The word “labor” is a fraught one in Asian American history because it has distilled and encapsulated complicated and sometimes strident normative debates over the nature of Asian labor in the United States. How Asian labor has been used and treated by white employers and how that use has been denigrated, condemned, and opposed by white workers, their labor union leaders, politicians, and large segments of the public have been important issues not only in Asian American history but also in U.S. history more broadly. A central theme in the anti-Asian movements that persisted for almost a century was the allegation that “cheap” and “servile” Asian labor was a new form of slavery. Moreover, white workingmen, it was said, simply could not compete against people who could survive on so little sustenance and bodily comfort. Asian female labor was likewise castigated: immigrant Chinese prostitutes were accused of introducing venereal diseases and debasing and corrupting white American manhood while immigrant Japanese women who worked alongside their husbands on farms and in stores and boarding houses, especially if they did so on Sundays, were said to demean the ideals of domestic nurturance and moral uplift embodied in white American womanhood.

In the years during and after the Civil War, the accusations against “cheap” and “servile” Chinese labor had a special resonance once enslaved African Americans had been emancipated, at least on paper, even though in terms of lived experience most of the newly freed black men, women, and children continued to lead lives of destitution, particularly after Northern efforts at Reconstruction in the South were rolled back and Jim Crow laws sprang up all over the former Confederate states. Beyond the particular circumstances of the Civil War, however, the hostility against immigrant Asian workers can best be understood within the broader contours of and longer-term trends in U.S. history.

I argue here that labor has been a fulcrum upon which American exceptionalism, both in theory and in practice, has rested. Much has been written about the ways in which the U.S. nation-state differed and continues to differ from European and other Old World countries. The late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset identified succinctly the five characteristics—liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire—that form American exceptionalism’s core. These, together, make the organizational patterns of the U.S. economy, polity, society, and cultural institutions unique (Lipset 1996). As I see it, all five phenomena are related to the kind of labor that is deemed most desirable: free labor. As men and women who can act as equal individuals and according to each person’s interpretation of his or her best interests in a state of liberty, Americans, it is believed, can work with dignity in an economy built upon laissez-faire capitalism to earn living wages to support families whose members can aspire to individual and intergenerational upward mobility regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Should unfree labor be allowed into the country (after enslaved African Americans had been technically emancipated), the presence of such coerced or bound labor, which can take many forms—serfs, peons, Chinese “coolies,” indentured servants (a vast majority of whom were of European origins during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and contract laborers—would threaten the continued existence of free labor and free enterprise. Free labor took several centuries to evolve in the Anglo-American world (Bush 2000; Cooper, Holt, and Scott 2000; Foner 1970; Glickstein 1991; Guterl 2003; Hoefte 1998; Jordan and Walsh 2007; M. Jung 2006; Kolchin 1987; Northrup 1995; Saunders 1982; Steinfeld 1991; Steinfeld 2001). The controversy arising from the presence of allegedly unfree Asian labor was a small but integral part of the historically complex process through which free labor came into being and became synonymous with white labor.

In terms of politics, democratic activism in America has often taken the form of populism—an ideology focused on the well-being of ordinary people. It can flourish only when the nation is made up of free men and women cultivating free soil, working as free labor, and engaging in free enterprise who can participate in making decisions about the kind of society they want through exercising their right to vote—an equality based on the principle of one person, one vote.

To ensure the survival of such an idealized economic, political, social, and cultural system, articulators of anti-Asian sentiments have averred, threats to the system in the form of unfree labor must be excluded or deported should such slavelike persons manage to sneak into or be imported into the country. Furthermore, those who were or are allegedly incapable of embracing, participating in, and upholding democratic self-governance because of their cultural, ethnic, or racial origins must also be repelled from America’s shores lest they introduce authoritarian ideas and practices such as socialism, communism, and fascism, on the one hand, and antistatist thinking and behavior such as anarchism and syndicalism, on the other hand, that would sully the nation’s chosen ideology and politics.

The tragedy of U.S. history is that in the process of trying to establish and preserve such an idealized society, racism, nativism, classism, sexism, and ideological demagoguery have been the weapons of choice against the nation’s imagined enemies. Those branded as enemies or potential enemies have included peoples of color who supposedly can function only under the control of their masters yet who dare to demand the same treatment as white people; foreigners or aliens who bring in un-American ideologies yet dare to demand some of the same civil and human rights that citizens of European American ancestry enjoy; workers who, as free labor, dare to demand even better wages and working conditions, as well as more avenues for upward interclass mobility, than employers already grant them; women who dare to demand equal treatment as men; and political leaders who dare to criticize the flaws they see in American democracy and laissez-faire capitalism and to propose alternative models for structuring the nation-state. Asian workers in America engendered such vitriolic reactions because their presence exposed deep-seated contradictions in U.S. society—gaps between ideal and reality that exist because of that society’s inability to live up to its ideals and to fully conceal, much less heal, its self-inflicted psychic wounds.

When Asian American studies emerged as a new field of academic inquiry and critique in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of the first tasks that historians of Asian America undertook was to correct past and present caricatures and debasement of immigrant Asian and Asian American labor. They have tried to unearth, recuperate, and valorize the history of Asian American workers—pioneers from the Old World who helped build the New World of North, Central, and South America. However, until quite recently, Asian American scholars have largely been unaware of the irony that the would-be heroic image of Asian pioneering workers they have tried to craft contains a contradiction of its own: historically Asian workers have served as, albeit unwittingly, what I call colonial or imperial “accessories” to European conquest and colonization of the Americas. Europeans who settled and “developed” these two continents, as well as Australia, did so by fighting against, killing, removing, confining (usually on poor land incapable of producing rich harvests), and infecting (with Old World diseases to which New World peoples had no immunity) Native Americans, Native Hawai‘ians, and Alaskan Eskimos in the United States; Inuit, First Nations, and Métis in Canada; and Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. Asian workers who contributed to efforts to turn supposedly “empty” frontiers well endowed with natural resources into white-dominated countries were implicated in a centuries-long historical process that dispossessed, subjugated, and caused the demise of huge masses of indigenous peoples. While fighting against oppression and creating new lives for themselves as ethnic minorities, Asian pioneers have unintentionally helped rob the land and resources of earlier inhabitants in not-so-empty continents. Asian American scholars who study Asians in Hawai‘i and their relationship with Native Hawai‘ians have led the way in highlighting this still-submerged and discomforting aspect of Asian American history, which they call “Asian settler colonialism” (Fujikane and Okamura 2008).

Were Asian workers indeed “cheap” and “servile” labor as their detractors charged? A review of the historical evidence offers a nuanced answer. Given the fact that the Chinese were the first group of Asians who migrated to Hawai‘i and the continental United States in sizable numbers, much more has been written about the kinds of work they did than about the occupations of later-arriving Asian ethnic groups. The Chinese American occupational range was broad indeed. During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, on the U.S. mainland Chinese mined for gold wherever it was found in the American and Canadian West; cultivated and harvested many different kinds of crops; fished for a wide variety of seafood; helped construct the western segments of five (and not just one) transcontinental railroads (four in the United States and one in Canada); built roads, bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure; opened and ran stores that sold dry goods, groceries, and curios; owned and operated restaurants, hand laundries, boarding houses, gambling joints, and brothels; served as cooks and domestic servants in white households and rural work camps; manufactured woolen textiles, clothing, footwear, various household items, cigars, ethnic foods, and bricks; practiced skilled trades as brick masons, carpenters, plumbers, blacksmiths, and cane and rattan furniture weavers; and were expert repairers of all manner of broken things. A small number became well-off as labor contractors and middlemen. Professionals served as herbal doctors, photographers, letter writers, journalists, Chinese-language newspaper publishers, and interpreters in courts and immigration hearings (S. Chan 1986; C. Chiang 2008; P. Chiu 1967; S. Chung 2011; Cohen 1984; M. Jung 2006; J. Jung 2007; Peter Kwong 1979; H. Ling 2011; H. Liu 2005; Loewen 1971; Lydon 1985; Ngai 2010; P. Siu 1987; B. Wong 1987; Marie Wong 2004; R. Yu 1992). In Hawai‘i, Chinese worked in sugar cane plantations, grew rice and vegetables, ran small businesses, worked as artisans, and offered various professional services (Char 1975; Dye 1997; Glick 1980).

The extraordinary mobility of immigrant Chinese workers, both geographically and occupationally, refutes the accusation that they embodied unfree labor, for mobility means freedom in the United States. As for being “cheap” labor, it is true that Chinese workers indeed received lower wages than their European American peers when they worked for European American employers, who valued them not just because they were “cheap” but also because they were industrious and reliable. Whereas white workingmen who opposed them attributed negative traits to Chinese workers, they were in fact feared because of their positive qualities that employers found attractive (S. Chan forthcoming).

Similarly, European Americans developed an intense antagonism toward immigrant Japanese workers because of their ability to survive economically and, in some instances, to thrive in the face of tremendous odds. In particular, they were so highly successful as tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farm owner-operators that they dominated the production of dozens of labor-intensive fruits and vegetables not only in California but also in other states in the American and Canadian West (Iwata 1992; Matsumoto 1993). The Issei’s occupational range was a bit narrower than that of the Chinese (Ichihashi 1969; Ichioka 1988). Relatively little hostile attention was directed against immigrant Japanese merchants and others plying urban trades. The attacks against those earning a living in agriculture, however, were sustained and vituperative. A dozen Western states passed antialien land laws to deprive them of the ability to earn a living as cultivators of the soil, laws that the Issei challenged strenuously and at great expense. Many land cases made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Japanese lost almost all the cases in the high court, lower federal courts, state courts, and county courts. Only after World War II did public opinion increasingly turn in their favor, in no small part due to the heroic sacrifices that Nisei soldiers had made. More often than not, it was the general public, and not legislators, who voted down the discriminatory alien land laws when referenda related to them were put on the ballot (Castleman 1994; S. Chan 2014; Chuman 1976). In Hawai‘i, Japanese contract laborers had become 70 percent of the labor force on the islands’ sugar cane plantations by the time that the United States colonized (or euphemistically, “annexed”) the islands in 1898. Congress passed an Organic Act in 1900 to make Hawai‘ian laws conform to American laws—the latter had made imported contract labor illegal almost four decades earlier. Once they were no longer bound by contracts, Japanese plantation workers carried out increasingly larger and longer strikes (Beechert 1985; Okihiro 1991; Takaki 1983). Did they have a working class consciousness? Definitely, yes.

In both Hawai‘i and the continental United States, immigrant Japanese were accused of something even more dire than being “cheap” labor: they were charged with “invading” U.S. territory in order to build Japanese colonies that would serve as beachheads for an expanding Japanese empire on islands in the Pacific Ocean and in the Americas (Duus 1999). Whereas Japan indeed had such expansionist goals, the Issei, in contrast, thought of themselves as frontiersmen who, like pioneers of European ancestry, were helping to tame the American and Canadian West (Azuma 2005).

Far less scholarly attention has been paid to Korean, South Asian, and Filipino labor in America for three reasons: they came in smaller numbers, arrived when frontier conditions were vanishing, and had a narrower occupational range. What all three groups actively engaged in was agriculture—Koreans and South Asians as tenant farmers (Cha 2010; Leonard 1992) and Filipinos as farm laborers on the mainland and in Hawai‘i (Alcantara 1981; Takaki 1983). Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers all went on strike during the 1930s; Filipinos were the most militant and persistent in forming their own unions and going on strike to better their economic conditions in agriculture as well as in Alaska’s canned salmon industry (Beechert 1985; De Witt 1978; De Witt 1980; Friday 1994; Kerkvliet 2002; Reinecke 1996). The historical record is thus very clear: immigrant Asian, particularly Filipino, labor was anything but “docile.”

World War II was an important turning point in Asian American labor history. After war broke out, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean Americans all signed up for military service. Even as their Issei parents were incarcerated, Nisei soldiers fought valiantly in the European theater and did critical work in military intelligence in the Pacific theater. Chinese Americans with college degrees, for the first time, were hired in defense industries and other economic sectors suffering from a manpower shortage because of the enormous number of Americans at the warfront. Having fought to defend democracy against fascism, second-generation Asian American veterans were no longer willing to continue putting up with the pervasive discrimination that their people had suffered. With the G.I. Bill, many veterans went to college and became professionals. By the 1960s, the economic profile of U.S.-born and college-educated Asian Americans had improved so significantly that journalists began to dub them a “model minority.” But this was simply a contemporary attempt to use, once again, Asian Americans as “accessories” to pervasive European American domination. Asian Americans were contrasted with other minorities who were said to suffer deprivations because of their own lack of the character traits and behavior that lead to “success.” An Asian American sociologist has sarcastically called Asian American professionals, especially those in the information technology sector, “high-tech coolies” to remind those Asian Americans who love their image as a “model minority” of the fact that European American men still control most of the levers of economic and political power in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Just as the socioeconomic status of U.S.-born Asian Americans began to show notable improvement in the 1960s, the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws allowed Asian immigration to resume. The two principles guiding the new immigration were family reunification and the preferential treatment of aspiring immigrants with skills needed in the American economy. Among the first family members to arrive were the wives and children of Asian men who had lived in the United States for several generations but were unable to bring them to the United States due to the exclusion laws. Some of the post-1965 immigrants who come under the family reunification provision can find only low-paid manual and menial jobs that do not require proficiency in English or skills that can be acquired only through higher education. Men work in restaurants, factories, and as janitors in large commercial buildings; women work in sewing factories and as cleaners in hotels or other public venues. In contrast, most well-educated immigrants with professional skills and English proficiency find jobs commensurate with their education, though often at lower pay, or they establish their own businesses. A sizable Asian American middle class has been growing in the last several decades.

By 1980, census figures revealed a bimodal Asian American population clustered in two groups: a large number in well-paid, high-status positions and another large group in low-paid, low-status jobs. More and more scholarly studies now examine the former group, which includes both professionals and business people (Xiang Bao 2007; Blendstrup 2007; S. Chang 2006; Chiswick 2011; W. Harvey 2008; Light and Bonacich 1988; P. Min 1996; P. Min 2008; K. Park 1997; Saxenian 1990; Varma 2006; Marie Wong 2004; Yoon 1997), but relatively little work has been done on the latter (Xiaolan Bao 2001; Chin 2005; M. Louie 2001; Mathew 2005). For this reason, the current picture of Asian American labor is a partial one. The corpus of writings on contemporary unionization efforts among Asian American workers and general studies of poverty among peoples of color, including lower-class Asian Americans, and what can be done to ameliorate their conditions is slim indeed. Why is this the case? Has the vision of some Asian American scholars been influenced by neoliberal ideology that sings the praises of unregulated, unfettered capitalism and small government but shows no concern for those workers whose toil for less than living wages is what enables corporations to make their enormous profits? Where has the materialist critique that underpinned Asian American studies in its early years gone?

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