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Chinese immigrants came to America in boats to mine for gold and help build a railroad that connected East and West. They worked in agriculture, factories and the garment industry. Laborers and entrepreneurs alike, they spread out across the country to make America their home.
But by 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment had pushed Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first and only major federal law to suspend immigration for a specific nationality, until its repeal in 1943.
In the decades that followed, some Chinese and Taiwanese who immigrated to the United States — and their descendants — made their mark in fields like science and engineering, sports, politics, law and the military. Some opened restaurants. Some made clothing. Some prospered, others struggled. All came chasing the American dream.
Yet to this day, Chinese in America are seen as the perpetual foreigner, a point underscored by author Gene Luen Yang in an essay he wrote for NBC News: “There Is No One Way to Be an American — or a Superhero.” They are also looked at with an eye of suspicion, particularly as Americans increasingly view China as a threat.
From centuries past to the new millennium, the Chinese American experience has transformed in ways and remained static in others. These five books present the experiences of these men and women through different narrative lenses.
1. "The Chinese in America: A Narrative History” by Iris Chang
Published shortly before Chang’s death in 2004, “The Chinese in America: A Narrative History” tells the history of Chinese in America and their quest to create an identity in a foreign land. At 544 pages, her book traces in great detail the various immigration waves over the years from China, beginning with those who came during the Gold Rush and to build the first transcontinental railroad. What emerges is a complex portrait of Chinese immigrants and their descendants, and what it means to be both Chinese American and American.
2. “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang
This graphic novel from 2016 MacArthur "genius" grantee Gene Luen Yang was the first of its kind to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association's Printz Award. It tells three stories that appear to be unrelated but that come together at the end with a twist. One of them is about a kid named Jin Wang, whose parents are from Taiwan and who grows up being picked on and feeling alienated. “This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese American childhood,” Publishers Weekly wrote. “It's a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape.”
3. “Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad” by Gordon H. Chang
Chang, a Stanford University history professor, recounts the epic story of how thousands of laborers from China made their way by boat to America to help build the first transcontinental railroad. Drawing on unprecedented research, Chang shows how these men performed some of the most dangerous, most backbreaking work to build out the railroad from California, yet received virtually no credit for their contributions. Chang’s book recovers that history on the 150th anniversary this year of the railroad’s completion.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became the first and only major federal law to suspend immigration for a specific nationality. Drawing on immigration records, oral histories, interviews and letters, Lee’s work looks at both the Chinese immigrants and the American immigration officials who endeavored to keep them from entering. “This book does more than merely remember and document the history of Chinese exclusion,” the author writes in her introduction (which you can read by clicking through to Amazon’s “Look inside”). “It captures the struggles of a community and a nation during one of this country’s most divisive and destructive eras and explains how and why the United States became transformed from a nation of immigrants into a gatekeeping nation.”
5. “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok
Kwok’s novel centers on a young girl named Kimberly Chang, who moves to a squalid Brooklyn apartment from Hong Kong with her mother. Kimberly must balance two lives: doing well in school during the day, and toiling as a Chinatown sweatshop worker at night. “A love interest at the factory leads to a surprising plot line, but it is the portrayal of Kimberly's relationship with her mother that makes this more than just another immigrant story,” according to Publishers Weekly.