'History is not a straight line': on the Chinese Question with Prof. Mae Ngai


Hello from the 19th century!

Today’s episode features Andy in conversation with Prof. Mae Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History at Columbia University. Her new book has just come out this fall, titled, The Chinese Question: the Gold Rushes and Global Politics. She takes a story we are somewhat familiar with but presents it in ambitious, new terms, tracing three major gold rushes from the 1850s to 1900s, across California, Australia, and South Africa, and along the way, the origins of Chinese communities in the Anglo-American world:

The gold rushes occasioned the first mass contact between Chinese and Euro-Americans. Unlike other encounters in Asian port cities and on Caribbean plantations, they met on the goldfields both in large numbers and on relatively equal terms, that is, as voluntary emigrants and independent prospectors. Race relations were not always conflictual, but the perception of competition gave rise to a racial politics expressed as the ‘Chinese Question.’

This is a history of labor and migration, but it is also a book about race and racial ideology. Ngai traces the origins of politics organized around Chinese, and eventually Asian, exclusion at the turn of the twentieth century in the world’s white settler colonies. It’s a story most popularly known by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in the US, but it also had many parallels worldwide — a “global anti-Chinese ideology” that “gave rise to a global race theory,” as Ngai puts it.

We discuss the fine details of her research and then try to tease out some bigger implications of the “Chinese Question” for today.

(0:00): Mae’s own trajectory in migration and Asian American history and how she came to undertake this project.

(15:30): We dig into the Chinese Question: how did Mae wind up writing about Australia and South Africa? what was the “coolie myth” that dogged Chinese migrants in the 19th century? how did “free soil” and “anti-slavery” politics dovetail with racist exclusion laws? if Chinese migrants were not “coolies,” then what was life really like on the gold mines?

(44:15): The theoretical stakes of the Chinese Question: how to think about ‘race’ historically and the political value of doing so; Mae’s intervention into the headlines about anti-Asian violence during Covid; thoughts on the “racial pessimism” trend in academia and popular media and the relationship between “anti-Black” and “anti-Asian” racism; the “Chinese Question” today, e.g., the China initiative at universities, ongoing US-China tensions, and the flexible class politics of its racial ideology.

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