braun's 1907 report on Chinese smuggling from Mexico was an attempt to understand the ways that Chinese migrants made their way into the United States in an era of immigration restriction. Braun's report demonstrates the ways that the U.S. government struggled and often failed to control its borders due to its inability to differentiate Chinese and Mexican migrants, patrol the "imaginary line" (5) of the U.S.-Mexico border and shut down smuggling networks. Woven throughout his discussion of Braun's report, Young outlines the various definitions of alien and alienation throughout the 20th century, the changing racial and gendered constructions of the Chinese migrant, and the powerful transnational networks of Chinese migrants throughout the Western Hemisphere.

     "Part 1: Coolies and Contracts" compares the various labor systems for Chinese migrants that developed in the Western Hemisphere during the mid-19th century. In Cuba and most of Latin America Chinese migrants arrived as coolies, workers with multi-year labor contracts which could be bought and sold by the contract-holder. Most Chinese workers in North America arrived via credit-tickets that bound them to the ticket holder until they repaid the cost of their passage, rather than a specified number of years. Young points out that while North American governments took great pains to distinguish between what they saw as the virtual slavery of the coolie system and the supposedly more liberal credit-ticket system, in practice they were virtually indistinguishable. Both systems gave enormous power to the contract- or ticket-holder, transformed the migrant into a commodity, and saw the receiving governments' attempt, with varying results, to control the migration flow. Just as importantly, Chinese migrants under both systems resisted exploitation through violence and legal appeals and agitated for greater rights as men, rather than contracts.

     In "Part 2: Clandestine Crossings and the Production of Illegal Aliens" Young examines how national governments in the Western Hemisphere attempted to restrict and control Chinese migration between 1882 and 1900. Unsurprisingly, these policies were not developed in a vacuum. A highly restrictionist United States government attempted to drive the hemisphere's approach to Chinese migration. While Canada cooperated with the United States in its drive to control Chinese migrants, Mexico did not. In keeping with its belief in the right to travel as part of the 'rights of man,' the Mexican government welcomed the arrival of Chinese migrants. Many then covertly entered the United States. In response, the United States developed an often ineffectual immigration system along the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to capture Chinese migrants entering the United States. Young highlights the ways that Chinese migrants circumvented this border bureaucracy by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border via buggy, train, ship, and foot. Corruption, bribery, and deception haunted migration control efforts as Chinese migrants posed as Mexicans, Spaniards and Cubans. By forcing Chinese migrants to enter the United States clandestinely, the U.S. government made Chinese aliens illegal, an enduring label that would be used for future immigrants.

     In his final section, "Part 3: Competing Revolutionary Nationalisms" Young analyzes the ways two of the momentous revolutions of the early 20th century shook up Chinese migration. Chapter 6 examines the ways that anti-Chinese sentiment in the Americas grew from nationalist movements during the first half of the 20th century. In Cuba and Canada Sinophobia emerged from economic and racial anxieties, but it never reached the level of violence that anti-Chinese sentiment fueled in Mexico. The instability of the Mexican Revolution and rise of new racial ideologies such as mestizaje led to increasing hostility towards Chinese migrants by the Mexican people and their government. Particularly revealing is the discussion of the 1911 Torreón Massacre in which Mexican revolutionaries killed more than 300 Chinese residents. Two decades of racial propaganda and increased anxieties led to the forcible removal of Chinese residents from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora. Chapter 7 analyzes the transnational networks that connected Chinese migrants, with a focus on the ways that the Chinese nationalist movement of the early 1920s filtered through the networks to various individuals throughout the Americas. Political movements in China led to violent conflicts between rival Chinese groups in northern Mexico.

     A brief epilogue brings the story of Chinese migration in the Americas to the present day. Young discusses the continuation of Chinese smuggling networks and the connection between the 19th century "illegal alien" from China and the 21st century "illegal alien" from Mexico.

     For all of its scholarly merit, what excites me most about Alien Nation is its pedagogical uses. Young has written a book that will prove tremendously useful to high school and college teachers of world history, immigration, ethnicity, transnationalism, and public policy. Heavy with rich anecdotes that fascinate students, instructors can easily draw from Young's work for readings and discussions. While most high school students will find it difficult reading and some background knowledge is assumed, portions of the book can be scaffolded and included in lesson plans or class lectures. Easily accessible to upper-division undergraduates, I look forward to assigning this book in my next immigration and ethnicity course. Paired with digital history works on immigration like those from American Panorama and Stanford's Spatial History Project, Young's Alien Nation is sure to generate rich discussion on migration flows, the power of the state and the effect of economic and political disruption on demographics.

John Rosinbum is a history teacher at BASIS Tucson North and adjunct professor at Arizona State University. His research examines immigration and asylum policy in North America during the late 20th century. He also teaches and writes on the ways that digital history can be better integrated into K-16 teaching


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