The Anti-Asian State: 20th-Century Policing in the U.S. and its Empire

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee, IEHS, SHGAPE, and the WHA

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Asian American; Crime and Violence; Race


In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis of Anti-Asian violence is often narrowly understood as interpersonal acts--what one person does to another. This panel spotlights instead the organized sources of violence emanating from the state, and the role of institutional anti-Asian racism in making governmental power, nation, and normative citizen subjecthood. Through case studies of colonial Philippines and New York in the twentieth century, the panel probes the historical motivations and implications of policing and deportation of Asian populations from the perspective of the state apparatus. In doing so, we seek to expand the conversation and definition of anti-Asian violence to include the bureaucratic system, which has served to normalize, justify, and erase from historical memory and public discourse the expansiveness of anti-Asian violence. Through the lens of anti-Asian state violence, we examine the transnational dimensions of racialized policing. Specifically we focus on the excessive reliance on criminal law to discipline Asian populations, whose threat to the nation were perceived as coming from beyond national borders as well as from within them. PhD Candidate Jilene Chua will present an excerpt from her doctoral thesis on uses of U.S. colonial drug laws to target Chinese residents of imperial Philippines. Assistant Professor Heather Lee will present research from her forthcoming book on novel interagency collaboration during the interwar period between the New York Police Department and Office of Chinese Inspectors on leveraging city, state, and federal criminal laws to deport Chinese immigrants. Assistant Professor Vivian Truong will draw from her book manuscript to explore how the New York Police Department responded to the activity of Asian gangs in the 1980s and 1990s as a unique threat requiring specialized police knowledge and techniques as transnational threats to law and order. We juxtapose these case studies to interrogate the ways in which the state and its agents have attempted to surveil, govern, and criminalize individuals categorized as foreign, dangerous, and suspicious in order to highlight continuities and discontinuities of U.S. anti-Asian state violence across region and time period. We take a critical approach to the limitations of state archives--produced by the police, colonial agents, and immigration authorities–to ask, to whom is the state responsible in carrying out its agendas of anti-Asian policing? What parts of the state apparatus have acted or collaborated to carry out this policing, from the city to the colonial level?In answering these questions, we propose a framework of anti-Asian violence that encompasses the domestic U.S. and its empire, one that includes drug laws, immigration restrictions, and gang policing. Further, by focusing on Asian diasporic communities in the study of state violence, we contribute to a growing body of historical scholarship examining the transnational scope of American policing throughout the twentieth century.

Papers Presented

Interior Sites of Exclusion: Anti-Chinese State Policing and the Development of Early Interagency Deportation Strategy in interwar New York

In 1920, Chief Chinese inspector Albert B. Wiley made several undercover visits to Celestial Restaurant, a fashionable dine-and-dance restaurant located in Black Harlem, in search of Chinese immigrants to deport. With the power of arrest, Wiley was looking for Chinese immigrants who were lacking the proper paperwork to be in the United States or people who were not who they claimed to be on paper. These secret observations were part of a wider program to expand the deportation program against Chinese immigrants. After Chinese Exclusion was made permanent in 1902, the Bureau of Immigration shifted its policing strategy from preventing Chinese immigration from entering the United States at ports of entry to deporting them from interior regions far away from international borders. Focusing on the novel practices of the New York Office of the Chinese Inspector, this paper argues that a cohort of committed government agents like Wiley targeted most heavily on urban businesses like Chinese restaurants, transforming sites of Chinese entrepreneurship into sites of exclusion. Building upon Anna Pegler-Gordon‘s recent probe into interagency collaboration in the history of American deportation policy (Closing the Golden Door, 2021), this paper argues that Chinese Inspectors’ collaboration with the New York Police Department and U.S. District Attorney’s Office was critical to the rise of the deportation state, as well as the expanded government power of deportation through city and federal criminal laws. Together, government officials developed an elaborate system of surveillance and documentation.

Presented By
Heather Ruth Lee, NYU Shanghai

Opium Laws and the Chinese in the Philippines under U.S. Colonialism

In 1912, a Chinese man named Lim Sing appealed his third conviction for smoking opium in the U.S. colony of the Philippines (1898-1945). Unlike his prior sentences, lower court judges had ordered his deportation. He took his case to the Philippine Supreme Court, where justices deemed deportation “too severe” because he had a “native wife and child.” While Lim Sing’s alien resident status due to Chinese exclusion laws made him especially vulnerable to deportation, his local family ties compelled justices to rule in his favor. With the colonial archive, I examine legal encounters of Chinese people like Lim Sing, who comprised 0.5% of the Philippine population, but were 70% of people arrested for drug possession from 1907 to 1927. Even though Chinese men were the majority of these arrests, colonial officials deported only 2% of these “alien offenders,” despite opium laws directing courts to expel non-Filipino or non-U.S. citizens. Beth Lew-Williams asserts that while the U.S. nation excluded the Chinese, they still included them within its domestic racial hierarchy, emphasizing state practices used to deal with their presence. I examine how a comparable, yet distinct dynamic played out for the Chinese in the Philippines. Drug raids, sting operations, and random searches also punctuated their experiences. But their longstanding ties in the Philippines preceding U.S. governance sometimes forced the state to accommodate their legal demands, such as in Lim Sing’s case. These dynamics illuminate the limits of colonial governance while also centering Chinese consumers of opium in transnational histories of U.S. drug control.

Presented By
Jilene Chua, Johns Hopkins University

The Oriental Gang Unit: Policing and the Construction of the Criminal Asian Immigrant

In 1989, Nancy Ryan, head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Oriental Gang Unit, declared that “the Vietnamese have suddenly become our biggest problem.” The Oriental Gang Unit, a police-prosecutor collaboration, was one of several law enforcement efforts created in the 1980s to address rising concerns about Asian organized crime in cities across the country. This paper examines law enforcement publications, newspaper articles, congressional testimonies, transcripts of presidential hearings, and other documents that reflected a national panic over the simultaneous increase in crime and the population of Asian immigrants in the last decades of the twentieth century. I explore how Asian Americans were racialized through gang policing and argue that the policing of organized crime became a form of orientalist knowledge production. As waves of post-1965 immigrants and refugees of the Vietnam War arrived in the U.S., gang policing was a way of managing and making sense of these new populations. Mirroring W.E.B. DuBois’s question, “How does it feel to be a problem?”, Vijay Prashad asked Asian Americans, “How does it feel to be a solution?” While the Asian American model minority myth further entrenched narratives of the African American underclass, gang policing in the 1980s, and statements like Nancy Ryan's, illustrate that some Asian immigrants continued to pose a problem even as the model minority narrative gained prominence. This paper explores an alternate historical narrative of Asian American racialization and illustrates how Asian Americans experienced the expansion of the carceral state in the late-twentieth century.

Presented By
Vivian Truong, Swarthmore College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Gordon H. Chang, Stanford University
Gordon H. Chang is the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities at Stanford University and a professor in the Department of History. He is currently serving as the Senior Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. His research and teaching examine American foreign relations and Asian American history. His most recent books, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental and The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad were published in 2019.

Presenter: Jilene Chua, Johns Hopkins University
Jilene Chua is a History PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University. She specializes in gender/sexuality, modern empires, and race. Her dissertation examines U.S. colonial law from the perspective of the Chinese in the Philippines. Her research has been supported by the Fulbright Program, the American Society for Legal History, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. She is also a contributor to The Lannang Archives—a digital collection of Philippine Hokkien language oral histories.

Presenter: Heather Ruth Lee, NYU Shanghai
Heathr Ruth Lee is an Assistant Professor of History at NYU Shanghai. She uses spatial analysis, quantitative data, and archival sources to study the movement of people and capital from Asia after the American Civil War, and how the migration of racialized peoples of Asian descent shaped hierarchies of power in the United States. Her current forthcoming book, Gastrodiplomacy: Chinese Exclusion and the Ascent of Chinese Restaurants in New York, tells the history of Chinese restaurants through the history of race making, arguing that the popularity of Chinese food was the result of white ethnonationalism, U.S. imperial expansion, and racialized gatekeeping. She is the author of four articles in about fundamental importance of legal status—the bright line separating citizens from both documented and undocumented migrants—to the history of race and ethnicity. Her research has been featured in NPR’s All Things Considered, The Salt, The Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, and Gastropod, a podcast on food science and history. She has advised and curated exhibitions at the New York Historical Society, the National Museum of American History, the Museum of Chinese in America, and elsewhere. She is the Digital Humanities Officer of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS).

Presenter: Vivian Truong, Swarthmore College
Vivian Truong is Assistant Professor of History at Swarthmore College. She is a community-engaged scholar whose research and teaching interests include Asian American, urban, and social movement history. Her book project, "Policing and the Construction of Asian America," examines Asian American and multiracial movements against police violence in New York City to argue that policing was a major site of Asian American racialization in the late-twentieth century. Her research and writing has been published in the Journal of Asian American Studies and Journal of Urban History. She co-coordinates two public history initiatives, A/P/A Voices: A COVID-19 Public Memory Project and a second project preserving the archives of the grassroots organization CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities (formerly the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence). She earned her Ph.D. in American Culture at the University of Michigan.