Hayley Keon: To begin, can you tell me about your path towards becoming a historian?
Charlotte Brooks: I’ve always been interested in studying history. My mother was interested in history, also, and used to tell me stories—though, upon reflection, I don’t know how truthful all of the historical details were. I think a lot of historians grow up loving stories and seeing the past in so many things around us. So, it’s a hard question to answer because I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in history in some form.
When I went to college, I was thinking I would major in either history or chemistry, because I enjoyed chemistry in high school. However, I quickly learned that my interest in something that I enjoyed studying was very different than actually being able to do it in the classroom at the university level. History was much more natural and engaging for me than chemistry, and I haven’t really looked back from there.
Keon: Out of curiosity, did you begin studying Chinese history during your undergraduate degree, or did you start with another subject and then move into the history of China?
Brooks: I actually did do Chinese history in college. I went to a high school with almost no global history component at all. I think that was during a time in the US when those subjects were less likely to be found in the classroom before university. So, when I enrolled at college, I was very aware of how deficient my one semester of world history was. I don’t know why I was really drawn to the history of China, but I remember it being the one thing that I wanted to study most of all. In 1989, I had my first Chinese history class: Valerie Hansen’s China to 1600. Then I took Jonathan Spence’s class the next year, which was always in a packed auditorium, but I loved it. After that, I decided that this was what I really wanted to study.
Keon: Moving on to the subject of your recent book—by focusing on the outbound migration of American-born Chinese from the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, American Exodus moves against the grain of traditional histories that emphasize the US as a beacon for migrants from abroad. For those who have yet to read it, what were some of the push factors that propelled these actors away from the US and towards China and what do you think this form of mobility can tell us about the United States during this period?
Brooks: It’s funny, when I started writing the book, I hadn’t really conceived of it this way. I knew that there were people who left the United States for China because, in my previous research for other books, I had encountered their personal stories a number of times, which was why I really wanted to look at them more closely. But at the beginning, I saw them as individual cases. Then I discussed it with some of my colleagues and I started looking at the statistics from this period, which, of course, focused on inbound immigration into the US. However, I also noticed that, particularly after the 1917 Immigration Act, there was a growing collection of statistics on people who were moving abroad permanently. Though I have no documentation for this, I suspect that the reason those records were collected was because Congress wanted to track, first, people who were trying to avoid the draft for World War I and, second, the incidence of people who were naturalized in the United States and then left, or naturalized and then took their American-born children abroad. But I also noticed that those were pretty high numbers. I talk about this in the introduction to the book: that the number of people who left the United States equaled between 10-25% of inbound immigration. So, I started to realize that what I was looking at weren’t just individual stories—which, in themselves, are very interesting—but a larger trend that Chinese Americans were certainly one (but not the only) part of.
Second-generation Chinese Americans were mainly the children of merchants, one of the only categories of Chinese allowed into the US because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. These second-generation people left the United States for a number of reasons. Many moved to escape racism, because even if you were a college-educated Chinese American in the United States during this time, by and large you still had little chance of practicing the profession in which you trained, and in reality you were disadvantaged compared to a white high school dropout. For those who did not have access to higher education downward mobility was also a major problem. They had attended American primary schools, read and wrote English as well as Chinese, and were more acculturated than their immigrant parents, yet these differences did not mean that they could anticipate greater opportunities or better treatment in the United States than their parents had experienced.
Americans of many different ancestries moved abroad during these years for business, among other things, and also for new opportunities. But the lives and experiences of second-generation Chinese Americans in particular contradict the narrative of America as this beacon for immigrants, whose children could automatically rise in the next generation. As I discuss in the book, many Chinese Americans did not have this opportunity, and for that reason they joined a larger population of people of color who migrated to avoid racial prejudice. With this in mind, I placed them in the context of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the urban north during the same period, though for African Americans, moving abroad was not typically an option (although some participated in the Back to Africa movement). So, Chinese Americans were part of a larger picture of mobility in the United States during this time, and the push factors weren’t just driving them.
“The lives and experiences of second-generation Chinese Americans in particular contradict the narrative of America as this beacon for immigrants, whose children could automatically rise in the next generation…many Chinese Americans did not have this opportunity, and for that reason they joined a larger population of people of color who migrated to avoid racial prejudice. With this in mind, I placed them in the context of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the urban north during the same period.”
Keon: That’s really interesting. When I first read your book, I was surprised by the number of Chinese Americans who saw China as a place where they could access educational and employment opportunities that they couldn’t in the United States. Following on from that, you divide the subjects of your book into two overarching categories: those who went to China in search of an education or a job, and ‘modernizers,’ who sought to participate in the pursuit of the political, social, and economic change that defined China’s twentieth century. How stringent were the boundaries between these two groups, and how did they evolve over the fifty-year period you cover?
Brooks: That’s a great question. This division isn’t one that I started with, but initially I was trying to write about all of these people together, and finally I realized that I was really trying to write about two different groups, who were divided largely by the degree of education that they received in the United States and where they were from in the US. So, the people that I call the ‘students and merchants’—the Chinese Americans who mainly settled in Guangdong and Hong Kong—came from all over America. Many came from small towns, but a good number came from big cities, as well. What I found with this group (whom I originally called ‘networkers,’ but reviewers of the book hated that) was that these were people moving “back” to China (though many had never been themselves) through the existing networks that brought their parents to the United States. We often call them ‘overseas Chinese’ networks. I talk a little bit in the book about the problematic aspects of this term (overseas Chinese), but lacking any other useful term, I do use it in the book with caution—especially because so many Chinese Americans applied it to themselves.
The ‘students and merchants’ people were greatly impacted by the stringent laws that propped up discrimination and made it difficult for native-born people to have any sense of promise in America. Their merchant parents, and the citizens themselves when they reached a certain age, were contemplating whether American-born Chinese could enjoy the greatest choice, chance, and future in the United States. Education was a factor as well—there weren’t many primary and secondary schools that offered Chinese Americans a decent education at the turn of the century, especially on the west coast. So, they moved to South China and Hong Kong because, at that moment, those places seemed to be teeming with new opportunities. As John Carroll and Elizabeth Sinn describe, Hong Kong was developing a Chinese bourgeoise during this period. Adult Chinese American citizens could go to Hong Kong and find a job, such as working in an import-export firm, through existing networks and by using their biculturality to make themselves indispensable. Some of them with capital also formed businesses or established shops that sold American products. There were lots of interesting opportunities at this time. For the younger citizens and their China-born parents, there was by the 1910s a sense that even if they did eventually return to the United States, their future would be in these overseas Chinese networks and circles, and that they needed to understand Chinese and speak it well. They needed to know people and make connections.
By the 1910s, you begin to see an institutional infrastructure developing in South China and Hong Kong to educate the American citizen children of Chinese living in the US in order to enable them to move back and forth. As a whole, this group is one part of larger story that past historians haven’t really written about: the Chinese merchants who went abroad and sent their children back to China. In US history, this has largely been seen as the mobility of people who weren’t really American anyway. But by the 1910s, these citizen kids had largely had their early education in the United States, and they were bicultural.
“Hong Kong was developing a Chinese bourgeoise during this period. Adult Chinese American citizens could go to Hong Kong and find a job, such as working in an import-export firm, through existing networks and by using their biculturality to make themselves indispensable…For the younger citizens and their China-born parents, there was by the 1910s a sense that even if they did eventually return to the United States, their future would be in these overseas Chinese networks and circles.”
I think a lot of these people were definitely interested in the future of China, but I don’t think they saw themselves as leaders at the cutting edge, contributing to China’s modernization. Whereas, you have university-educated Chinese Americans mostly from urban areas who attended college at the moment when the Qing Dynasty’s New Policies were going into effect and the dynasty was desperate for western-educated Chinese professionals. I call this group the ‘modernizers.’ On the verge of graduating college at this time, they found themselves with boundless opportunities in China. This continued for a period of around 15 years, into the early republican era. So, they were well placed to use their western education to build what they hoped would be a new, strong China under whatever government would be in place at that time. I think a lot of them were less politically active than some of the Chinese American in the United States who were interested in revolution. A large portion of the ‘modernizers’ really saw modernization as rooted in physical development: as building, as infrastructure, as creating new structures and systems. So, those two groups—the students and merchants, and the modernizers—really developed differently at the start.
The differences between them started to collapse when the kinds of opportunities that the modernizers wanted began to disappear. By the 1920s and 1930s, the students, merchants, and modernizers started to become part of a larger treaty port elite that was increasingly educated overseas or at least in western schools in China. In a lot of ways, they came to identify and socialize with the ‘returned students’ and overseas Chinese elites. Their identities thus developed in ways that were very distinct from other kinds of Chinese identity at this time, which I think made it difficult for these folks in the 1920s when anti-imperialism became so important to Chinese nationalism. It’s a bit of a long-winded answer, but in the book this material stretches across three chapters, so it’s a lot to cover.
Keon: In the book, you do a wonderful job of organizing diverse stories of migration into comprehensible categories, while also centering the personal experiences of these migrants. I wanted to ask: how did you go about finding this material, and what challenges did you face as you pursued these stories in archives?
Brooks: It’s interesting because this is one of those books where I found the most valuable material in places I did not anticipate when I started the project. I think as historians we face that often: we start, and we find new troves of documents or we go someplace where we believe that we’re going to find a ton of useful information, but we only find one page and it’s so discouraging.
I actually started the research for this book in Shanghai in 2014 when I was teaching a short course in Chengdu. On the outskirts of the city there is a university that partners with Baruch, and they send their accounting students to our college to do their last two years. I taught a General Education course for one of these cohorts so that they could get credits before they went to the United States. In return, I was able to get that very valuable letter of introduction to use the Shanghai Municipal Archives. I have to say, I didn’t find nearly as much material there as I expected. Partly, this is due to the number of restrictions placed on foreign scholars using mainland archives (though I think even Chinese scholars struggle to gain access these days) and the lengthy processes and limitations placed on gathering sources.
From there, I went to the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and, later, the National Archives of the United States. I found CUHK to be a tremendously enjoyable place to do research and, while I was there, I realized that perhaps I needed to go where the people I was following had gone. By the 1920s and 30s, these migrants were increasingly pushed to the edges—not of Chinese life, per se, but as I discuss in the book, Chinese American emigres were increasingly alienated from the new Nationalist government because they weren’t seen as valuable any longer. They began to be viewed as more politically and socially marginal, risky, and undesirable. I started to trace where they had been—so, Hong Kong—and then I eventually turned to the National Archives of the United States, where I found a ton of consular materials that I had really not expected to find. I started pulling volumes from US Consulates in Guangzhou (Canton as they called it), Hong Kong, and Shanghai, which were really the three major centers for this migration. One of the things that made me realize how valuable this material would be was that there were many accounts of people arrested by police (especially in the 1910s and 20s), so this was a really interesting window into what was happening to them during the Warlord Period.
Have you worked at the National Archives yourself?
Keon: Not yet, unfortunately.
Brooks: I don’t how it works in other national archives, but at the National Archives of the United States you place a pull request and they bring out ten volumes. And they push them out in these big wooden carts and every single one of the bound volumes I received was wrapped in cellophane and I had to cut them all open. Finally, after the fifth or sixth one like this, I said to the archivist, ‘You know, I’ve never seen this before. Do you re-wrap them every time they get sent back?’ And he said ‘No, if those are wrapped like that, it means that no one has used them since they were brought over from the old national archives facility in 1997.’ And I said, ‘Oh wow, that’s great.’ But I’ll always remember this: he paused and said, ‘Actually, I don’t think anyone has ever used these.’ As a historian, I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to hear.’ I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but I’ve done searches with Google Scholar and I’ve not found reference to any of them, so it seems like they’ve just been sitting there.
So the National Archives was a place where I found all of these personal accounts and letters from people, back and forth with consular officials. I read Chinese—you kind of have to for this type of project—but for those who don’t read Chinese but want to do research in this area, a lot of the Chinese language materials, including letters, were translated by consular staff members. So, for other researchers, this material is really a gold mine. From there, I started pulling out names and putting together a spreadsheet so that I could keep track of all the Chinese Americans I encountered in one record or another who had left the US and ended up in China. I still have the spreadsheet, and I’m still adding to it, because I keep stumbling upon these people everywhere—in almost every edition of the South China Morning Post from those years, for example—and now I have 1,200 names of people I have significant documentation about.
From there, I went to the regional offices of the National Archives, where they carry immigration files. If you were a Chinese American in those years leaving the United States and you wanted the opportunity to return without problems, you would submit a Form-430, which was a pre-investigation form that included a ton of testimony from your parents, your neighbors, as well as your birth certificate, etc. From there I was able to trace these people to China, because their Chinese names were often written on their Form-430s but nowhere else. So, I was able to use those and, luckily, we have digitized newspapers, and I often could trace them from their landing in Hong Kong up through the Pearl River. Then at CUHK they have some of the overseas Chinese school records (the University of Hong Kong has some of that stuff as well). So, it all sort of started in a place where I didn’t expect it to start, and then it finally led me back to the Guomindang archives in Taiwan and the Academica Historica (the Institute of Modern History in Taiwan), and the Foreign Ministry archives where some of these names started to pop up again. I really had to have specific names, I found, because so many of the Chinese Americans were not categorized that way once they arrived in China. There, they were considered Chinese citizens. Once I had names and institutions, they started appearing not just in Foreign Ministry records but also Overseas Chinese Affairs journals.
Keon: That’s really interesting, and your answer moves smoothly into my next question, which is about citizenship. One thing that stood out to me in your book was the way that you capture the tentativeness and fluidity of the Chinese American identity at this time, which also plays out in the arena of legal rights and citizenship claims. In what contexts did Chinese Americans in China attempt to invoke either their American or their Chinese citizenship, and how did these respective states address their claims?
Brooks: That was another aspect of the book that I didn’t anticipate when I first started the research. A lot of this hinges on the fact that, whether they liked it or not, Chinese Americans were dual citizens. To start with, of course, they were born on US soil, making them US citizens, and in fact I chose to focus on US-born people and not on derivative citizens, because we know that many of the latter were actually unlawful entrants and paper sons. In contrast, people born on US soil, because of the Wong Kim Ark case and the 14th amendment to the Constitution, had a much more secure claim to US citizenship. However, in 1909, the Qing Government proclaimed a new nationality law that any child of a Chinese subject, wherever born, was a citizen of China. This meant that anyone who was ethnically Chinese anywhere was a claimed Chinese citizen. This law was inherited by the early republican government, which didn’t repudiate it but in fact built on it, and the Nationalist government built on it even more, making it very difficult for anyone to expatriate. People did try, but if you were a Chinese American man between 13-50 (so, you were eligible for military service) you could not expatriate. This is the larger context. When Chinese Americans arrived in China, their dual citizenship actually took on some meaning.
The third piece of this was extraterritoriality and the Unequal Treaties. As American citizens, Chinese Americans enjoyed the protection of extraterritoriality (or extrality), the system that dated back to the mid-19th century. It didn’t mean that you could commit crimes without punishment in China, as some assume. Instead, it meant that if you did commit a crime, you’d be tried in your own nation’s courts under your nation’s laws and would be incarcerated in a prison run by your government. That said, if you were arrested by Chinese officials as a foreign citizen of a covered nation, they had to hand you over to your consuls. So, of course, Chinese Americans were subject to extraterritoriality or they weren’t depending on who you asked. And they realized that. It’s funny, that’s one of the main criticisms that both the republican government and the US government had of them: that they saw it to their advantage to play both sides, because their foreign citizenship gave them the ability to move more easily, but their Chinese citizenship gave them the opportunity to assume certain jobs or inherit land in China. What US consuls always complained about was that the moment a Chinese American got into trouble he or she became an American citizen. That’s not totally untrue, but you could say the same thing about white Americans in China at this time, certainly around Shanghai, or even about people who weren’t actually US citizens but claimed to be. Many people from many backgrounds abused extraterritoriality.
Extrality for Chinese Americans was mostly an issue in South China. Shanghai’s International Settlement was controlled by the foreign, rate-payer-elected Shanghai Municipal Council, and the French Concession was controlled by the French government. So, these areas were not considered China and Chinese Americans living in these spaces were American citizens. If they stepped a foot over the line, however, they were Chinese.
What a lot of Chinese Americans in South China did was to register properly with US officials in China (usually Canton) in order to make the US government protect them and take their citizenship seriously and the US government did so up through the mid-1920s. By this time, the United States was becoming very concerned about the political situation in East Asia, the decline of British power in China, and the rise of Japan. for sure, but also the growing Nationalist movement. There was this desire in the US government to throw the Nationalists a bone and to show American respect for them without compromising the special status of ‘actual’ (meaning white) Americans in China. This became a push and pull between the US State Department, consulates, and other American citizens in China. Historians like Robert Bickers have written about similar issues in the British community in Shanghai, too, so this was a problem that played out in different communities in the 1920s. But there was also great sympathy in the United States for the Nationalists, who were seen as cut from the American pattern. They were republican, with a small ‘r,’ and British diplomats in the region constantly complained to each other that the US was too soft on the Nationalists because of this perceived connection.
When it came to Chinese Americans, the needs of the US government were fueled by a growing racial nationalism in Washington. This was embodied in the Immigration Act of 1924, which essentially enshrined racial quotas into immigration and established a racial hierarchy where southern and eastern Europeans were less desirable than northern Europeans and other groups like Asians needed to be shut out entirely, building on a trend that was present in the previous decades.
All of these things came together to erode the willingness of the State Department and consuls to defend Chinese Americans’ rights as US citizens in China. So, when Chinese Americans started getting into trouble with the Nationalists in the south beginning in the mid-1920s, the US government slowly began to wash its hands of them. In 1926, there was one case that centered on a kid from New York (Chu Shea Wai—the pinyin for his name would have been Zhao Shiwei) who was arrested as part of a crackdown on leftists after the assassination of Liao Zhongkai. From all that I could see, the problem was that his half-brother was a Chinese-born conservative and a friend of the late Sun Yat-sen and had incurred the wrath of the leftists of the party and made himself scarce after the assassination of Liao Zhongkai. Soldiers broke into the family’s house and arrested this kid who was learning Chinese so that he could attend university in China. He had grown up in New York, went to high school in New York and Chicago, and was living in this house with his elderly mother and younger sisters. The family was a cast of characters: one of his half-brothers, Henry Joe Young was a private detective in New York and his middle brother had tried to run away with the Ringling Brothers circus.
Initially, the American consuls, the Consul General, and the minister in China were relatively supportive. But this was 1925, which was also the moment when the Nationalists launched their Northern Expedition and there was a growing wave of anti-foreign sentiment across the country, as well as the Guangzhou-Hong Kong boycott and strike. So, the American authorities in China began to change direction and said, ‘maybe he was involved in politics. We have no evidence of this but we’re not going to defend him.’ So, he sat in jail for another six months. He was eventually released—they had nothing on him, and he received a fair trial—but this was the end of protection for Chinese American citizens in China. The US government could show its respect for the Nationalists by observing their nationality law (on Chinese American dual citizenship) without sacrificing the extraterritoriality of white Americans in China.
Keon: That’s really interesting. Just as an aside, my PhD research is about white American missionary children born in Shanghai between 1898 and 1949, and their struggles with citizenship almost run counter to what you’ve described for Chinese Americans in China. In the beginning, there was some ambiguity concerning the citizenship status of China-born Americans, particularly third and fourth generation missionaries, whose fathers might have been born to US citizens but not on US soil—for example, in what was then the Kingdom of Hawai’i where there was a large US Protestant enterprise. So, at the same time that the US State Department and consulates were eroding the rights of American-born Chinese, they were shoring up the rights of the white children who were born in China.
Brooks: That’s really fascinating, and it makes me think more about the backdrop to my book, which is partly about the emerging Chinese nation and the United States in the 1910s and 20s. The racial nationalism in the United States at this time was really ascendant and it focused on defining what it meant to be an American. In a legal sense, Chinese Americans were American citizens, but the feeling in institutions like the State Department and consulates was that they weren’t “real” Americans. And it’s kind of interesting that you see these same issues being considered in Shanghai at this time. Who can claim US citizenship and what makes their claims legitimate was increasingly racial.
Keon: Picking up on something you mentioned earlier—as an American living in Hong Kong, and as a PhD student researching a trans-imperial history of urban East China, I was particularly fascinated by the way that Chinese-American immigrants moved through the imperial networks that linked the Chinese mainland to parts of Asia that were under British and French rule. What do you think attracted your subjects to these places, and how do think you their movements impacted these colonial centers?
Brooks: I would say that the one place where I saw Chinese Americans going within the empire was Hong Kong. With the exception of one or two notorious examples during the war, they didn’t move to Southeast Asia. They moved to China through Cantonese networks. I think they ultimately ended up in Hong Kong for a few reasons. For one, like I said earlier, they were bicultural and bilingual at a moment when these attributes were increasingly valuable. In Hong Kong at the time, there was a developing education system for the Chinese elite that catered to biculturality for both boys and girls and I think that was a big magnet. The second reason was that Hong Kong was the center of overseas Chinese networks. After moving from South China abroad to places like Australia, if laws changed or it became difficult to be Chinese there, overseas Chinese would relocate to Hong Kong, which had higher standards of living than mainland villages and offered a place where they could continue doing business securely.
But I also think one of the reasons that so many Chinese Americans settled in Hong Kong was the Gold Mountain firms (jinshanzhuang) that dealt in remittances, immigrants, and products. They had a global reach but centered on the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong. That was the center of people’s connections, as well. For example, I found people who worked for Choy Chong Lung Co. (聚昌榮) in the San Francisco branch office (like Louey Shuck, someone I write a lot about in the book) then moved to Hong Kong through networks linked to this firm. For others, these connections shared information about schools and even potential marriage partners. This was how people were able to find opportunities. These companies operated out of Hong Kong, which up through the 1920s seemed to be a safe place and a good investment during a period of upheaval on the mainland.
Keon: This leads us towards the end of the book where you talk about upheaval. The final chapters center around the late 1940s as a moment of rupture, which saw the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the return of many of these immigrants back to the United States. Again, for those who haven’t had the chance to read your book yet, how do these migrants fare after this relocation?
Brooks: I think this was the most interesting part of the book to write: the war time and the post-war. Because, of course, the people who emigrated in the 1920s and 30s who established careers in China were disrupted by conflict. The war didn’t just cause mass death and the destruction of infrastructure, but essentially also the world as they knew it, which was a world reliant on incomplete Chinese sovereignty. The Nationalist government did not have control over some of the wealthiest and developed parts of China. So, this was a period when the Nationalist government supposedly re-unified China, but it was always partial and was never complete. Those overlapping jurisdictions and sovereignties and statuses actually created a large amount of opportunity for Chinese Americans. So what happens when those are wiped clean? The Japanese came to control basically all of the places where Chinese Americans had lived, all the way down to Hong Kong by 1941 and 1942. Additionally, China, the US, and Britain became allies in the war and agreed to eliminate the basis for that lack of sovereignty. Extraterritoriality was gone, Shanghai’s concessions and the other concessions were gone. All that was left was Hong Kong, and the Nationalists wanted to control that, as well, but the British refused.
One of the things I found was that people were still moving to China in 1940, which I thought was really astonishing. I have a few records of people who left in 1941, mainly to visit family, and were stranded. What I came across in one of the consular volumes—again, never opened—was more than two hundred applications for financial assistance for repatriation in 1946. I was then able to trace these people’s US records from when they left. As a human being, comparing the two files—with photos of round-faced little kids at the start, who then go through war and become refugees—it’s hard to imagine what it was like for them, but easy to imagine what had happened to a lot of these people. In 1946-1947 you have a torrent of people pouring out of China. There has been a little written about how Chinese Americans who worked in the US during the war had rushed to China after the war ended to get married and bring their China-born wives to the United States. Veterans rushed to China, and aliens who had worked in the United States naturalized in the US and wanted to invest their money in China. So, there was an outbound rush of people to South China, but there was also this less visible movement of around 1500-2000 Chinese Americans leaving Guangdong and Hong Kong in 1946. Hundreds more left other parts of China for the US at this time too.
How they fared is interesting: people who took their chances between 1937, when the Japanese invaded, and 1941, when the concessions and Hong Kong were taken over by the Japanese, left when it became possible that the Communist would win the Civil War. Whether that’s because they had already lived through this prolonged period of conflict, or whether it was because they saw the Communists as even worse than the Japanese, I don’t know. But what I found was that the Chinese Americans who left China after 1937 but before Pearl Harbor really struggled initially. They were arriving into an America that was still really racist against Chinese Americans (that didn’t even change for a long time after the war) but was also an America that was still marred by the Great Depression, which actually got worse in 1938 after Franklin Roosevelt began to cut back on some of the New Deal programs.
I noticed that a few Chinese Americans who returned to the US in 1937 and 1938 actually ended up going back to China because, by 1938, Hong Kong and Shanghai seemed to have stabilized, and that’s a damning indictment of the lack of choices that they had in the United States. But a lot of those folks that stayed in the US were eventually able to find work when the United States entered the war and there was a desperate need for workers. Many found work in the public sector and then afterwards they were able to transition into post-war public sector work, where discrimination certainly existed but was far less limiting than in the private sector. This was a ladder of upward mobility for a lot of people of color and these Chinese Americans—many of whom were educated in western-style universities in China—were able to get a foothold and enjoyed a decent life after the war.
A lot of the people who stayed in China during the war, especially mid-career professionals who were stranded after 1941, eventually got back to the United States and found that they were never really able to establish themselves in the US at quite the same level. As a mid-career professional, myself, I can only imagine what it would be like to be used to a particular level of status, comfort, and economic security, and then to return to a country where your accomplishments don’t mean anything. I profiled a number of these people: so, for instance, the famous literary critic and translator George Kin Leung became a court translator; or Poy Gum Lee, who went from being one of the most celebrated architects in China to working for the New York Public Housing Authority—which was a good job, but when you were the Frank Gehry of China, it was a bit of a come down.
A lot of the people who choose not to return to the United States ended up in Hong Kong. Hong Kong after the war and after 1949 was sort of the twilight of the overseas Chinese world that had existed in pre-war China, where people tried to make their way in a place that, even though it was facing tremendous problems of its own, was similar to the prewar China they remembered. In other words, some weren’t willing to return to the United States (or weren’t able to, if they lost their citizenship by serving in the Nationalist army or government, as a few did). What happened to people after the war depended mostly on their level of education. For those who had not received a university education in China or the United States, when they returned to the US, they were pretty much back in the old niche economy of restaurants and service industry work. It was always not a happy ending; though, I sort of feel like, in a way, none of the books I’ve written have a happy ending. For a lot of these people, their health was destroyed, their careers were destroyed. If you were lucky enough to return to the United States when you were young with an education but without an established career, it was possible to build something of your own in America, but for a lot of people it just wasn’t.
Keon: I think it’s impossible to read American Exodus without noticing the parallels between the period you research, which was, of course, punctuated by racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the present conditions in the United States today, where xenophobia seems to sit at the fore of the national consciousness. In that context, what lessons do you hope that readers take away from your book?
Brooks: Oh, this is the place I always stumble, I have to admit, because it’s something that I think about every day when I read the newspaper (and once I get up off the floor and out of the fetal position after reading the newspaper). I think one of the big lessons is that things certainly have gotten better. If we say nothing has improved since the 1920s, we’re suggesting that all of the people who fought to make things better at great personal sacrifice achieved nothing, and I don’t believe that. What I do see is that there is still a definite, powerful belief among a significant sector of the American public that “real” Americans are white. There’s still this crackling tension between formal citizenship and racial nationalism. I’m not surprised that it remains, but I’m dismayed that it remains, and that it tends to rear its head at moments like this (that has a lot to do with our political leaders, as well). I’m also dismayed that it is an ingrained part of our country. You can change laws and you should change laws, but it’s kind of interesting: many students of color in my classes¾students who I know don’t equate whiteness with Americanness¾will say ‘Americans’ and mean white people. When I say, ‘well, what do you mean by Americans?’ They reply, ‘oh, white people, like you.’ That’s when I realize again how ingrained this idea is.
At a book talk I gave at Cornell in 2019, I was asked to speak about China’s citizenship policies, and the organizers of the talk series said that I could discuss the period of my research if I tied it to today. In my research, I focus, and rightly so, on the pervasive issue of racial nationalism in America, but there is something parallel happening in China when you look at the Chinese state’s rhetoric about ethnic Chinese abroad: to whom they are supposed to owe loyalty, their place in the imagined nation, the idea of the China Dream and to whom it applies. So just saying that this is an American problem also obscures this other discourse in modern China and the PRC today.
Keon: To end, can you tell me a bit about your next project?
Brooks: I have two upcoming projects: one that came out of my research for this book, and another one that is a result of my wife saying, ‘you have to write a book about this family.’ So, you may have noticed in American Exodus that I talk about Herbert Moy, his brother Ernest, and his sister-in-law Ruth. The Moys pop up in various places, even in my earlier books. So, one of my next two projects is going to be something I haven’t done before. I’m going to try to write a biography of this family, because they’re fascinating and their stories are great. You have Herbert Moy, who is broadcasting for the Nazis in wartime Shanghai while his sister-in-law Ruth is running a safe house for American intelligence agents. Then, there are implications that his other sister and brother-in-law are a little too close to the Japanese. I don’t know if that’s the case yet and I want to find out. But these different figures reveal some of the multifaceted ways that Chinese Americans coped, expressed their identities, and made choices in prewar and wartime China. So that’s one of the projects. I don’t have a title yet—I’m thinking something like An American Family: the Moys of New York and Shanghai.
The other project I’m doing simultaneously is about Americans in China, specifically small business owners. Not the people who have been typically focused on, like the missionaries or big firms like Standard Oil and British-American Tobacco, but the people who lived in treaty port China and made their lives there. I think it’s interesting how they understood themselves as Americans, how they sold themselves as Americans, sold American products, and, in the process, tried to “sell” America. It’s remains vague, as I’m just beginning.