The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics 
by Mae Ngai.
Norton, 440 pp., £21.99, September 2021, 978 0 393 63416 7
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In​ 1852, a group of Chinese community leaders in San Francisco published a pamphlet taking issue with claims made by California’s governor, John Bigler, who had characterised the state’s 7520 Chinese migrants as servile ‘coolies’ undercutting white workers. ‘The poor Chinaman does not come here as a slave,’ Tong Achick and Chun Aching wrote in An Analysis of the Chinese Question. ‘He comes because of his desire for independence.’ Thirty years later another pamphlet, The Chinese Question in Australia, was published by Lowe Kong Meng, Louis Ah Mouy and Cheok Hong Cheong, Chinese merchants in Victoria and Melbourne. They took aim at the same Chinese ‘coolie myth’: ‘Human nature is human nature all the world over; and the Chinaman is just as fond of money, and just as eager to earn as much as he can, as the most grasping of his competitors.’

California and Australia had followed parallel trajectories: in both places the discovery of gold led to mass migration from southern China, followed by a backlash from white workers. San Francisco came to be known in Cantonese as ‘old gold mountain’ (gau gamsan), Melbourne as ‘new gold mountain’ (san gamsan). Gold brought some 300,000 Chinese workers and merchants, mainly men, to the US and British settler colonies in the 19th century – a greater number than the 250,000 Chinese who worked on plantations in the Caribbean in the decades after emancipation, even though it was the latter who dominated popular conceptions of the Chinese diaspora. In her new book Mae Ngai, a historian of Asian America at Columbia, recognises the global character of Asian exclusion. She addresses the fate of Chinese workers in the US and Australia, but also considers South Africa and the sixty thousand Chinese recruited to work in the Witwatersrand gold mines between 1904 and 1910 – a further British colonial experiment with indentured labour.

The gold rushes transformed the world economy. In half a century 435 million ounces of gold were extracted, more than the total amount in circulation over the previous three thousand years. Increased supply strengthened the British Empire and the United States, setting off what Ngai calls ‘a new stage of capital accumulation’. Engels wrote to Marx in the 1850s that the discovery of gold mines would require them to revise their theories. The ‘two cases’ of California and Australia were ‘not provided for in the [Communist] Manifesto: the creation of large new markets out of nothing. We shall have to allow for this.’ The discovery enabled an expansion of trade and finance, and much of the world adopted the gold standard in response. Since 88 per cent of gold was held in Britain and the US, this transition cemented the countries’ status as global creditors and lenders. At the same time, the value of silver held by many other economies, most notably the Qing, collapsed. Chinese purchases of silver from Latin America and Asia, which began in the 15th century, had helped unite earlier incarnations of the global market; the shift from silver to gold symbolised the transition from a world economy centred on Asia to one centred on the North Atlantic.

‘The Chinese Question was simply this,’ Ngai writes. ‘Were Chinese a racial threat to white, Anglo-American countries, and should Chinese be barred from them?’ Her book teases out a contradiction that underpinned the politics of Asian exclusion. White populations across the Pacific found Chinese migrants a threat to their economic livelihood at a time when white capitalists in the US and British colonies fantasised about employing pliant Chinese workers while also conquering Asia-Pacific trade. ‘The gold we have been allowed to dig in your mines is what has made the China trade grow up so fast,’ Tong Achick wrote in 1852. ‘If you want to check immigration from Asia, you will have to do it by checking Asiatic commerce.’ Chinese exclusion evolved as a defensive measure by white workers and politicians who saw in Asian migration the inexorable march of transnational capital.

The Californian gold rush began in January 1848 when James Marshall, a US army veteran working at John Sutter’s sawmill on the American River, claimed to have pulled a gold nugget out of the millrace (other accounts credited the discovery to a colleague of Marshall’s called Indian Jim). Within a year tens of thousands of prospectors, most of them Indigenous or locals of European descent, had moved to the hills of northern California; by 1854 they had been joined by hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers from the eastern states, Hawaii and Chile. One of the people who travelled to California was Edward Hargraves, an Englishman who had spent time in Australia. Noting the similarities between the topography of California and that of New South Wales, he was convinced that Australia must have gold reserves too. In 1851 he unearthed gold outside Bathurst, about a hundred miles from Sydney. Over the next decade, some 700,000 people followed him to eastern Australia, mostly from Europe, the US and China.

Reports of the discovery at Sutter’s mill had reached Hong Kong by December 1848. The first Chinese gold-seekers came from Siyi, on the west side of the Pearl River in Guangdong. With poor soil and a mountainous landscape, Siyi relied on remittances from migrants in more prosperous areas. This was a common pattern in China, but where others made their way to the Yangzi Delta or South-East Asia, the Siyi gold miners happened to join the Californian and Australian gold rushes early on, bringing with them village networks of relatives and friends. By the 1860s, they accounted for a quarter of all the gold miners in California and Australia. Ngai stresses that these migrations were different from earlier schemes of penal contract labour in Hawaii, South-East Asia and the Caribbean. The gold-seekers weren’t impoverished to the same degree: among them were artisans, merchants and property-owning farmers, whose access to family or clan funds helped them avoid debt bondage.

Today the town of Chinese Camp in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada has a population of just over a hundred, but during the gold rush there were five thousand Chinese miners, merchants, laundrymen, sex workers and restaurant owners, who served dishes such as pigeon pie and grilled bear. Chinese miners tended to use a tool known as the ‘rocker’, in which dirt was washed along a ridged wooden board that caught pieces of gold on the way down. It was most efficient to work in groups, dividing up the tasks of hauling dirt and water and cleaning out the gold. Although these groups sometimes had strict hierarchies, they usually shared profits: on one occasion, a team of miners was said to have broken up a forty-pound gold nugget in order to split it equally.

Chinese, white and Indigenous groups worked and lived alongside one another peacefully enough in the early years of the gold rush. The lines of racial division began to harden with the popularisation of the myth that Chinese workers were slave-like ‘coolies’. Bigler, the governor of California, claimed that these workers were controlled by ‘Chinese masters’ who held their families hostage by force. Preying on white miners’ fears of declining wages, he tried to associate Chinese migrants with enslaved Black and Hawaiian people or networks of Asian indenture in the Atlantic – the implication being that all ‘coloured’ races were inherently unfree.

Another figure whose ideas shaped the politics of Asian exclusion was the American political economist Henry George, a firm critic of monopoly capital. (Ironically, his work later inspired Sun Yat-sen, the first leader of the Kuomintang.) In 1869 he published an essay on ‘The Chinese in California’. The split between labour and capital, George wrote, was a zero-sum game, and cheaper wages paid to Chinese workers meant ‘the share of labour is to be smaller, that of capital greater.’ George’s critics – including John Stuart Mill – argued that Chinese migrants would inevitably earn higher wages over time and assimilate into the workforce. But George continued to insist on what Ngai calls ‘anti-coolieism’s central fiction’: the idea that Chinese workers were, and would continue to be, unfree.

In 1852 California introduced its first anti-Chinese law, a tax on foreign miners that targeted Chinese migrants in particular. In order to work, foreigners had to pay three dollars a month; before long, these fees provided up to a quarter of state revenues. As the mines were slowly exhausted, big capital took over the industry, and, in the wake of the Civil War, the Californian economy went into recession. White workers ‘found in the Chinese Question a racial scapegoat and a racial theory ready at hand’. They were led not by miners themselves but by white craftsmen – masons, metalworkers, carpenters – spooked by the fate of their peers in the cigar-making industry, who had been supplanted by Chinese labourers.

Earlier legislation merely tried to make it harder for Chinese immigrants to work, but the Page Act of 1875 explicitly sought to keep them out of the country. It targeted unfree ‘coolies’ and ‘slave girls’, banning contract labourers, criminals and prostitutes from immigrating to the US. This effectively barred all Chinese women, entrenching the sexual imbalance in Chinese migration (women made up between 3 and 7 per cent of the Chinese American population until the 20th century), and codifying racial and sexual tropes. The wave of legislation culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all immigration by Chinese workers, the first such law to name a specific racial group. A wave of white violence against Chinese communities followed, with 439 anti-Chinese attacks – murders, lynchings, arson – recorded across Oregon, Wyoming and the Puget Sound between 1885 and 1887.

In Australia, it took longer for warnings about Asian migration to stick. Rather than being ‘coolies’, the Chinese labourers were initially considered an ‘annoyance’. But as more arrived from Hong Kong, hostility intensified. According to the Empire newspaper, the problem wasn’t that Chinese people were unfree but that they were too free – an ‘abhorrent mass of foreign Paganism’ that threatened to ‘overrun’ the white population. The Sydney Morning Herald warned of a ‘vast influx of an inferior race, having no sympathies in common with the people whose soil they inhabit, and drawing after them countless hordes from a population practically inexhaustible’.

By 1859 there were 42,000 Chinese in Victoria, almost a fifth of all adult males. Chinese migrants began to settle beyond the eastern hubs and ventured into the Northern Territory and Brisbane. As fears of a population ‘takeover’ grew, labour antagonism was stoked by urban craftworkers and seamen. Like their contemporaries in California, these weren’t the groups directly impacted by Chinese migration, but, fearful that their jobs would eventually be threatened, they blurred occupational distinctions and replaced them with racial ones, mobilising the most destitute into a political movement against Asiatics. In 1888 public protests prevented Chinese passengers arriving from Hong Kong from disembarking in Melbourne and Sydney. Anti-Chinese sentiment helped give shape to a proto-nationalist vision of ‘white Australia’ aimed at preventing the colony from becoming another Fiji or India. When federation came into force in 1901, legislators passed the Immigration Restriction Act, a law even more comprehensive than its US counterpart: rather than focusing on labourers, it targeted all Chinese migrants. As in the US, Australia’s laws legitimised racist arguments – and racist attacks.

The gold rush in South Africa marked the ‘consolidation’ of a half-century of Asian exclusion. Gold was first discovered in Barberton, in the eastern Transvaal, in 1873. It was found in hard rock, requiring expensive chemical and mining operations to extract it. The ‘Randlords’ who owned the mines hired local Africans at first, but, finding them too expensive, they turned to Chinese indentured labourers, whose starting minimum wage was a shilling a day – less than half of what native Africans were paid, and a tenth of what white labourers made. By then, people in southern China had grown wary of work in white societies and were choosing instead to migrate to South-East Asia. Chinese merchants in Johannesburg sent letters home warning of the ‘tyrannical’ treatment Chinese labourers faced in South Africa and describing the Witwatersrand gold mines as ‘a living hell’. British agents began hiring workers from poorer provinces in the north, such as Hebei and Shandong, where years of natural disaster and unrest from the Boxer Rebellion had left locals desperate. More than 63,000 were recruited in three years between 1904 and 1907, under labour contracts backed by the threat of criminal punishment, including detention, flogging and torture – an anomaly in the age of abolitionism. The experiment in South Africa proved briefly viable, but horrific conditions led to the deaths of more than three thousand miners between 1904 and 1910. Nearly twenty thousand took part in some kind of labour action, from ‘loafing’ and desertion to rioting and destroying white dormitories, contradicting stereotypes of docility and servility.

Public anger boiled over in 1906, amid rumours of homosexuality among Chinese miners and of Chinese attacks against white Afrikaners. A white nationalist party, Het Volk (‘the people’), came to power the following year on a platform of expelling the migrant workers and enforcing a strict racial hierarchy between white Afrikaners and local Africans. By 1910, the contract workers had been repatriated. The South African government also passed new exclusion laws limiting migration. In Britain, meanwhile, during the campaign for the 1906 general election, the Liberal Party and its Labour allies criticised Chinese-South African migration as a system ‘akin to slavery’. The experiment was both an affront to the British tradition of abolitionism and a threat to white workers, and it had taken place under Tory rule. Globally, Ngai writes, events in South Africa were seen as the inevitable endpoint of a racial ideology that equated Chinese identity with slavery. Rather than a social relation or economic status, slavery was naturalised into a ‘racial condition’ that Chinese people couldn’t shake.

In recent years​ there has been growing interest in Afropessimism, a line of thought that considers white supremacy to be a transcendent force across time, originating in the violence of the 17th-century slave trade. Last spring, as reports of anti-Asian violence surfaced in the US – including the murder of six Chinese and Korean women in Atlanta – it seemed that activists were beginning to adopt a similar interpretation of Asian America: one could call it ‘Asian pessimism’. In this emergent view of history, racial animosity against Asian immigrants has an almost metaphysical character, dating back to the original expression of anti-Asian racism: the 19th-century politics of Chinese exclusion.

But the story Ngai tells inverts the assumptions of racial pessimism. White hostility was barely an issue in the early years of the gold rush: it hardened only as a result of economic duress, with the exhaustion of mines and the opening of railroads. If the trouble with Chinese migrants was the relative cheapness of their labour, this was a product of global factors – the ‘great divergence’ between Euro-American and Chinese economies in the 19th century. Even so, as Lowe, Mouy and Cheong pointed out in their pamphlet, Chinese wages in Australia were fast approaching those of white workers, refuting, Ngai writes, ‘the myth that the Asiatic standard of living was a natural – that is, a racial – condition’. What was really at stake was an emergent, uneven global division of labour that produced the impression of natural inequality.

Ngai carefully describes the specific content of anti-Chinese racism, triangulating it with racisms against Black, Mexican and Indigenous peoples, who were pitted against one another not only by white settlers but by Chinese migrants themselves: the California businessman Yuan Sheng, for instance, responded to Bigler’s talk of ‘coolies’ by stressing the distance between Chinese migrants and the ‘African race or the red man’. Others – merchants, journalists, officials – embraced the principles of competitive accumulation and individualism: Ngai draws comparisons between the statements of Chinese Australian merchants, who repeated liberal axioms about equal rights and the universality of profit-seeking, and the writings of Mill. Even amid the intense divisions of the late 19th century, there still existed the possibility of an economic and political liberal universalism in which a commitment to financial transactions under equal terms united the aspirant bourgeoisie of all colours.

Ngai’s conceptualisation of race privileges the dynamic over the static, the global over the domestic. It’s possible, however, to see some constants. What links the attitudes she describes with American and European views towards Asia and Asian diasporas more recently – all the talk of ‘model minority’ nations and peoples, Asian tigers and tiger moms – is the distinguishing trait of economic efficiency, as object of both admiration and fear. Colleen Lye has called this ‘the Asiatic racial form’. In discussions about Asia and its people, economic concerns have served as the very medium and expression of race itself. Racial stereotypes can’t simply be dismissed as groundless, however, since that would be to ignore the actual links between capital and the Asia-Pacific. Differences across groups and nations are the product of economics and history, not nature. But they are also real. The ‘Chinese question’ was intimately bound up with a momentous stage of global capital accumulation, as new fortunes were being built around the world, concentrated in the hands of Euro-Americans and exacerbating poverty and competition at the margins. And however ugly ‘anti-cooliesm’ may have been, it was also an expression of anti-capitalism. To address the exploitation of the modern world, it’s necessary to confront its racial forms and the patterns of uneven development they seek to naturalise. If the ‘Chinese question’ was, like all modern racisms, also a capitalist question, then the opposite has long been true as well.

Listen to Andrew Liu discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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