Penn Arts and Sciences

Yellow and Gold: The "Chinese Question" on the California and Victoria Goldfields (Mae Ngai)

Friday, October 4, 2013 - 12:00pm - 1:30pm

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AS A FOLLOW-UP TO HER PARTICIPATION in the panel the night before, Mae M. Ngai will discuss her current work during this Friday workshop. This work examines the labor and social organization of Chinese miners and the racial politics surrounding the “Chinese Question” in California and the Australian colony of Victoria in the 1850s to the 1880s.  Although race relations on the goldfields have received relatively little attention, compared to the urban workingmen’s movements of the 1870s and 1880s, the Chinese Question in the early mining years was arguably foundational to anti-Chinese politics in both the U.S. and Australia.  Further, anti-Chinese politics has been discussed mostly in terms of discourse and policy, with little empirical understanding of the actual condition of Chinese miners’ work. We thus know much more about what whites thought about Chinese labor than about Chinese labor itself.  

One of the consequences of this disparity in the scholarship has been a persistence of the view, in U.S. labor and economic history, that Chinese miners (and labor in general) were indentured, bound by debt peonage, or otherwise enslaved by Chinese “custom.”  Ngai examines the genealogy of this view in U.S. historiography and suggests some reasons for its persistence; and, second, shows that it is at odds with the empirical evidence.  In fact, Chinese miners worked as independent prospectors, as partnerships, as members of egalitarian cooperatives, in small Chinese companies working on shares, and as waged labor for white-owned companies.  

This argument is made both through empirical research in U.S. mining census reports and the accounts of contemporary observers, and through a comparative and transnational approach. This methodology thinks about Chinese gold mining and racial politics in California and Victoria as Anglo-American settler colonies in the Pacific world.  It argues that Chinese mining practices and forms of social organization derived from southern China and circulated throughout the Pacific world, adapting to local conditions.  Further, in comparing American and Australian variations of anti-Chinese racism, it shows how racial thinking had little to do with the Chinese themselves, other than general ideological (Orientalist) disposition, and was shaped by local political context.

Mai Ngai is Professor of History and Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies at Columbia University, is a U.S. legal and political historian interested in questions of immigration, citizenship, and nationalism. She is author of the award winning Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004) and The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010).  Ngai has written on immigration history and policy for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the Boston Review. Before becoming a historian she was a labor union organizer and educator in New York City, working for District 65-UAW and the Consortium for Worker Education.  She is now working on Yellow and Gold: The Chinese Mining Diaspora, 1848-1908, a study of Chinese gold miners and racial politics in the nineteenth-century California, the Australian colony of Victoria, and the South African Transvaal.

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