In the introduction to The Chinese in America, popular historian Iris Chang identifies her interest in the Chinese-American experience as stemming in part from her own childhood frustration with peers who insisted on seeing her— the daughter of Chinese immigrants in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois—as foreign, an outsider. That phenomenon, of course, persists today. Chang notes that when American Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan lost a competition to a teammate, MSNBC's headline read: AMERICAN BEATS OUT KWAN.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that the narrative in The Chinese in America is too often drowned out by Chang's shrill homilies on the politics of identity . In a discussion of the formation of benevolent associations in San Francisco's Chinatown, she writes: "The white man's government had demonstrated that its mission was to suppress, not protect, Chinese interests." At times, her legitimate attempts to tackle negative racial stereotypes get lost in a flurry of equally clichéd—and occasionally jingoistic—tributes to Chinese-ness. After quoting an American who is impressed that the first foreign-language newspaper in his town is Chinese (despite large populations of French and Germans), Chang writes: "If this historian had been aware of the Chinese respect for education, he might have been less surprised." And in a section on the construction of the transcontinental railroads, she suggests that Chinese workers were willing to handle dangerous explosives because they were "a people experienced with fireworks."
Chang is at her weakest when writing about the history of China itself. Her sketch of the country her subjects left behind reads sometimes like an overly romantic travel guide and at others like a nationalistic mainland textbook. On one page, China's borders include Tibet and Xinjiang (which were by no means part of China throughout all 5,000 years); two pages later, without respecifying her geographic boundaries, she writes that "out of the welter of dialects only one written language had emerged." What about Tibetan, Uighur, Mongolian? Chang is particularly hard on the Manchus, the northern-dwelling nomads who conquered China in 1644 and established the Qing dynasty. Chang correctly notes that the Manchus required their Han subjects to wear their hair in queues. But she calls this "a badge of their humiliation"—failing to mention that the Manchus wore their hair the same way. For someone so aware of the dangers of misrepresentation, Chang ought to know better. Still, it's a testament to the power of Chang's subject that the history of the Chinese in America comes through with power and pity—even from a book that, in its determination to rectify past inaccuracies and insults, introduces its own.