Fourth of July. Independence Day. Nationalistic pride. A day off to enjoy community parades, picnics in the park, backyard BBQs and a night of fireworks. A day to celebrate one of the documents that is the foundation of the American spirit., the Declaration of Independence
In 1776, July 4 was a declaration of independence from the king of England, that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” It was an affirmation of freedom, liberty and freedom of choice.
The second paragraph of that most sacred of documents, the Declaration of Independence, states:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Yet for the Chinese who came to “the Gold Mountain” in the mid-1800s in pursuit of a better life, this sentiment did not seem to apply to them except for the few early ones whose diligent work ethic and willingness to perform tasks European Americans deemed undesirable made them welcome.
Life for the Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s was absolutely no picnic. They were feared, loathed and stereotyped. Many toiled as inexpensive railroad workers, miners, cooks and laundrymen. For those early Chinese in America, they were certainly not considered equal and their pursuit of happiness, let alone citizenship, was much thwarted.
Then, as now, there is a portion of the American population who feel they and their identity are under siege with the presence of Chinese (then) and other non-Caucasian (now) immigrants.
As a group, Chinese Americans are considered the “model minority” -- self-reliant with good work ethics and strong family values.
Yet, as the timeline shows, the “fortunes” of Chinese Americans parallel the ups and downs of U.S.-Chinese relations. Things improved during WWII, when the two countries became allies. Those Chinese, particularly students, who were stranded in the U.S. at that time became new immigrants. When the Cold War began, Chinese Americans were once again the target of suspicion and potential enemies of the state. Right now, with tensions between the two countries high, Chinese Americans are once again looked upon with distrust by some.
The FBI’s current campaign on economic espionage has China and Chinese Americans in its crosshairs.
In January of this year, the director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics at the University of Texas, a naturalized Chinese American award-winning epidemiologist, stepped down after a three-month investigation into her professional ties in China. (No charges have been filed against her as we go to press.) Hers is not an isolated incident. A Bloomberg article in June reported “the National Institutes of Health and FBI are targeting ethnic Chinese scientists, including U.S citizens, searching for a cancer cure.” Three other top Chinese American scientists from Houston had left in recent months.
We cannot be too complacent. The constant bombardment of “China rising” may lead to the resurrection of “Yellow Peril” paranoia. Some of the recent political campaign messages are reminiscent of the mid- to late-1800s anti-Chinese rhetoric.
As Chinese Americans, we need to exercise our rights and voice our concerns, just like Norman Asing and Wong Ar Chong.
As Chinese, we’ll never look Caucasian American. So we’ll just have to grin and bear the question, “So, where are you from?” and trust that one day, the 1931 study that concluded Chinese may be “American by birth, but not in fact” will be but a sad past.
So, what’s your Independence Day going to be like? Given the unmentionable hardships the early Chinese in America endured, we should all be celebrating with gusto! But also remember their struggles.