Mae Ngai (Columbia University), "Chinese Gold Miners and the Chinese Question in Pacific-World Settler Colonies," Histor
4 March, 2013
Chinese were part of a mobile, international workforce of gold seekers that included miners from the British Isles and continental Europeans, and North and South America. Conventional national histories of the gold rushes in the United States and Australia emphasize the role of Europeans (especially British and those of British descent), whose frontier and entrepreneurial spirit motored each nation’s economic development and political culture.Historians bracket the Chinese as an exception to this trend; if they appear in the literature at all, they are noted as objects of European and American racism but rarely as historical subjects in their own right.
Chinese miners who participated in the California and Victoria gold rushes (1850s) both came from southern China (principally Guangdong Province), and some traveled from Guangdong to Australia by way of California. In both the North American West and the Australian colonies, Chinese miners drew from mining practices from China and Southeast Asia, notably share cooperatives and small companies with merchant investors, in addition to independent mining, waged labor, and, on occasion, contract labor. Their social organization––native-place organizations (huiguan) and secret brotherhood societies (Zhigongtang in U.S. and Yee Hing in Australia)––were the common forms among diasporic Chinese. Chinese contract laborers recruited to work on the Witwatersrand gold reef in the Transvaal (1904-1910), although mostly from northern provinces and employed in European-owed deep mines, also were members of secret societies. In Australia and the U.S., these social formations enabled Chinese mining to persist apart from the wage-labor market; in South Africa, the secret societies supplied organization and solidarity that were mobilized in mass protests and strikes.
Ngai's research proposes an empirical argument against the tropes of Orientalism that have pervaded historical and historiographical understandings of late-nineteenth-century Chinese labor as unfree, whether by indenture, debt bondage, or “custom.” She also seeks to build on recent scholarship on the trans-Pacific traffic of racial politics with attention to the mining period, which was arguably foundational to anti-Chinese politics but has received relatively little attention in the U.S. compared to the later urban workingmen’s movements. She considers different inflections in local anti-Chinese politics: the “coolie” trope, ubiquitous in California, is not prominent in Victorian discourse.In Australia and especially in South Africa, the white racial prerogatives of European settlement in the temperate areas were held in tension with the demand for cheap labor in tropical-plantation or mining zones.
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