Sun, Mar 03, 2002 - Page 19 News List

An overview of the history of Asians in America

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

This book is one of a series from Columbia University Press offering an overview of selected major aspects of American history. There has been one on the 1960s, one on the Cold War, and one on American women in the 19th century. This new addition to the series looks at the history of Asian peoples settling in the US. It is appropriately written by a senior expert in the field, Gary Okihiro, the author of an earlier prizewinning book on Asian Americans, Margins and Mainstreams (1994), and a past president of the Association for Asian American Studies.

When Columbus set sail westwards he thought he was going to Asia, and when he eventually made landfall he called the inhabitants "Indians." Once the new European settlement was established, it began to trade with and influence its nearest neighbors -- Hawaii was annexed, Japan forced to "open," and the Philippines colonized. (Kipling invented the phrase "the white man's burden" as the title of a poem intended to bolster American spirit in the struggle to subdue Filipino resistance.)

Asian people as a result started to appear in the US. Today more than half the immigrants to the US are from Asia, the Asian American growth rate far exceeds those of other groups, including whites, African Americans and Latinos.

But the very concept of "Asian" was from the start a European one, lumping together populations from a huge diversity of political entities and cultural traditions covering a third of the globe. From 1850 to World War II the immigration policy of the US put Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians and Filipinos together in one undifferentiated group. This classification has interestingly persisted into academic studies such as the present one, though Professor Okihiro suggests it may not last for much longer.

Publication Notes:

The Columbia Guide to Asian American History

By Gary Y. Okihiro

323 pages

Columbia University Press


This aims to be an even-handed, impartial book, summarizing debates rather than taking a partisan part in them. As such, it feels in some ways old-fashioned. But what it does most successfully is supply a way into a complex area for the semi-specialist reader, even though its approach remains essentially academic.

Its many pages of references, for instance, include many works -- such as anti-Asian tracts and works of racist fiction -- that more rigorous academic studies might well disdain. There are additional massed titles in different sections of the text. If you want to start a study in this area, in other words, Okihiro will point you to the most important places to begin.

There is nevertheless some detail, and the section on anti-Asianism contains particularly horrifying incidents. Indeed, the entire "yellow peril" syndrome, reinforced by fictional creations such as Sax Rohmer's The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu of 1913, is sickening in the extreme. This fabrication combined with the idea of Asian women as especially seductive, so that as a result Asian women became objects of desire, and Asian men objects of fear. Both perceptions can even be seen as shadowy presences lying beneath actual historical events like the Vietnam War.

One of the benefits of the book is that, because it covers a huge area in a concise way, it gives a sense of perspective to current events. How much of this kind of prejudice, for example, still lies behind some of the Asian policies of the dominant Western powers? Translated into economic terms, fear of the oriental can be seen as recently as 1992 in Michael Crichton's anti-Japanese novel Rising Sun (which even contained a bibliography, giving it the spurious status of an objective work). Yet again the threat from the East is seen as connected with sexual allure. In this book, writes Okihiro, "America is symbolized as a `small-town girl,'" a blond "American beauty long-stemmed rose," who prostitutes herself to men with cash from Japan. "Her aberrant tastes and inexplicable naivete ... results in her demise, on the forty-sixth floor of the Japanese-built Nakamoto Tower in Japantown, Los Angeles." The cause of genuine understanding, in other words, still has its influential and best-selling enemies.

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