An impressive new work about how major moments in Asian American history continue to influence the modern world.
In the first chapter, Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, connects anti-Asian violence during the Covid-19 pandemic to a history of stereotyping Asian immigrants as carriers of disease. Later, she ties the erasure of Chinese railroad workers to the lack of Asian representation in popular media. Popular culture, she writes, has “played a formative role in portraying Asians as subhuman and superhuman threats.” Besides covering topics that are relatively well known, such as Japanese internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the author also discusses histories that have been largely erased, including the formation of Asian American groups supporting independence struggles on the Asian continent; the long history of Asian-Black solidarity, which dates back to “Frederick Douglass’s 1869 speech advocating for Chinese immigration”; and the passage of the misogynistic Page Act of 1875, which forced Asian immigrant women to prove that they were not prostitutes before allowing them entry to the U.S. Choy aptly characterizes her work as a fight against erasure and as an attempt to humanize Asian American immigrants whose invisibility so often exposes them to violence. “Asian Americans are in sight, but unseen. And this must change,” she writes. “Placing a human face on the Asian immigrant experience is one way to contest this vicious cycle of nativism.” In addition to being deeply knowledgeable, the author radiates passion and sincerity. Her inclusion of personal experiences infuses the narrative with an intimacy unusual for historical texts, and her experimental use of second person—most notably in the chapter about Japanese internment—cleverly sparks empathy in readers who might never have considered what it’s like to live through race-based violence.
An empathetic and detailed recounting of Asian American histories rarely found in textbooks.