Transpacific Migration and Intermediary Brokers: The Case of Chinese Migration, 1882-1971

Endorsed by SHGAPE

Thursday, April 13, 2023, 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: Asian American; Ethnicity; Immigration and Internal Migration


The question of how people brokered culture, knowledge, and belonging between worlds is an understudied but vitally important topic in the history of migration. This panel centers on the work of merchants, nurses, lawyers, and other knowledge or cultural brokers between American institutions and Chinese migrants to analyze the historical patterns and ramifications of such brokerage. These brokers played key roles in constructing transnational infrastructures of business, medicine, law, and policies. The panelists review how racism and nativism in America offered both career opportunities for the brokers and possibilities for change and activism. Restrictive policies regarding Asian immigration, multiple Chinese regime changes, and the US and UN embargo upon the People’s Republic helped create niches for these brokers’ work. Hongdeng Gao’s study explores how bilingual nurses in New York’s Chinatown leveraged their role as cultural brokers to bring about substantive social and health services to a historically marginalized community. Peter Hamilton’s paper focuses on the social capital in elite Chinese business families, who thrived upon the “class-based hierarchies within race-based systems” and brokered their business networks between China, the British colony of Hong Kong, and the United States. Fang He’s work examines the “performative collaboration and archive making” that involved Chinese and American brokers’ presentations of foot-binding in the Chinese immigration process. Tian Atlas Xu’s research investigates the career of several ethnically Chinese immigration attorneys who simultaneously brokered migrant knowledge, profited from anti-Asian policies, and mobilized minority rights in the twilight of the Chinese exclusion project. All papers explore migrants’ complex relationship with intermediary brokers in uncertain times, a topic that remains woefully relevant to today’s immigrants and refugees.

Papers Presented

Brokering Migration, Brokering Change: The Strange Career of Chinese American Immigration Lawyers, 1920-1965

This paper examines how a group of Chinese American immigration lawyers brokered migrant knowledge and catalyzed structural change transnationally during the final years and immediate aftershocks of the Chinese exclusion project (1920-1965). It centers on the work of attorneys Y.C. Hong of Los Angeles, Kenneth Fung of San Francisco, and Harry Hom Dow of Boston to explicate and conceptualize the vital intermediary role they played in this transitional period of US anti-Asian policies. Hong, Fung, and Dow emulated the official-turned-attorney pattern among many white immigration lawyers before them. All three earned their professional credentials from two experiences: work as interpreters in the immigration authorities and training in law school. Their knowledge and business networks overlapped with their white colleagues and connected the US immigration bureaucracy with Chinese communities across the globe. Unlike most white lawyers, however, these attorneys embraced the ascendency of Chinese American activism and mobilized rights through civil society organizations like the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. The three lawyers’ personal papers at the Huntington Library and Suffolk University are cross-referenced with white immigration attorneys’ records and federal immigration files to provide fresh insights into the role of intermediary brokers within nativist policy frameworks. Part of the story charts the decline of white privilege and the struggle for equality inside the immigration bar. But more importantly, the nuanced nature of these lawyers’ careers complicates the damaging hegemony of Chinese exclusion, which made them knowledge brokers, community leaders, earners from a racist system, and sincere activists at once.

Presented By
Tian Atlas Xu, Historic New England

Fixing Knowledge: “Bound Feet,” Go-Betweens and the Making of U.S. Immigration Archives during Chinese Exclusion

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. immigration officials favored Chinese women with bound feet as women of higher class and better morals in immigration screenings, whereas Chinese footbinding was practiced among all the social classes and was shifting to symbolize national humiliation of China. This paper examines the ways in which the truth about footbinding and the Chinese resistance to the questions on female foot were rendered invisible in exchanges with U.S. gate keepers as well as in the immigration archive making process during the era of Chinese Exclusion. It first focuses on efforts and failures of go-betweens such as Chinese Minister Wu Ting Fang and Chinese community leader Ng Poon Chew to debunk oversimplified interpretation of footbinding either in U.S. public or in investigations concerning the harsh treatment of Chinese migrants in Angel Island immigration station. It then analyzes how migrants, immigration officials, stenographers, interpreters, brokers, attorneys, and lawyers, Chinese or non-Chinese, willingly or unwillingly, were all drawn into a performative collaboration and archival making, keeping the screening techniques unchallenged. This paper also urges to challenge authenticities and objectivities commonly associated with official archives, to analyze them as a contested site of knowledge production and to examine multifaceted roles of go-betweens in producing, fixing, and establishing knowledge about the immigrant body and culture.

Presented By
Fang He, Southwest University

Navigating through Exclusion and Racism: Chinese Business Elites and American Social Capital

This paper examines the key role played by multi-generational social capital in elite Chinese business families’ ability to broker commercial opportunities with the United States between the 1920s and the mid-1960s. Before the Second World War (1937-1945), despite the risks imposed by US Chinese Exclusion policies (1882-1943), increasing numbers of Chinese compradors, traders, and industrialists took advantage of the legal exemption provided to Chinese merchants in order to sojourn to the United States in order to forge connections with potential buyers, investors, and other partners. These individuals also routinely ensured that their children inherited these useful connections, including through educational strategies centered on US colleges and universities. This paper shows how this multi-generational social capital then transferred en masse to British Hong Kong during China’s communist revolution and helped these families to revive their business operations, navigate the US and UN embargoes on the new People’s Republic (1950-1971), parry continued American racism, and develop profitable partnerships with US multinational corporations amid the early Cold War. With the gradual reform of US immigration laws culminating in the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, many of these families took US citizenship and became truly bi-national transpacific brokers. This paper thus examines a privileged but routinely overlooked segment of the migrant experience, underscoring how social capital can confer exemption and create both multi-directional movement and class-based hierarchies within race-based systems.

Presented By
Peter Evan Hamilton, Lingnan University, Hong Kong

Caring for Chinese New Yorkers through Cultural Brokering: Chinese American Nurses at an Educational Public Health Project, 1944-1965

In the early 1950s, New Yorkers marveled at the work of bilingual Chinese American nurses at an educational public health project in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Journalists portrayed the nurses as breaking down the “wall” of the “exotic community” by helping thousands of Chinese war brides, refugees, and elderly men adopt modern health practices and make claims on old age and other benefits. White American professionals at a private health and social service organization, the Community Service Society (CSS), launched the project in 1944 to alleviate the high rates of tuberculosis in Chinatown. This paper examines how Chinese American nurses shifted the agenda and outcomes of the CSS Chinatown project as the nurses embraced their role as cultural brokers—individuals who promoted Western health practices and social service systems to Chinese clients while explaining Chinese culture to Western audiences. It shows that from the mid-1940s to the 1960s, CSS Chinatown nurses formed strategic alliances to bring substantive services to a quickly expanding Chinese New Yorker community. The nurses forged ties with Chinese dignitaries and merchants, municipal officials, social scientists and others by leveraging their transnational backgrounds and popular beliefs in equal rights and the integration of Asians during the Cold War. The nurses’ cultural brokering work reinforced racist ideas that were cloaked in a language of psychological and cultural differences. But cultural brokering also served as a jumping off point for getting local and federal governments to recognize the language barrier and molding an unfriendly system to better serve the Chinese.

Presented By
Hongdeng Gao, Columbia University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Meredith Oda, University of Nevada, Reno
Meredith Oda is Grace A. Griffin Chair in American History and Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research and courses focus on Asian American history, urban history, US-East Asian relations, the U.S. in the world, and the United States after the Civil War. She earned her BA from the University of California at Berkeley and her doctorate from the University of Chicago and has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Library, and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago.
Oda is the author of The Gateway to the Pacific: Japanese Americans and the Remaking of San Francisco (from the University of Chicago Press “Historical Studies of Urban America” series), which tells the story of the city’s relations with Japan after World War II and argues that those relations were made within and remade the intimate, local sites of neighborhood, civic life, and identity. Her articles are “‘Kikkoman, USA’: The Economic and Residential Integration of Japanese Americans and Japanese Foods” in the Journal of Asian American Studies, “Masculinizing Japan and Reorienting San Francisco: The Osaka-San Francisco Sister-City Affiliation During the Early Cold War” in Diplomatic History, and “Rebuilding Japantown: Japanese Americans in Transpacific San Francisco During the Cold War” in the Pacific Historical Review. Her writing has also been published in TIME magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other popular outlets.
Her current book project, On the Move: Japanese American Resettlement During War and Exclusion explores mobility and alienage in Japanese American WWII incarceration and resettlement.

Presenter: Hongdeng Gao, Columbia University
Hongdeng Gao is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. Her research and teaching focus on 20th century U.S., Asian American, and urban history and the intersections of race and ethnicity, migration, public health, and social movements. Her dissertation examines how Cold War geopolitics and multiracial grassroots activism in New York City improved access to health care for under-served Chinese New Yorkers. She has received a dissertation fellowship from the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine and numerous research grants, most recently from the Library of Congress, the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, and the Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Hongdeng is a community-engaged scholar. She co-founded Health Bridges, a grassroots initiative based in California that trains multilingual college students to serve as health advocates for patients with limited English proficiency. She has helped assemble a publicly accessible archive of materials that amplify the history of Asian Americans through her work at Columbia University’s Lehman Center for American History and the Chinese Restaurant Database. As a research consultant for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, she used historical research on housing development in the South Bronx to help explain present-day health disparities among African American and Puerto Rican residents. Hongdeng has also solicited and written publicly facing articles on histories of migration, health care, and social movements in New York City as a contributing editor for the Gotham Blog.

Presenter: Peter Evan Hamilton, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Peter E. Hamilton is an assistant professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He received his doctorate in History from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015. He is a historian of China and the World and the modern Pacific. His research explores transpacific networks of migration and business, Sino-US relations, and new histories of East Asian capitalism. His 2021 book, Made in Hong Kong: Transpacific Networks and a New History of Globalization, argues that Hong Kong transformed during the first decades of the Cold War, not as a “tiger” economy or as a British colony, but because its elite Chinese capitalists developed instrumental commercial and educational relationships with the United States. When mainland China initiated reforms in the late 1970s, Hong Kong’s transpacific networks midwifed its reintegration into global capitalism as a major US trading partner.
Hamilton has published peer-reviewed articles in The International History Review and The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Presenter: Fang He, Southwest University
Fang He received her Ph.D. in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She worked as a Global Perspectives on Society Fellow at New York University Shanghai and will be joining Fudan University as a postdoctoral scholar in Spring 2022. She specializes in transnational histories of gender, Asian America, and U.S. immigration. Her research centers on the racialized body to understand American inclusion, exclusion, and empire-building. She published a peer-reviewed essay titled “‘Golden Lilies’ Across the Pacific: Footbinding and the American Enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Laws” in Gendering the Trans-Pacific World (Brill, 2017). She is working on a book manuscript titled “Golden Lilies” Across the Pacific: Bodies, Empire and Paradoxes of Inclusion in U.S. Enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Laws.

Presenter: Tian Atlas Xu, Historic New England
Tian Atlas Xu is an international historian of race, law, and bureaucracies in post-Civil War America. He is currently based in Boston, where he serves as the first scholar in residence at Historic New England and works to recover minority experiences with legal mobilization in the region. His research focuses on the historical development of transnational legal mobilizations that took place on the fringes of white, Black, and Asian Americas.
With a focus on Civil War pension attorneys in the American South and immigration lawyers in the West Coast, his dissertation views the post-emancipation American society as a laboratory of social and immigration policies in a time of pervasive racism. Now a book project, this comparative study argues that the racialized marketplace of pension and immigration legal services created ethnic legal cultures, facilitated minority negotiations with the transnational American state, and unexpectedly established infrastructures for both racism and the civil rights struggle. Tian has received research fellowships from the Huntington Library, UC Berkeley, Tulane University, UNC at Chapel Hill, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Most recently, he worked as a consultant for the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and provided inputs for their new permanent exhibition on United States and the Chinese diaspora. His publications run the gamut from peer-reviewed journals like the Journal of American Ethnic History to scholarly forums like The New Rambler. Two forthcoming articles will appear on the Journal of the Civil War Era and the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, where he investigates the historical tensions between racism, classism, and post-emancipation claims for equality in US history. He received his PhD in History from Catholic University in Washington, DC.