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The Landscape of Contemporary Asian American Studies (September 2016): Asian American History

By Mark E. Pfeifer

Asian American History

Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History is an essential work that provides an overview of Asian American history beginning in the sixteenth century with the sailors who came on the first transpacific ships in the 1500s, to the Hmong migration and experiences in Minnesota from the mid-1970s to the present.  Lee provides deeply detailed information on important topics in Asian American history, including Chinese migration and anti-Chinese discrimination in the nineteenth century, the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the World War II years, and the temporal experiences of Korean, Indian, and Filipino immigrants in the United States.  Daryl J. Maeda’s Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America presents a cultural history of Asian American activism and identity in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The author provides valuable case studies of a range of key incidents in the development of Asian American consciousness in this period.  These include student opposition to and protest of the leadership of S. I. Hayakawa at San Francisco State College, Asian American solidarity with the Black Panther movement, and the role of opposition to the Vietnam War in Asian American activism and identity building, as well as solidarity with other antiwar groups.  Maeda’s Rethinking the Asian American Movement also provides specific historical case studies to situate the Asian American movement within the larger context of racial and antiwar activism in the 1960s and 1970s.  The author makes particular effort to demonstrate ways in which those involved with the Asian American movement attempted to create multiethnic alliances involving Asians of many ethnicities as they used the discourses and ideologies of the Black Power and antiwar movements in the United States and the ideologies of interracialism and internationalism more broadly.

Contemporary historians have also made an effort in recent years to reinterpret the history of Asian Americans and the Asian American political movement.  In The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power, Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai write about and attempt to reinterpret the Asian American movement as having continued into the late 1980s as opposed to having ended in the 1970s as argued by other scholars’ works, including some noted above.  Also in contrast to other writers, the authors argue that the Asian American movement extended back to the 1930s, and was at its center grounded in a vision for structural change and was not primarily an assertion for identity.  Shelley Sang-Hee Lee’s A New History of Asian America represents an effort to build on older classic Asian American history texts of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, including those of Ronald Takaki, Roger Daniels, and Sucheng Chan, by including additional years of analysis with more detailed discussions of Asian American history in the United States after World War II and the post-Vietnam War years.  The author also attempts to balance the heavy focus on the experiences of Chinese and Japanese Americans in earlier works by providing greater attention to the experiences of Filipinos, Koreans, Asian Indians, and Southeast Asians, including Vietnamese, Hmong, and Cambodians.  In addition, Lee incorporates analysis of Asian American history in the context of broader theoretical and contextual issues of American power and inequality, interethnic tension and competition, racial discrimination, and economic, racial, and patriarchal privilege.

Other researchers have attempted to fill the gaps in Asian American studies historiography by including the experiences of a broader array of Asian American ethnic groups, including those who have arrived in the United States in more recent years as well as the historical experiences of those who have lived outside the most-studied regions of West and East Coast urban centers.  Jonathan H. X. Lee’s History of Asian Americans: Exploring Diverse Roots provides a fairly concise overview of the historical experiences of Asian Americans since the early 1850s.  The author discusses pre-1965 Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South Asian, and Filipino American historical experiences along with the post-1965 waves of Asian migration to the United States that include the post-1975 Vietnam War experiences of refugees and immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Also included is some information about more recently arrived Asian ethnic groups, including Burmese, Indonesian, Thai, Mongolian, Tibetan, Nepali, and Pakistani Americans.  Lee uses data from the 2010 census to create a portrait of contemporary Asian America.  Editors Khyati Y. Joshi and Jigna Desai’s Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South is an anthology that focuses on the historical experiences of Asian Americans in the southern United States, a region that has usually been neglected by scholars who have focused on the sizable Asian American populations on the coasts.  Individual contributions discuss topics including Bengali Muslim traders in New Orleans, 1880–1920; representations of Asians under Jim Crow; the history of Chinese communities in Georgia, 1880s–1940; and the growth of Vietnamese communities in Houston and New Orleans, as well as the rebuilding of a Vietnamese American neighborhood in the latter city after Hurricane Katrina.  Throughout the volume, the authors attempt to situate Asian American ethnic groups within the broader context of processes of historical and contemporary racialization in the US South, discussing ways in which Asian Americans interacted with systems of racial stratification maintained by the white majority population to oppress African Americans.

Over the past decade and a half, a literature has also grown addressing the historical experiences of individual Asian American ethnic groups as well as sectoral realms that have not been extensively studied, including housing and sports.  Charlotte Brooks’s Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing and the Transformation of Urban California describes through historical research Asian American (primarily Chinese and Japanese American) experiences in the housing markets of urban and suburban Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1930s through the 1960s.  The author argues that an understanding of the housing trajectories of Asian Americans in these California cities facilitates a broader analysis of California’s changing racial dynamics and the increased social acceptance of Chinese and Japanese Americans over the decades studied.  Kathleen S. Yep’s Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground provides an engaging case study that assesses the various political functions served by basketball leagues in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1930 to 1950.  Yep presents a cultural history of a particular aspect of recreational life among Chinese Americans in San Francisco with a discussion of racial and gender formation and Chinese responses to the significant level of oppression and discrimination that existed toward this community in the first half of the twentieth century.

Finally, in the past decade, scholars have increasingly brought to light the history of post-1975 Asian American communities.  Chia Youyee Vang’s Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora provides a historian’s perspective on community building among Hmong Americans since the time of their arrival in the United States in the mid- to late-1970s.  While Vang’s focus is on the development of Hmong institutions and the formation of a Hmong American identity in Minnesota, this important work has relevance for understanding how the Hmong experience has been both different from as well as similar in certain ways to other refugee and immigrant groups in the United States.  The work also adds considerably to the Asian American history canon, which has focused heavily on larger populations that began arriving in the United States decades earlier than the Hmong did.  Karin Aquilar-San Juan’s Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America presents case studies of the development of Vietnamese communities in Orange County, California, and Boston, Massachusetts.  The author gives particular attention to the role of place in generating and supporting Vietnamese American community and identity, with a focus on the relationships between local context and ethnic identity, community politics, and economic development in a broader environment of globalization, economic neoliberalism, and the Americanization process.