by Kornel Chang

About Kornel Chang

Kornel Chang is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Rutgers University, Newark. He is author of Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-­Canadian Borderlands (2012).


The etymology of the word “coolie” was for a long time thought to have Tamil—kuli (wages)—Urdu—quli (hireling)—or Chinese—kuli (bitter strength)—origins (Tinker 1974; Tsai 1976; Irick 1982; M. Jung 2006). More recently, Mae Ngai (2015) has traced the word’s origins to a European neologism that was first employed by sixteenth-century Portuguese to describe common native workers on the Indian subcontinent. By the mid-nineteenth century, “coolie” came to be applied specifically to indentured laborers from China and India who were being contracted out to colonial plantations in Southeast Asia and the Americas (Hu-DeHart 1992; W. Lai 1993; Yun 2008). This shift in meaning was inextricably bound up with the abolition of slavery and deepening Euro-American imperial incursions into the Asia-Pacific world. Intensifying Euro-American encroachments in the region generated widening imperial networks through which people from China and South Asia were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to constitute a new colonial labor force in the Americas. As Lisa Lowe has noted, the introduction of the coolie trade in the nineteenth century “marked a significant… shift in the management of race and labor in the colonies” (2005, 193).