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Chinese Migrants in the Americas

At the Intersection of Resilience, Marginalization, and Hope

Cover of the book America's Lost Chinese by Hugo Wong. The cover shows the author's great-grandparents and their children in 1909. They are of mixed Mexican and Chinese descent.

America’s Lost Chinese: The Rise and Fall of a Migrant Family Dream by Hugo Wong. London: C. Hurst & Co., 2023, 364 pages. ISBN-10 1805260561, ISBN-13 978-1805260561. Available from C. Hurst and Amazon.

In this book, Hugo Wong’s goals are twofold: 1) to tell the long-lost stories of his own mixed-race ancestors and their pivotal roles in building the Americas and 2) to share insights on the possibilities of intercultural dialogue and community amid conflict, injustice, and systemic oppression. While this book is definitively historical, it is also a humanist account about the promises and pitfalls of migration and mixed-ethnic households. As a practical theologian who also specializes in critical mixed-race perspectives, I found this book to be a valuable gift when considering the roles that faith and spirituality can play in cultivating mixed-race identities.

From a critical multiracial perspective, the book highlights how narratives and laws founded upon racial purity and miscegenation severely constrained who could be with whom and perpetuated monoracism and xenophobia. The book also shows how isolating and harrowing the journey can be for descendants of those mixed-race ancestors who seem to be completely erased from the consciousness of dominant cultures. Interestingly, faith and spirituality played a major role in one of the two primary protagonists of the book, Wong Foon Chuck who experienced a radicality of love through the work of Christian missionaries. And this led him to integrate aspects of both United States cultures alongside his own culture of origin from China. Yet, even with this significant experiential dimension of Foon Chuck’s journey, he was left with cultural and philosophical questions about how the doctrines of original sin or substitutionary atonement could integrate with the ancestral reverence and worship which he was raised in. Foon Chuck did embrace Christianity though as he understood it perhaps to be “…the reason why Westerners were so prosperous, fostering trust of people of different backgrounds, allowing economic exchange and the development of society” (p. 52). Yet, this belief turned out to be somewhat of a contradiction as the anti-Asian discrimination and prejudice reached a pinnacle in 1882 resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The anti-Chinese oppression in the USA pushed Foon Chuck and Leung Hing (the other protagonist) toward Mexico with a dream to build a Chinese colony with the fiscal and political support of Kang Youwei, who was an exiled “reformer, politician, and philosopher” due to his “attempts to introduce reforms in China” (p. xix). In many ways, the project was a great success, opening up banks, schools, and legal structures to govern the area. Regrettably, the Chinese colony would meet its demise soon after it began due to the Mexican Revolution and the Torreón Massacre of 1911 (one of the most intense and violent anti-Chinese pogroms in modern history). Shortly thereafter, the Chinese were further demonized and banned from participation in Mexico, and many (including the author’s family) had to flee back to China.

Hugo Wong’s great-grandparents in 1915 with their nine children. This is four years after the horrific destruction of their colony in Mexico in the Torreón Massacre in 1911.

One of the most interesting threads of the book are the numerous ways that religion, spirituality, and faith played a key role in the protagonists’ lives and can be seen as intrinsic foundations which supported the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese colony. While this is not a primary argument of the book, it is clear from the first chapter that the humble beginnings of both characters revolved around Confucian sensibilities and a deep connection to the natural world. Consequently, the Christianity that was embraced was one which relationally welcomed the stranger as one of their own and encouraged cross-cultural interaction and even love. All of this seems to indicate a sort of a multi-religious belonging which is not purely doctrinal or based on institutional affiliation but rather an experience of the living-ness of multiple traditions which aid in empowerment, agency, and creative action. The pioneers’ influence and actions were a fusion of both their religious origins and ongoing conversion experiences. Perhaps this insight will open the door for further exploration around the faith and spirituality of migrants, which is inherently intercultural due to lived experiences and marginalizations of all kinds.

All of these tales intersect at the borders of hope, self-determination, resiliency, loss, and marginalization. In a time where great political conflicts are intensified in media and society, this book poses a warning to all those who would rather close their doors to others and the loss this entails. The challenge of intercultural relationships is certainly relevant to discussions about China and its relation to the larger world, but this challenge extends far beyond as there will continue to be a growing presence of migrants to new areas worldwide amid the presence of technological acceleration and ecological degradation. Ultimately, this is a book that is interdisciplinary in scope and proves to be a valuable resource for those in sinology, intercultural studies, as well as critical mixed-race studies. In conclusion, for all those who are of mixed-race descent and are looking to find threads of meaning in this conflictual experience, this account not only demonstrates what can be possible at the edges of luck, community, and political agency—but also the horrors of what can take place when monocultural and supremacist ideologies are enacted thus preventing the co-creation of communities of belonging for all.

Editor’s note: you can find out more about Hugo Wong, his book, and his work in this episode of the podcast New Books in Asian American Studies.

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Image credit: Courtesy of Hugo Wong. The first is Mr. Wong’s great-grandparents and their children taken in 1909; his grandmother is the little girl with a white hair ribbon on the bottom left. The in-text image is the family taken six years later. Mr. Wong’s grandmother is again seated in the bottom left of the photo.
Aizaiah G. Yong

Aizaiah G. Yong

Aizaiah G. Yong is a practical theologian, international educator, ordained Pentecostal minister, and an award-winning author of numerous books including Multiracial Cosmotheadrism: a Practical Theology of Multiracial Experiences (Orbis Books, 2023) and The Pulse of Life: Exploring the Power of Compassion in Transforming the World (Claremont Press, 2023). He also …View Full Bio

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