Original Air Date: January 23, 1996
Rebroadcast Air Date: May 21, 1996
Program 9604/9621


Henry Der, Executive Director, Chinese for Affirmative Action
Peter Kwong, Director, Asia American Studies Program, CUNY
Ling-chi Wang, Associate Professor of Asia American Studies, University of California-Berkeley

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground.

HENRY DER: Nearly 70 percent of the Chinese community are foreign born, and more importantly, they all came at different times, so their perspective about American society is very different. There were those who came before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and they really had to suffer. Those who came after the 1964 Civil Rights Act have experienced discrimination, but they've also benefited.

DAVIDSON: Talking about the Chinese-American experience on this edition of Common Ground. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

Chinese began emigrating to the United States in numbers during the mid-nineteenth century when mostly young men were recruited to build the railroads in the West. There are now some 1.5 million people in the Chinese-American community. My three guests today are all Chinese-American; but as Professor Ling-chi Wang from the University of California at Berkeley explains, the Chinese-American community is very diversified.

LING-CHI WANG: Before the second world war, I would say the Chinese-American community was generally fairly homogenous in a sense that they all were speakers of Cantonese. But after the second world war, with the changes in American immigration policies, we began to attract not only Chinese from all parts of China with different languages but in fact, we attracted Chinese from all over the world—from Africa, Latin America, throughout Southeast Asia.

DAVIDSON: Professor Wang, would you mind telling us just a little bit about your personal experience when you came here? And from where?

WANG: I came from Hong Kong in 1957 after I completed high school in Hong Kong, and studied here. Well I studied undergraduate music and Semitic languages and literature in my graduate years. Then I started teaching in California in 1972. I've been teaching there since then.

DAVIDSON: Why don't I have each of you tell just a little bit about your background, your experience.

PETER KWONG: I come from Taiwan. I came to United States in 1960 for college.

DAVIDSON: This is Peter Kwong, the director of the Asia American Studies Program at Hunter College in New York.

KWONG: Since then I've been teaching mainly Politics of China and Asia American Studies.

DER: I'm American born. My parents came here to the United States as a couple the year before I was born.

DAVIDSON: My other guest is Henry Der, Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights organization in Berkeley, California.

DER: My older brothers and sisters were all either born in China or Hong Kong. And after I graduated from high school and went on to college, I worked in the Peace Corps in East Africa and decided that if I could go halfway around the world to help certain groups of citizens, that I could do the same within the Chinese-American community. So since 1971, I have been involved in civil rights advocacy in the Chinese-American community.

DAVIDSON: Is there any handle on the number of Chinese Americans?

KWONG: It's about 1.5 million.

DER: Slightly more. It's growing, yes. And it's grown rapidly and one of the...

DAVIDSON: Because of new immigration?

DER: New immigration...many new immigration legally as well as illegally at this point in time.

KWONG: Probably about 2 million now. Because most people do not realize that the large number of so-called Indo-Chinese refugees, in fact, were ethnic Chinese. They have in fact joined the so-called Chinese-American community.

DER: Many of us have actually asked the Census Bureau to do a special study of those Southeast Asians who came prior to 1980. In other words, they came during the fall of Saigon. We have asked them to do a study. We suspect that some Southeast Asians, when they filled out the 1980 census form, classified themselves as Vietnamese or other Asians. But ten years after that, in 1990, many of them transitioned and sort of strengthened their identity as ethnic Chinese.

DAVIDSON: And what difference does that make? I mean, why are you asking for such a study?

DER: Well, it's interesting to look at the changes, the diversity within the community as Professor Ling-chi Wang said, you know, we are a very diverse community. Nearly 70 percent of the Chinese community are foreign born and, more importantly, they all came at different times. So their perspective about American society is very different. There were those who came before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and they really had to suffer. Those who came after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they've experienced discrimination, but they've also benefited from equal opportunities. Those who've benefited oftentimes do not realize the history of the civil rights struggle. That, to a large extent, Chinese Americans owe a debt of gratitude to African Americans and those people who struggled for these very important laws to be enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president.

KWONG: So many new immigrants are coming since middle 1980s have no appreciation of this particular history. So in that sense then, even in terms of our self-perception, self-identification, there is a wide gap.

DAVIDSON: I'm also wanting to know, what are some of the hot issues for Chinese Americans? Is it possible to say there are some common issues?

KWONG: Well, common issues there are some, but I think still there are differences. Obviously, issues such as for the professional Chinese it would be for glass ceiling issue.

DAVIDSON: Is there a glass ceiling for Chinese Americans?

KWONG: Definitely, yes.

DAVIDSON: In what ways, I mean do you...

KWONG: In two respects. One is that when professional Asian Americans who reach a certain level are moving toward management, oftentimes they are not being selected. Or the tendency is Chinese Americans tend to be clustering in particular types of work, and mobility outside the cluster becomes very difficult. That is a very universal felt and this is one of the very very important civil rights issue. Another issue is anti-Asian violence, particularly in the working class area.

WANG: I also want to add to those Peter has mentioned. Across the country, Chinatown has become the place for really substandard wages and working conditions, because the immigrant population is now dominating the community. So it's an important issue in terms of ways our enforcement and occupational health and safety issues for a large number of Chinese American immigrants.

KWONG: Yeah. I think that's a very important issue, because the outside society has a tendency to think that the Chinese Americans are taking care of themselves. They don't want us to bother them anyway.

WANG: The model minority.

KWONG: So that model minority, in fact many of these people, are being exploited and dominated by their own people.

DER: But there's another problem that is related to poverty and substandard wages and that is crime within the Chinese community where some people are led to commit crime because they don't have full employment or they don't have access to certain kinds of opportunities. So it is a major problem, and going back to the late 60s into the 70s and episodically from time to time you have extortion of merchants, drug dealing.

But you don't hear about these things, because the American public has an idealized notion about Chinese Americans and other Chinese as Ling-chi talked about, this model minority that we know how to take care of ourselves. To a large extent there are some Chinese Americans who know how to take care of themselves. They're highly educated, they're well off, they're affluent. Then there is this other aspect of the community that really is equally hardworking, but they just don't have the opportunities. A lot of it is because of a lack of English learning opportunities, others because they're trapped in certain jobs where they can't move out. Living in substandard housing conditions is a major problem for many Chinese in the highly urbanized areas.

So there has been an effort in the last 25-30 years on the part of Chinese Americans to address these social, political, and economic problems within our own community.

WANG: The attempt has been significant; however, we are overwhelmed by the number of increase. In other words, 10 or 15 years ago we thought the conditions were bad, but now you're looking at the same community conditions even worse. So to that extent that many of us who would like to do more work in the community, we are overwhelmed with the kind of increases, the new kind of problems. For instance, ten years ago we talked mainly about people coming from Hong Kong with Cantonese speaking; now we are talking about people from mainland with different dialect and...

DER: Different skill levels.

WANG: Different skill levels. So, for instance, again in New York the school system is just overwhelmed. The school system just recently hired Cantonese-speaking teachers to deal with the Cantonese, but now the students are now speaking Fujianese. You just can't deal with this.

DAVIDSON: Do you find in these really impoverished conditions, Chinese Americans who are second, third, fourth generation or is it mainly the new immigrants that live under these terrible conditions or perhaps you know work for a substandard wages?

WANG: Generally, you're talking about first generation. However, with the declining economic standards to such extent, you're developing a bottleneck that mobility away from this kind of dire poverty is not optimistic.

DER: What's not widely known is really the increasing incidence of family violence.

DAVIDSON: Within a family?

DER: Family violence, spousal abuse, that stems from very stressful situations where the role of the genders are sort of switched around, where it's not uncommon sometimes for a male in a Chinese American family not to be fully employed, or they are severely underemployed. Contrary to the myth that you know Chinese families really hover over their kids, in terms of their studies, there are a fair number of Chinese families whose parents have to work long hours, and their kids are really unattended to. And experience...

DAVIDSON: Or perhaps the children have to work as well.

DER: Right. Or they experience problems in the educational environment that is not very good. Then teachers sort of give them a bad time, because they expect all these Chinese students to be model students. And then when they don't meet those expectations, oftentimes the educational system fails to understand or identify what their particular educational needs are.

So many of us are really trying to persuade public and private institutions to gain a much better and clearer understanding about the Chinese Americans' status and the conditions that may afflict different members of our community.

WANG: You know I think that there's a kind of irony in our society. We manage to use our school system to help wipe out the native language speaking ability of the immigrant children and then we turn around and spend millions and millions of dollars every year in college trying to educate our college students so they could be better equipped to deal with the new emerging global economy where you really need to understand the languages and cultures of China, Japan, Korea, all these countries.

DAVIDSON: That is an irony.

WANG: That makes no sense. I think our policy has to be capitalized on the kind of human resources, other kinds of resources, that we have and then try to open opportunities for these people instead of doing just the opposite, wasting human resources.

DER: There are legislative proposals right now that would literally abolish the legal immigration of Chinese immigrants and other Asian...

DAVIDSON: Completely. Is that...

DER: Well, pretty complete because the vast majority of Chinese immigrants coming to the United States come under the category of brothers or sisters...

DAVIDSON: Family members.

DER: ...of a US citizen or adult children. And the US Commission for Immigration Reform has come out with these Draconian proposals to drastically abolish legal immigration and we have over 1.3 million Asians waiting to get into this country legally.

KWONG: And what's unfortunate is people don't realize that these attacks are racially in consequence. That is to say, the 1965 Immigration Act wanted to be color blind, so the people who were excluded had the opportunity to come in. And one of the very important issues is recognizing the civil rights of American citizens to have a nuclear family. That's why you have brothers and sisters, you have parents and children.

DAVIDSON: You're listening to Common Ground. My guests are Henry Der, Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in Berkeley; Peter Kwong, Director of the Asia American Studies program at Hunter College of the City University of New York; and, Ling-chi Wang, Associate Professor of Asia American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

Professor Wang, given the sometimes American amnesia of history, maybe you could just bring us a little up to date on Chinese American history.

WANG: When they came over here, they were brought over specifically to meet a demand for cheap labor. At that time, in the South, the Blacks were still in the plantation as slaves, and in the East and the Midwest. That's where the industrial revolution was taking root. Therefore, we were absolving all the European immigrants as they got off the boat. But in the West, the vast opening of the West, had to import labor from somewhere. That's where our United States got into it. In fact, we even compelled, at least coerced, the Chinese government into signing a treaty, the so-called Burlingame Treaty of 1868, to compel the Chinese government to legalize immigration to allow the Chinese to come over here; because at that time we were trying to build the transcontinental railroad, and we were having problems.

So eventually, after the treaty we managed to bring in about 15,000 railroad workers. And, by the way, whose job of building the railroad did not end with the transcontinental railroad. In fact, they continued to build the entire railroad network in the West, in the South, and all the way to Georgia. When the Chinese were no longer perceived to be needed in California and the West, we passed the Chinese exclusion law in 1882 not only to stop the importation of Chinese but also to deny those Chinese who came over here to pick the right, the first group to be singled out for denial of citizenship naturalization rights among all the immigrants who came to America.

So the Chinese, actually the population, and like other immigrant groups, actually went on a decline with about 111,000 or so in 1880 and then dropped all the way down to its low point, about 66,000 in 1920 and then slowly began to emerge again with the sole rise of Chinese second generation. By the way, antimiscegenation law also prevented this large number of males from getting married. So some of them, in the South for instance, went down to the south after the Civil War. Some of them remained bachelors for rest of life.

DAVIDSON: Because there was no intermarrying.

WANG: Others actually married African women. Some in California, in the West married Indians and Mexicans and others would have to travel to China to maintain their family on the other side of the ocean. So when the 1965 law was finally passed which removed all these exclusionary measures against the Chinese and other Asian groups, we have people who were finally getting reunited as man and wife for the first time in their life for as long as fifty years. I know of one couple separated because they had to maintain their family across the ocean. And so the Chinese Americans essentially really were not given their full rights in this country until after 1965.

DAVIDSON: I'm curious. You three clearly are sympathetic to the plight of new immigrants, Chinese immigrants to the United States. Is that typical of Chinese Americans who've been here much longer, like people who are the second or third or fourth generations? Are they also sympathetic? And I also hate to characterize a community as monolithic, as if there is one opinion out there, but what is your sense?

KWONG: Well I think generally there was no strong position one way or the other. However, recently there are many, many people recruited exactly for the purpose of cheap labor. Many of them are under almost indentured servitude circumstances.

DAVIDSON: We know at least through the mainstream press a couple of years ago when there were boatloads of Chinese coming here, and we'd hear stories about paying for their passage by working it off.

KWONG: That's right, some $30,000. It's an extremely heavy burden. They are forced to pay it, and so many of them are forced to do any kind of work available. That has created problems in the labor market. That is to say they are displacing and driving wage levels to, in the Chinese community, even lower than ever before. Now there are resentments of that nature although the issue here is not these new immigrants...

DAVIDSON: Not against the immigrants themselves?

KWONG: Right. But the issues are actually the people who are smuggling, who are benefited, the employers who are taking advantage of the situation. In New York again we have people who are trying to organize opposition to that.

DAVIDSON: What about attitudes toward events in China itself? Is there kind of a group opinion? A recent issue was when Chinese American Harry Wu went back to China to do some undercover work in the prison camps. Was there a sense of solidarity behind Harry Wu in that the United States government should be working hard to get this American citizen, and demand the release of this American citizen?

KWONG: I think most Chinese Americans would agree, because that person is a citizen, we should support him. Though there are various degrees of support insofar as his own political activities. That's very much depending on people's understanding what he is doing and whether his political view represents others.

WANG: I agree with you. When American citizens go to Taiwan or go to China and are arrested for no reason, our government should protect them. On the other hand, if we have citizens who go to other countries and commit what is considered a crime, then I think that we cannot just unreasonably make a demand for unconditional release, which is what happened in the case of Harry Wu. That's why there was great reluctance, because a lot of Chinese Americans actually did not come out in support of Harry Wu, because they were very suspicious about what he was up to. To this day, we still do not know what really happened in the case of Harry Wu.

Yes, we are very much interested as Chinese Americans in the full citizenship and constitutional protections of all our rights as Chinese Americans. That's why we very much resent the fact that there were these foreign influences, especially for instance from Taiwan in the last 40 years, attempts to control and manipulate the Chinese American community to remain loyal to the Taiwan government and then try to use all kinds of repressive means to suppress any kind of freedom of the press reasonable expressions.

KWONG: That's one of the source that really divided the Chinese American community, and most Chinese Americans would like to be part of the American society and fully participate in it. That kind of impact is really distorting and preventing us to do the kind of work that we feel really ought to be done, political participation in this country.

DAVIDSON: I just have a final question. Is it possible to maintain the Chinese-American community and also feel fully integrated into American society?

KWONG: The issue here is this. There is a persistent perception that Chinese are insular people, that they prefer not to interact with other people, that they have their own practice and behavior, and that they don't even want to be under the same kind of legal systems. And that, I think, it's a mistake, because the Chinese Americans, just like any Americans (immigrant Americans), would want to be part of the United States. The fact that they maintain their separate community in part is the isolation imposed from outside. The kind of discrimination, the kind of stereotyping, people have of all of them. So that kind of isolation is reinforced by the external factors. I would say Chinese Americans, like any immigrant group, would want to be part of America. The persistent isolations in very large part because what they feel is discrimination and segregation.

DAVIDSON: Professor Wang, would you like to address that issue?

WANG: This is a very emotional issue for me personally, because I just think all of us are immigrants to America. Some of us came over on the Mayflower; others of us came from the China Clipper during the gold rush; and still others came in by 747 Boeing jets. But all of us wanted to create a multiracial America. The problem is that the vision that we have of America has been predominantly White male. I think we need to reenvision America so that it will become a truly multiracial America and to incorporate Chinese Americans and other groups to be part of the builders of America. See, I mean Chinese Americans have put in a lot of people, a lot of lives into the building of the United States, I literally look at the signs and technology since the second world war. How many—in all the major sciences area—Chinese Americans are among the leading contributors and builders. Of these scientific discoveries and technological advances that we have and yet we still do not think of them as part of us?

DAVIDSON: Henry Der, I'll give you the final word on this. This is a very emotional issue, I know.

DER: It is clear that we do not live in a color-blind society. We are who we are, and many people who view us sometimes look only at the color and make certain assumptions. As we started out this discussion, we're a very diverse community. If institutions do not make an effort to understand the diversity within our community, we will forever be victimized by these stereotypes and lack of opportunities that are afforded and allocated to other Americans.

DAVIDSON: Henry Der has been my guest on Common Ground. He's Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in Berkeley, California. My others guests were Ling-chi Wang, Associate Professor of Asia American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and Peter Kwong, Director of the Asia American Studies Program at Hunter College in New York. For Common Ground, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

If you'd like to share your thoughts about the program, you can write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa. The zip code is 52761.

Our theme music was created by B. J. Liederman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.


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