CRM Journal

Book Review

The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience

Edited by Franklin Odo. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2002; xv + 590 pp., expanded list of contents, index; cloth $68.50.


The long and frequently unhappy history of the dominant American culture's relations with Asian immigrants and Asian American citizens is witnessed in this volume of 155 original sources, selected and introduced by Franklin Odo, director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institution and a curator at the National Museum of American History. Included are the texts of laws, court decisions, treaties, testimony, correspondence, published articles, popular songs, pamphlets, and internal government documents that cover the Asian American experience from 1850 to 2001.

Only one document predates 1850, the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited who could become an American citizen to "free white persons." The nation's first immigration law stands as a keynote to the 154 documents that follow, for it was in overcoming its restrictions that, as Odo points out, Asian American identity was forged. The final document in the collection, a 2001 pastoral letter from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops welcoming Asian Pacific Americans, measures both the distance we have come and the distance that we have yet to go.

Odo's intent is to fill a gap in Asian American historiography by assembling and introducing a selection of original sources that "illuminate issues and events of lasting historical significance for a range of Asian American ethnic groups." Each of his six chapters begins with a brief essay introducing the period that follows. All of the entries are placed in context with a brief introductory paragraph and a note on the source of selection. The documents speak, often eloquently, for themselves.

Reflecting the historical pattern of Asian immigration, most of the selections (300 pages and 96 documents) focus on Chinese and Japanese immigration from 1850 to 1945. The first four chapters in the book cover the same period. The final two chapters and 58 selections cover the periods 1945-1975 and 1975-2001. The aftermath of September 11, 2001, is not included.

Part 1 details the period of overt hostility and conflict, publicly and privately, over Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigration in the West. It was not until 1898 that the citizenship rights of Asian Americans born in this country were affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. Part 2 carries the story from 1898 to 1924, a period book-ended by the United States' acquisition of a Pacific empire and passage of restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s. Part 3 reviews the period from 1924 to 1941, a time of accommodation and broadened citizenship for Asian Americans amid continuing white hostility.

Part 4 treats World War II in detail through 19 documents ranging from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Day of Infamy speech through the War Brides Act of 1945, which exempted the wives of United States servicemen from immigration quotas, thus opening the door to an influx of Chinese, Japanese, and European spouses. Included here is Executive Order 9066 authorizing mass internment of "110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds American citizens."

Part 5 covers the period from the end of World War II through the fall of Saigon, which saw a gradual dismantling of restrictions, a growing concern for the civil rights of citizens and resident aliens, and the emergence of ethnic consciousness in differing Asian American experiences. Part 6, the final section, covers the period from 1975 to 2001 and broadens the scope to include Southeast and South Asian Americans, although only one document represents the latter.

Odo combines a good representation of personal and popular documents with the texts of the laws, court opinions, and official documents that made discrimination a matter of public policy. The "Wedding of the Chinese and the Coon" (1897), a "comic song and chorus," is an egregious example of the sentiments that also animate the Life Magazine article, "How to Tell Japs from the Chinese," published December 22, 1941, when incidents of vigilante violence were being reported in the news of the day. Selections from 1994 and 2000—a Los Angeles Times article, "Asians Are Automatically Labeled Gang Members," and "Association of Asian American Studies Resolution on Wen Ho Lee"—speak to the persistence of ethnic stereotyping in our own time.

The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience is part of a series that includes The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, edited by Harriet Sigerman (2003); The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, edited by Paul Harvey and Philip Goff (2005); The Columbia Documentary History of Race and Ethnicity in America, edited by Ronald H. Bayor (2004); and, Freedom on My Mind: The Columbia Documentary History of the African American Experience in America, edited by Manning Marable (2003).

Odo presents this collection of original sources as a companion to Gary Okihiro's The Columbia Guide to Asian American History (2001), a collection of secondary materials, narratives, historiographical essays, and bibliographical notes. It should be noted that Odo's Documentary History stands on its own as a rewarding and revealing testimony to Asian American life. Together, the Columbia Guide and the Columbia Documentary History are useful additions to academic and public library collections. By itself, the Documentary History offers general readers an insightful tour of unfamiliar ground.

Patrick Norris
Kalamazoo Valley Museum