In theory, Americans are defined not by their ethnicity but by their adherence to the principles enshrined in the founding documents of the United States. But in practice, a "real" American is often thought to be some wholly mythological, composite descendant of Europeans, while everyone else is relegated to "foreign" status in various insidious ways. Chinese-American scholar Iris Chang exposes and explodes this view in her new, much-anticipated history The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, following upon the surprising success of her 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking. Chang amasses an enormous and eye-opening collection of contributions made by the Chinese to the development of the U.S. Without their industry, the transcontinental railroad could not have been built with such lightning speed. Chinese Americans discovered or invented everything from condensed milk to fortune cookies to obscure subatomic particles. America's research universities, national laboratories, hospitals and, increasingly, its bookshelves would be greatly diminished without them.
But Chang argues that the status of Chinese Americans has not reflected their impact. In return for being one of America's most successful minorities, they have endured racial discrimination, slurs and violence. Less subtly, they faced humiliating restrictions on Chinese immigration the so-called exclusion laws and legal barriers to land ownership. Chinese Americans are commonly judged not on their merits but on the basis of current relations between China and America. Chang masterfully combines these two countries' histories with personal testimony, including her own. A daughter of Chinese immigrants, she brings first-hand knowledge of the Asian-American experience to bear on a history filled with hopes, successes and disappointments. By turns sympathetic and indignant, she nevertheless betrays no bias. As she did with the Nanking atrocity, in her latest book Chang stands to revolutionize the way Chinese Americans are viewed. Kenneth Champeon is a writer based in Thailand.