Disrupting Transpacific Infrastructures: Mobility, Intimacy, and Empire

Thursday, April 13, 2023, 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: Asian American; Race; Science and Technology


This panel offers historical perspectives on transpacific U.S. imperialism through the lens of infrastructure. Taking cue from the emergent field of critical infrastructure studies, we understand infrastructure as “matter that enable[s] the movement of other matter…things and also the relation of things” (Larkin 2013). Through this lens, we consider how legal, bureaucratic, and physical infrastructures have shaped the hegemonic, yet contested, relations of U.S. colonial and imperial power in and the Pacific region. This panel highlights infrastructure both as an organizing rubric for capitalist and military logistics, as well as an affective structure of intimacy, proximity, and national identity which has enabled certain modes of transpacific relationality while rendering others “obsolete,” criminalized, or unthought. Responding to the 2023 conference’s theme of crisis, papers will explore how the “promise of infrastructure” (Anand et al, 2018) has sought to resolve the endemic crises of capitalist imperialism—from oil embargoes to crises of overproduction and anti-immigrant hysteria. Through historical case studies on the development of transportation, communication, energy, and bureaucratic infrastructures linking the continental United States to its colonial and imperial projects across Asia and the Pacific, we ask how critical engagements with infrastructure provide new insights for historians to consider the relational entanglements of settler colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and militarism in a transpacific region historically overdetermined as an “American lake.” Drawing from the insights of settler colonial, Oceanic, and transnational Asian American studies, this panel argues that critical historical engagements with transpacific infrastructure can destabilize national teleologies of manifest destiny, technological progress, and border gatekeeping. Adrian De Leon considers human capital as an operative infrastructure of fossil capitalism, linking precarious Filipino labor in North America to the financialization of global oil markets and the rise of authoritarian politics in the Philippines after the 1973 oil crisis. Sean Fraga situates the development of Puget Sound’s wharves as transpacific infrastructure which linked continental railways to oceanic trade routes, conjoining the projects of settler colonialism and overseas expansion in the process. Melanie Ng considers how Chinese migrants navigated the transnational legal infrastructures of Chinese Exclusion between the United States, Canada, and a broader legislative network bound by transpacific empires, capital, and labour. Mark Tseng-Putterman explores the 1903 completion of the “all-American” Pacific telegraph cable as an exercise of U.S. imperial rule which intimately bound San Francisco, Honolulu, and Manila as nodes of a burgeoning U.S. transpacific network.

Papers Presented

Bound to Aramco: The Racial Liquidity of Filipino Labor after the 1973 Oil Crisis

This paper considers how fossil capitalism and US militarism in the Middle East shaped the political and cultural lives of Filipino migrants after the 1973 oil crisis. I bring together three threads: the precarity of Filipino migrant labor in North America, the rise of authoritarian politics in the Philippines, and the financialization of global oil markets. In this presentation, I suggest that the late-20th-century shift in the valuation of Filipino life, from exportable workers to expendable labor, reflects a global reconsideration of human capital as liquid assets that can quickly be converted to profit through manufactured precarity, exhaustion, and discipline. As Filipino migrants, predominantly men on the oil fields, reckoned with their condition as expendable labor, their various cultural practices shifted towards chauvinist authoritarianism and Christian nationalism, leading to mass support for far-right regimes in the Philippines and around the world. I begin with the 1973 October War between the US-supported State of Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. The subsequent oil embargo led by Saudi Arabia and OPEC, and shifts in American politics towards militarized capitalism to reassert global dominance over oil, necessitated expendable and hyper-mobile workers to fuel their rapid expansion. As a result, by the 1990s, Big Oil turned to Filipino workers, who had become the Philippines’ most valuable export, as their prominent source of cheap labor. At the turn of the 21st century, Filipinos found work in places like Saudi Aramco, the Canadian tar sands, and the American Southwest.

Presented By
Adrian De Leon, University of Southern California

Wiring the “New West”: The American Pacific Cable as Imperial Sovereignty, 1875-1903

Tens of thousands of onlookers flocked to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach to watch the Pacific telegraph cable hauled ashore on December 14, 1902, jockeying to catch sight of what Mayor Schmitz declared “one of the greatest events” in the city’s history. The underseas cable’s route from San Francisco to Honolulu, then onwards to Manila, represented, in the Mayor’s millenarian language, “the beginning of connecting the new West with the old East and making both the new West.” Between 1876 and 1901, at least fifty-four pieces of legislation related to the laying of a Pacific cable were introduced in the United States Congress. This paper argues that this fervent pursuit of “real-time” transpacific communications served as a rubric for broader visions of U.S. expansionism during a pivotal era. As a national pioneer mythology declared the “closing” of the continental frontier, the Pacific cable represented the aspirational project of a new Pacific horizon—and the capture of new markets, military outposts, and colonial pupils therein. As the logistics of a trans-Pacific cable overdetermined U.S. colonial administration in Hawai‘i, Guam, and the Philippines, I suggest that the “shape of the network” (Tung-Hui Hu, 2015) likewise shaped the course of U.S. imperial sovereignty in the Pacific region.

Presented By
Mark Tseng-Putterman, Brown University

Transpacific Passing: Connecting Chinese Exclusion, Deportation, and Subversion in Canada and the United States

How was the category of the ‘illegal immigrant’ created and contested across transpacific spaces? In July 1903, United States immigration authorities refused admittance to Lee San, a Chinese grocer under credit-ticket contract with Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Officers alleged that Lee had misrepresented his status and attempted to ‘pass’ as a U.S. citizen. Failing to ‘pass’ – to perform legality in the face of a system that otherwise designated most Chinese migrants as illegal – resulted in Lee’s deportation, taking him from New York to Hong Kong via Vancouver. But Lee resisted. By petitioning the Canadian government for a writ of habeas corpus in a bid to remain in Canada as a merchant, Lee’s appeal case became a complicated transnational hearing that involved himself, CPR, Canadian, and U.S. authorities. Analysis of Lee’s deportation case, as well as many other immigration cases like his, demonstrates how Chinese resistance to the project of Chinese exclusion subverted illegality in a legislative network intimately bound together by transpacific empires, capital, and labour. I argue that ‘passing’ migrants threatened the sovereign’s power to categorize, surveil, and discipline them as either subjects or aliens under its jurisdiction. Racially-motivated attempts by American and Canadian officials to deport Chinese migrants were hardly uncommon occurrences during the early-twentieth century. However, if Chinese exclusion legislation seemed to present a straightforward example of white racism on a national scale, Lee’s resistance, like that of the many other Chinese migrants, made the enforcement of these policies far more complicated in practice.

Presented By
Melanie Ng, University of Toronto

Dispossession at an Edge of Empire: Puget Sound Wharves as Imperial and Settler Colonial Infrastructure

U.S. colonization of the North American West is usually understood as an overland process. But in Puget Sound, in present-day Washington State, U.S. colonization focused on the shoreline. Americans saw Puget Sound as a portal to the Pacific Ocean that could enable economic engagement with China and Japan. Steam power enabled Americans to conjure—then to realize—this vision. But in the process, American settlers repeatedly displaced Native peoples from Puget Sound beaches and dramatically transformed coastal environments into industrialized urban waterfronts. Wharves served as both imperial infrastructure, linking trains with ships in service of Americans’ transpacific ambitions, and as settler colonial infrastructure, allowing American settlers to expand into Native territories and dispossess Native peoples beyond urban centers. Wharves thus functioned as linchpins between imperial and settler colonial processes, forming what Matt Matsuda describes as “trans-local” spaces that linked US continental and oceanic imperialism. By focusing on wharves as maritime infrastructure that reshaped physical space, this paper extends R. Cole Harris’s framing of settler colonization as a system of geographic dispossession into coastal environments, complicating and enriching how we understand both settler colonialism and imperialism.

Presented By
Sean Fraga, Princeton University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kornel Chang, Rutgers University - Newark
Kornel Chang is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. His research and teaching interests include Asian American history, the United States in the Pacific world, and race, migration, and labor in the Americas. His current book project, tentatively titled Occupying Knowledge: Expertise, Technocracy, and De-Colonization in the U.S. Occupation of Korea, examines the role of technocrats and expert knowledge in the U.S. Occupation of Korea.

Presenter: Adrian De Leon, University of Southern California
Adrian De Leon is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where he teaches Asian American history, literature, and politics. At USC, he holds additional affiliations with the Center for Transpacific Studies, the East Asian Studies Center, and the Equity Research Institute. In 2019, he received his PhD in History at the University of Toronto, where his dissertation was awarded the 2020 Governor General’s Gold Medal.

His research program investigates the relationship between global resource extraction and the production of race, indigeneity, and gender. His first academic book, Bundok: Natives
and Migrants from a Philippine Hinterland (forthcoming, University of North Carolina Press) explores how Spanish and American plantation capitalism in the Philippines produced, as distinct subjects, highlands indigeneity and lowlands native labor. The second book, Counterinsurgent Nationalism: Transpacific Subjection and the Philippine Settler State, is under contract with the University of Washington Press. His articles can be found in venues such as Radical History Review,
Amerasia, Trans Asia Photography, and the Journal of American Ethnic History. With Jane Hong (Occidental College), he is the co-editor of the Amerasia special issue on conservatisms and fascisms in Asian America (forthcoming 2022).

In addition to his scholarly work, De Leon is a public educator and a creative writer. He has been involved in multiple documentary projects, most recently as the co-writer and co-host of the PBS miniseries, A People’s History of Asian America (2021). He also sits on the Board of Trustees for the Filipino American National Historical Society. Outside of the academy, De Leon is a creative writer. His works can be found in venues such as Joyland, The Margins, and Catapult. He is the author of two poetry collections: Rouge (2018) and barangay: an offshore poem (2021). He is the co-editor of FEEL WAYS: A Scarborough Anthology (2021).

Presenter: Sean Fraga, Princeton University
Sean Fraga is an interdisciplinary historian of the North American West, specializing in connections between U.S. imperial expansion, Native sovereignty, technology, and the environment. He is currently an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Humanities in a Digital World Program at the University of Southern California, where his research focuses on digital mapping, data visualization, and augmented reality. His scholarly research has been published in Western Historical Quarterly, Mobilities, and Current Research in Digital History; his writing has also appeared in The Washington Post. His book project, Ocean Fever: Steam Power, Transpacific Trade, and American Colonization of Puget Sound, is under contract with Yale University Press for publication in the Lamar Series in Western History. Ocean Fever argues that Americans acquired the Pacific Northwest and developed Puget Sound in order to participate in Pacific Ocean commerce. Americans interested in trade with East Asia saw Puget Sound's deep harbors as valuable portals to the Pacific Ocean and used railroad and shipping connections to build Northwest seaport towns into global commercial hubs. But in the process, American settlers dramatically altered coastal environments and repeatedly displaced indigenous peoples. Today, Tribal nations around Puget Sound are leveraging their marine sovereignty to shape the region's future. Sean holds a Ph.D. and an M.A., both in history, from Princeton University, where his dissertation received the Center for Digital Humanities 2019 dissertation prize. He received his B.A. in American Studies, with distinction in the major, from Yale University. Learn more at seanfraga.com, or follow him on Twitter: @seanfraga.

Presenter: Melanie Ng, University of Toronto
Melanie Ng is a third-year PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Toronto
and a Harney Graduate Research Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Her dissertation takes a transpacific perspective to studying the role of clandestine Chinese
migrants in contesting and subverting the category of legal/illegal in Canada and the United
States during the twentieth century. Analyzing the various ways in which Chinese migrants’
strategies of ‘passing’ as legal were performed, this research explores how ‘passing’ could
simultaneously function to threaten sovereign power by subverting its legal categories at some
times, while at others, reinforce those same legal systems.

Presenter: Mark Tseng-Putterman, Brown University
Mark Tseng-Putterman is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University. His dissertation, “The Transpacific Network: Media Infrastructure and the Making of the American Pacific” explores how communications technology—from underseas telegraphy to Cold War satellite programs—shaped the course of U.S. imperialism in Asia and the Pacific over the long 20th century. As an essayist, his writings on race, social movements, and Asian America have been published in The Atlantic, ROAR Magazine, the Boston Review, and others.