Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands
By Kornel S. Chang
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
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THE MAKING OF A CHINESE TRANSNATIONAL MANAGERIAL ELITE
IN 1862, CHIN GEE HEE began a journey that would take him from his rural village in Guangdong province, China, to the various frontiers of the North American West. Inspired by the dream of "Gold Mountain"—the ubiquitous myth that spurred the mass movement of Chinese to the Anglophone settler world in the mid- and late nineteenth century—Chin Gee Hee joined the California gold rush with the hopes of striking it rich. Upon his arrival he headed straight to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where visions of gold-paved streets quickly yielded to the harsh reality of labor and toil. After six years, Chin Gee Hee gave up on mining and crisscrossed the North American West, bouncing from one seasonal job to the next. He eventually left the world of migrant labor for good to become one of the leading merchant contractors in the Pacific Northwest. Commodifying the transpacific spaces that he had once traveled and traversed, Chin Gee Hee helped develop an international market in labor that connected rural villagers in southern China to the railways, mines, fisheries, and mills in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Alaska.
At first glance, Chin Gee Hee's personal journey would seem to recycle the conventional beginnings of early Asian American history, of gold rushes and railroads. But these dominant narratives of Chinese migration to North America, which are almost always framed in terms of its significance to national history—as part of the "winning of the West" or the unification of an internal marketplace—fail to capture the far-flung connections and broader histories that made Chin Gee Hee's life possible. His mobility and movement and those of his contract laborers followed the multiple pathways spawned by empire. By the mid-nineteenth century, China was the site of intense imperial rivalry, the center of competing Euro-American colonial projects in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The "opening of China" signaled a crucial moment in the history of Western expansion, as the dream of tapping the fabled China markets, centuries in the making, finally appeared to be in reach. But markets were not the only enticement; Western imperial powers were also lured by China's seemingly inexhaustible supply of laborers. In 1852, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward insisted that the "North American continent and Australia are capable of sustaining, and need for their development, five hundred millions," but their populations were "confined to fifty millions," meanwhile, lying in Asia were "two hundred millions of excess." The abolition of chattel slavery made the question of who would furnish the labor in the mines, plantations, fisheries, and woods of colonial America, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific more than a mere abstraction.
As Euro-American powers reached deeper into China, searching for new sources of labor as well as new markets for their goods, the country and its people became increasingly integrated into an imperial circuitry of trade, migration, and communication. The imperial enterprise hinged on its ability to move people and goods across vast expanses of space and time, to fill gaps and needs in distant parts of empire. The functioning of the empire, as one scholar points out, "was dependent on these intercolonial exchanges." In the Pacific Northwest, imported Chinese labor was critical to the region's development, having built the infrastructure—railway lines, streets, and ditches—that powered an extractive economy there. The commodities that their labor helped produce were, in turn, sold internationally with China serving as a vital foreign market, one that was forcibly opened under the terms of an Anglo-American "Open Door" policy.
The connections that gave rise to the migration of Chinese laborers to the Pacific Northwest were, then, the product of networks created by empire that connected frontier expansion in the North American West to Western imperialism in Asia and the South Pacific. Chinese migration did not, of course, begin with the "treaty ports"—the Chinese had a long tradition of mobility and moving abroad as strategies for social mobility, and family and kin survival—but western encroachments intensified and accelerated the process, producing widening channels through which Chinese migrants would flow to the hinterlands of North and South America, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.
These imperial networks were not, however, solely the handiwork of Euro-American colonizers. Their organization and maintenance required the assistance of native middlemen, the incorporation of a transnational Chinese managerial elite into empire building. In the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, a Chinese mercantile elite played a crucial role in establishing imperial nodes and facilitating traffic across them as they distributed migrant workers to sites of labor scarcity and opened Asian markets for Western goods. In circulating overseas Chinese labor, and as protagonists in the opening of East Asian markets, Chinese merchant contractors like Chin Gee Hee performed concrete work on behalf of the empire, mediating the flows and exchanges that energized colonial development in the North American West and across the Pacific.
But if they served as agents of empire, by extending the reach of U.S. and British imperialism into China, and Asia more broadly, they simultaneously undermined the colonial project by organizing subversive forms of mobility that challenged national-state sovereignty and by appropriating "barbarian" methods to enhance their individual positions and their nation's position within this imperial formation. As Michael Geyer and Charles Bright forcefully argue, "imperialism was also able to exist because Indians, Egyptians, Argentines, Chinese, Persians, and Africans helped make it happen, and not simply as lackeys and dupes but pursuing strategies of renewal that synchronized in the web of European-dominated global regimes." These cross-cultural collaborations and alliances were therefore highly contradictory and fraught with tensions, falling into the netherworld between collaboration and resistance.
This chapter explores two exemplars of this Chinese transnational managerial class whose lives and fortunes were intimately bound up with Anglo-American imperial expansion in the Pacific Northwest and across the Pacific. Chinese middlemen Chin Gee Hee of Seattle and Yip Sang of Vancouver played profoundly important roles in greasing the proverbial wheels of imperial commerce, managing the international linkages and labor and capital flows that integrated the British and U.S. empires in the Pacific. By tracing the ways leading Chinese middlemen made the empire and how the empire, in turn, made Chinese middlemen, this chapter resituates immigration history within the multiple and overlapping histories of frontier expansion, the globalization of capital and empire, and the territorializing process of state formation in Canada and the United States.
IMPERIAL PROJECTIONS AND FRONTIER DEVELOPMENT
Starting with the maritime fur trade in the eighteenth century, Euro-American entrepreneurs and traders had searched for ways to extract, commodify, and profit from the vast natural resources of the Pacific Northwest. Early travel writings chronicled the immense potential of the region, opening this remote corner of the northern Pacific to Euro-American exploitation and expansion. In one such account, written in 1857, James Swan observed that "its numerous and inexhaustible mines of bituminous coal, its quarries of marble and sandstone, its rich gold and lead deposits, and its unrivaled water privileges offer great inducements to the capitalist, whether as manufacturer, trader, or ship-owner." All that these pristine lands and this untapped natural wealth needed, he argued, were "men and means." The railroad magnate James J. Hill later remarked similarly that the region "has within itself an abundance of wealth, in the water, in the fields, in the mines, and her forests," contending that the "permanent and great prosperity will come through the development of these resources."
This vision of exploiting and settling the Pacific Northwest started to become a reality with breakthroughs in transportation and communication during the late nineteenth century. The technological revolution that accompanied the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.), extending from Montreal to Vancouver in 1885, and the Great Northern Railway, connecting St. Paul to Seattle in 1893, paved the way for large-scale extraction and production of natural resources in the Pacific Northwest. The C.P.R. opened a north-south feeder line from Vancouver to Seattle shortly thereafter, integrating these frontiers into a binational borderland economy. The railroad companies also began to provide regular steamship service to transpacific ports in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and the Hawaiian Islands. The interlocking network of railroads and steamships linked the region to the rest of the continent and to more distant markets around the world. "Modern invention found the ocean a barrier and made it a highway," is how one early Washington settler put it. This conquest of distance enabled resource exploitation and production to accelerate rapidly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a result, the region's identity became associated with that of a colonial hinterland, a place known to extract and furnish raw materials for more advanced economies on the East Coast and across the Pacific, an empire of extraction.
By the turn of the century, Washington State was one of the nation's leading producers of several key natural resource–based commodities. The logging and milling industries benefited overwhelmingly from the arrival of the railroads. Prior to the completion of the northern transcontinental railroad in 1893, Washington was average among states in the union in timber production, manufacturing about 160 million board feet of timber per year. By 1910, however, the emerald state produced over four billion board feet of timber per year, an output that led the nation. Logging and milling companies emerged as the state's leading employers, with their payrolls accounting for more than 50 percent of all salaries and wages in Washington State prior to the First World War. Salmon canning also developed into an important extractive industry during the late nineteenth century. In 1877, canneries on the Puget Sound packed about 5,000 cases of salmon. Two decades later, there were sixteen canneries on the Puget Sound packing almost a million cases of salmon to sell on markets at home and abroad. The state's rapid commercial expansion was accompanied by a demographic surge led by immigrants. Between 1900 and 1910, fueled mainly by the infusion of people from outside the state, the population of Washington State doubled—a growth rate six times that of the national average.
Global capitalism encroached upon and transformed British Columbia as well, placing its equally rich natural resources in reach of the world economy. As it was the case with Washington State, railroads fueled the growth and the development of the region's far-flung hinterlands. Between 1900 and 1913, revenues from commercial timber rose from $136,000 to more than $2 million per annum. Commercial fishing also emerged as an important industry in British Columbia. There were close to eighty salmon canneries in the 1890s, mostly located on or around the Fraser River. Although the salmon runs proved to be highly unpredictable, British Columbia canneries still managed to pack more than a million cases of salmon valued at close to $5 million in 1897. Forestry and salmon canning, along with mining, constituted British Columbia's economic base. The total value of the region's output from manufacturing, forestry, mining, fishing, and agriculture went from a little over $8 million in 1881 to over $22 million in 1891 and almost quadrupled to $84 million in 1901. Here, too, a settler society began to take root as a diverse array of immigrants began to pour into the province. At the turn of the twentieth century, four out of five residents in British Columbia were new arrivals.
In 1907, Daniel Lincoln Pratt, writing for The Westerner, paid homage to the region's rapid growth, extolling the "big undertakings" and the "large scale" of industrial development in the Pacific Northwest. Since the railroad was considered the harbinger of modernity and industrial progress, Pratt focused on the fact that "there are more miles of new railroads planned for the State of Washington than any other in the union" and that "Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Montana are also being crisscrossed and belted by steel rails" to predict that the region stood on the brink of a mighty economic expansion. Yet, the scene in Seattle and its surrounding hinterlands in 1873—the year of Chin Gee Hee's arrival—was of a sleepy backwater mired in muddy flats, impassable roads, and thick forest cover that hardly portended a thriving extractive economy that would reach across the Pacific. Indeed, what was to become the premier city in the Pacific Northwest was little more than a tributary at this time, outfitting the logging and mining camps in its surrounding hinterlands with supplies it received from San Francisco. This is to say that the settlement and exploitation of the region was neither preordained nor natural, the rhetoric of boosters notwithstanding: There were railroad tracks to be laid down, rivers and lakes to be connected, and hills to be shaved, before the region's vast natural wealth could be tapped and consumed by global capitalism. Indeed, the exploitation of nature would require a commensurate exploitation in people: "The handling of picks, the digging of ditches, [and] the swinging from nine to ten hours a day of a heavy shovel" involved "rough, strenuous labor on the part of many thousands of men," as one industrialist put it.
Fortunately for developers, just as they were beginning to pour capital into the region, Euro-American imperial incursions into Asia spun new global circuits of labor and capital through which overseas Chinese were channeled across the Pacific. Following the First Opium War in the 1840s, the Ch'ing dynasty, under duress from Western imperial powers, signed a series of unequal treaties opening southern China coast ports to foreign capital. In carving up China into spheres of influence, Western imperial powers were not only interested in opening overseas markets but also in locating new sources of labor for their newly acquired colonies. As Philip Kuhn explains, "the settlement forced by Britain on the Qing government established a framework of special privilege for Westerners in China-coast ports, where labor recruitment was then able to flourish largely unhampered by Chinese laws." China made an additional round of concessions on this score at the end of the Second Opium War. In 1866, Britain and France signed the Chinese Labor Immigration Agreement, which permitted foreign emigration agencies to recruit laborers in coastal Chinese ports. Not to be left out, the United States negotiated the Burlingame Treaty two years later, which regularized Chinese immigration to America.
In this reconfigured China, politically and spatially realigned by Western imperialism, the "treaty ports" and the colonial hubs of Hong Kong and Macao emerged as important new nodes through which Chinese migrants would flow to new destinations both inside and outside of the British imperial system. The labor trade that emerged at these sites was organized by Chinese merchant companies, the Jinshanzhuang, or Gold Mountain firms, which collectively gave rise to a transnational network of creditors, merchants, and laborers that were bound together by ties of kinship and native place. Native participation in this commerce would result in the systemization of Chinese migration, the creation of a permanent infrastructure that would ensure the perpetual migration of Chinese across the Pacific. Within this system, Hong Kong emerged as the central node for Chinese migrating to the Western Hemisphere.
The primary, though by no means exclusive, method by which earlier Chinese migrants came to the American West was through the credit-ticket system. This labor migration system was embedded in international trading and credit networks and native-place associations stretching across the Pacific. Creditors and transportation brokers in Hong Kong provided Chinese migrants with the cost of passage to the United States and then transferred or sold the debt (including interest) to affiliated companies and associations in San Francisco. Upon their arrival, Chinese merchants furnished the newcomers with lodging, food, supplies, and jobs. In between were passage brokers who facilitated the transaction from one side of the Pacific to the other. The functioning of this complex system of mobility and exchange rested on its ability to ensure that laborers repay their creditors. As historian Madeline Hsu and others have shown, it ultimately worked because their debt was guaranteed "not by contracts but by relationships based on kinship or native-place ties," and thus the indebted Chinese migrant was accountable not only to his creditor but to a much wider (and more intimate) web of relationships. Some migrants found ways to circumvent the credit-ticket system by raising funds on their own, typically from family or kin members, who viewed the advancing of this money as an investment. All told, close to 40,000 Chinese laborers came to California during the gold rush of the 1850s through one of these methods.
Excerpted from Pacific Connections by Kornel S. Chang. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Brokering Empire: The Making of a Chinese Transnational Managerial Elite 17
2 Contracting Between Empires: Imperial Labor Circuits in the Pacific 54
3 Circulating Race and Empire: White Labor Activism and the Transnational Politics of Anti-Asian Agitation 89
4 Pacific Insurgencies: Revolution, Resistance, and the Recuperation of Asian Manhood 117
5 Policing Migrants and Militants: In Defense of Nation and Empire in the Borderlands 147
Epilogue and Conclusion 179
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