This is a work of towering ambition, which led Ms. Ngai to scour archives on five continents and to familiarize herself with several national histories to complement her primary expertise in U.S. history. There is good reason that many professional and popular historians opt for more narrowly drawn accounts of discrete events or individuals. But the payoffs of Ms. Ngai’s comparison are notable, among them the challenge to American exceptionalism as well as the illumination of key differences between her case studies ... While Ms. Ngai is a lucid and elegant writer, The Chinese Question is not a late-summer beach read. All the same, her audience will appreciate how she gracefully threads revealing episodes and anecdotes into her analysis ... Ms. Ngai’s study is a book for our time, reminding us of the increasingly interconnected global economy that—since at least the 16th century—has enriched select peoples, empires and nations at the expense of many others. As important, it offers critical context for what Ms. Ngai describes in her book’s epilogue as The Specter of the Yellow Peril, Redux, marshaled by both major U.S. political parties and shared by a wide swath of the American public that fears, among other things, China’s ownership of American debt as well as its grip on the U.S. import market. Such anxieties, the origins of which Ms. Ngai so skillfully traces to the era of the gold rushes, help to explain the surge in anti-Chinese racism around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic.
... meticulously researched ... Excavating rich deposits of the past, Ngai has certainly made striking discoveries ... making the Chinese Question central to global politics and economics is not the most noteworthy accomplishment of Ngai’s important book. From John Bigler riding the issue of Chinese exclusion successfully to the first California governor’s office in 1852 to the role that the Chinese Question played in the landmark 1906 victory by the Liberal Party in Britain, not to mention modern politicians who routinely bash China as a vote-getting ploy, Ngai’s narrative recounts events that sound all too familiar today. The Chinese became mere pawns in a cynical political game ... To be sure, the narrative pace is somewhat uneven and Ngai is not always successful in keeping a balance between her dry data and her storytelling. Still, her book is a deep historical study, and a timely re-examination of the persistent Chinese Question in America and elsewhere.
Though Ngai’s account is global in scope, she also provides fascinating details about quotidian life in these far-flung diasporic communities. She notes inter-racial and same-sex relationships among the Chinese migrants. She provides names and physical descriptions of individual miners, advocates who resisted discriminatory policies, and mine bosses who cheated and flogged Chinese miners if they didn’t meet the ever increasing labor demands ... This meticulously researched history spanning nearly two centuries reveals how the Chinese Question has been deeply embedded in Anglo-American global views of China ... shows how entire countries can fall prey to old racialized narratives that may lead to unintended and dangerous consequences. Ngai’s is a cautionary tale in today’s increasingly interdependent and fragile world.