What lead to the radical shift in public perception of Asians from dangerous “yellow peril” to celebrated model immigrants and overachievers? Madeline Hsu, author of The Good Immigrants argues that the short answer is the American government, and the CIA in particular. Recently she took the time to tell us a bit more about the book, its intended audience, and her reasons for writing this fascinating ethnic history. Check out chapter one here.
What inspired you to get into your field?
MH: As an undergraduate at Pomona College, I benefited from excellent teaching and mentorship. History seemed to come very naturally to me and the emphasis on explaining through telling stories is for me a very instinctive way to understand the world.
What are you reading right now?
MH: I have just finished reading Rise of a Japanese Chinatown: Yokohama, 1894-1972 by Eric Han (Harvard University Press, 2014) which provides an illuminating comparison of how Chinese fared in monoracial Japan as it was evolving into a world power as compared to racial dynamics in the United States. Han is particularly effective in linking the changing fortunes of Chinese Japanese to the relationship between Japan and China, particularly with the decline and rise of the latter’s international standing. I am also reading Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin and The Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Bk. 2, a long-running graphic novel series by Stan Sakai featuring a rabbit ronin protagonist.
Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?
MH: I had been thinking about and researching this project for about 7 or 8 years. It had begun with my observation that at a time of highly restrictive immigration laws before 1965, international students from Taiwan and other Asian countries were nonetheless able to resettle permanently in the United States. From there, my research took me many places such as refugee programs, the establishing of international education programs in the United States, US missionary activities in China, and the earliest of Chinese students to come to the US. After about 6 or 7 years, I was able to gain a sabbatical that gave me time to decide the parameters of the book and divide it into chapters. After that, it took me about a couple of years of hard writing to adapt and expand my various conference papers into the current manuscript. The key was figuring out my main arguments and chronology. I usually write at my desk at home, which looks out a window with a view of my neighbor’s beautifully kept front yard with agave and pecan trees.
Do you have advice for other authors?
MH: Rather than starting out with a fixed idea of what the book would argue, I had a question to which I sought answers. The subsequent research and the journey it has taken me on has revealed stories that have been unknown to myself and most others, but also help to make sense of major shifts in the positioning of Asians in the United States.
What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
MH: I am a single parent and struggle constantly with juggling responsibilities to my household and maintaining a certain level of writing and research.
Who do you see as the audience for this book?
MH: At a basic level, I hope it is accessible to informed and interested general readers who want to learn more about immigration policy, U.S. multiculturalism, and 20th century Chinese society with particular regard for migrations overseas. My goal is to explain complicated intersections between laws, popular attitudes, and government projects and how they shape the behaviors and choices of migrants in ways that highlight their humanity and shared values.
How did you come up with the title or jacket?
MH: The main title was suggested by the editorial board. I came up with the subtitle, which addresses a key problem in Asian American/immigration/ethnic history which has been how quickly Asians have transformed from being such dangerous and racially different “yellow peril” threats that they justified the earliest immigration restrictions and within a generation became celebrated model immigrants and overachieving Americans. The short answer is that the U.S. government, and in my book the CIA in particular, were pulling strings in the background. There were many unintended consequences, nonetheless, but Asians selected for their employment traits emerged as welcome immigrants.
Madeline Y. Hsu is associate professor of history and past director of the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her books include Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home and the coedited anthology Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture.