Executive Director, Chinese for Affirmative Action
Peter Kwong, Director, Asia American Studies Program, CUNY
Associate Professor of Asia American Studies,
University of California-Berkeley
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
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
DAVIDSON: Why don’t I have each of you tell just a little bit about your background, your
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security