By Elaine Dunn


In case you haven’t heard, The Chinese Heritage Foundation has commissioned San Francisco Opera for a production of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” featuring music by world-renowned Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng and an English-language libretto by the composer and Tony Award-winning Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang (China Insight, February 2014). The commissioned opera is planned for a fall 2016 premiere. 

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

When America first met China, China also first met America. This book covers only the American side of that encounter but it overflows with information on the early economic relations between the two nations, one brand new and the other ancient.

China’s trade with the West was long dominated by the British East India Company, a private undertaking before it was dissolved in 1874. America’s own trade with China could not commence until the lifting of England’s blockade of that trade in 1784, one year after the Treaty of Paris officially recognized American independence from the “mother country.” In that year, the tall-masted Empress of China sailed for China from the port of New York to trade for tea and silk. The trade continues today, albeit on a much different and rebalanced form.

China needed, or at least wanted, what America had in abundance or acquired en route: fur, ginseng, silver, cotton, sandalwood (used in making the incense used in temples). The America-China trade was not, however, a straight-off one. The early tall-masted American ships sailing out of Philadelphia, New York and Boston, carried goods that were traded along the way, with stops in Hawaii, Mauritius, the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest, which, at that time, was not a part of the United States. Although a Chinese emperor famously declared that China was self-sufficient and neither in need of nor desirous of any foreign goods, the reality on the ground, as well as on the seas, was different.

Many Americans know China for manufacturing cheap products, thanks largely to the country's vast supply of low-cost workers. However, China is changing, and the glut of cheap labor that has made everyday low prices possible is drying up as the Chinese people seek not to make iPhones, but to buy them.

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Groan.

That was my initial reaction when I was given this book to review. Groan: the pages are decorated with Chinese characters without any reason for their use or explanation of what they mean (it becomes clear late in the book). Groan: the main protagonist is named “Jasmine.” Why not Lily, or Mei-Mei or any of the other stereotypical Chinese-girl names that smell as sweet as Rose? Chinese and Chinese-American girls do have other names.
But since I agreed to review it, I read it, and I am glad I did.

This is a charming, highly imaginative and inventive book that is equally well-written and well-researched.  It introduces to young adult readers a largely-unknown aspect of Chinese-American history that takes off first in Nebraska. How many books are there about the Chinese in Nebraska? Probably no others. The Chinese-American experience in the Midwest is largely, albeit not totally, ignored in fiction.

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Nineteenth-century Chinese in the United States often are depicted in histories and newspaper accounts as being unlettered, unskilled laborers, as many were. But there was a special group of educated Chinese youths who came here in the late 19th century precisely to be further educated in American ways. They were not, however, the first of their lot. In the early decades of the 19th century, five Chinese were students at a mission school in Connecticut. In 1854 Yung Wing, brought to this country by an American missionary to receive the perceived benefits of American life and education, became the first Chinese to graduate from an American college (Yale). After his return to China, Yung Wing became an interpreter and a servant of the Qing government. Among other activities, he was sent back to the United States in 1863 to acquire machinery to manufacture heavy armaments. He later convinced the Chinese government to send, in 1872, a very young group of 120 Chinese students (most were 10 to 14 years old) to study in New England with the purpose of acquiring skills that could be used to modernize China---and also reduce China’s reliance on foreigners---without compromising China’s traditional values. Thus was born the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM).

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