Leonard on Hsu, 'The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority'

Author: 
Madeline Y. Hsu
Reviewer: 
Karen Leonard

Madeline Y. Hsu. The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority. Politics and Society in Modern America Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 352 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-16402-1.

Reviewed by Karen Leonard (University of California-Irvine) Published on H-Asia (January, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48896

Immigration History

Moving well beyond the author's description of her book as a "revisionist history" inspired by her failure to ground her family's history in "customary narratives of America's past" (pp. 252, 251), this book is a strikingly timely and significant contribution to our understanding of America's immigration policies and practices since the late nineteenth century. Madeline Y. Hsu focuses, in great detail, on Chinese students, refugees, and immigrants, but her analysis has broader implications, and, indeed, she discusses workers and immigrants from India in the final chapter.

At first, by its title, subtitle, and initial focus, the book seems to be making a special case celebrating Chinese students and political refugees as the core of a "model minority," those immigrants for whom a gateway to the United States appeared rather than a gate barring them from it. However, Hsu's material and arguments contextualize these special cases, presenting a valuable and highly political history of American immigration. Arguing that considerations of individual attainment and merit and national political and economic advantage have displaced race and national origins criteria, Hsu compels us to look again, now in the context of the Donald Trump presidency, at how criteria for immigrant and refugee admission to the United States have been set and reset over time.

Tracing the importation of a Chinese middle-class minority, Hsu highlights "the distortions and privileges naturalized and enacted through our systems of immigration controls" (p. 22). Chapters cover the early student exemption from the exclusion of Chinese immigrants from 1872 to 1925; the institutions furthering educational exchange; the repeal of Chinese exclusion in 1943; students and refugees becoming citizens after World War II and 1943; the Central Intelligence Agency-funded Aid Refugee Chinese Intellectuals Inc. agency of the 1950s; and finally the 1965 Hart-Celler Act bringing together educational exchange, economic nationalism, and immigration reform to encourage "brain drain" migrants from China. Hsu concludes that the image of Asians as a model minority has helped to blame "other communities of color for failing to attain equitable status, thereby masking ongoing forms of racial inequality in the United States" (p. 21).

One might question or criticize Hsu's assertion that American-born Chinese "did not succeed to the same striking degree as their Chinese immigrant counterparts" (p. 232), arguably failing to achieve numbers as high in high-status occupations. She highlights figures like Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Buwei Yang Chao (Zhao). The latter (with her husband Zhao Yuanren) wrote two widely read books: An Autobiography of a Chinese Woman: Put into English by Her Husband Yuenren Chao (1947) and How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945). Maxine Hong Kingston is not mentioned, although probably more Americans know her name today.

Hsu is certainly successful in her goal of deepening our knowledge of the less-researched and exceptional Chinese students, refugees, and immigrants to the United States. Far more important, in my view, is how she uses this Asian middle-class minority to illuminate the political twists and turns of American immigration and refugee policies. Hsu's careful attention to race, national origin, and class shows the ways in which religion, now a controversial variable for immigrant and refugee admission to the United States, can be considered and analyzed.

Citation: Karen Leonard. Review of Hsu, Madeline Y., The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. January, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48896

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