After painstakingly building a wall of laws to exclude Asian immigrants in the late nineteenth century, how and why did the U.S. repeal exclusion of Asians in the mid-twentieth century? That’s the question Jane Hong unpacks with great skill and nuance in Opening the Gates to Asia, excavating Congress’s incremental reforms between 1943 and 1965 which eventually lowered the bars against Asian immigration and naturalization. Hong’s transpacific approach uncovers important new Asian and Asian American players in legislative battles and places domestic policies within a global context, contributing to the growing scholarship on migration diplomacy. Ultimately, Hong argues, the U.S. exclusion and repeal policies shared a common objective: to bolster U.S. empire in Asia and power in the world.
LS: Jane, it’s great to have an opportunity to “speak” with you! I follow you on twitter, but we’ve never met in real life. Can you tell us something about your professional trajectory – where you are now and how you got there? Did you always want to be a professor of history when you grew up?
It’s been wonderful to connect on Twitter. That’s where I first learned about your excellent book! I live in Los Angeles, where I’m a newly tenured associate professor of history at Occidental College. Until now, geography has shaped my professional trajectory more than anything else. Berkeley was my dream grad school, but I had to stay on the East Coast for family reasons. I received my PhD from Harvard in 2013. By that time, I was already thinking of leaving academia if I didn’t or couldn’t get a job in a place I felt comfortable living long term. Miraculously, my first job was about half an hour from where I grew up in northern NJ. I left after a year to settle in LA, a city I came to love while doing research here in grad school. This kind of geography-based approach was already extremely unlikely back when I was on the market and would be even more difficult today. With all that’s happening now, I’m grateful simply to have a job I enjoy and never want to take that for granted. There are challenging times ahead.
I’ve wanted to be a professor since high school, though back then I had little understanding of what professors actually do. Like many historians, I had a wonderful history teacher who really encouraged and mentored me—Dr. Edward Michels. I initially wanted to study the Protestant Reformation because I really enjoyed that part of AP European History. For the first year and half of college, I took mostly religious studies classes and was leaning toward a RELS major. A series of U.S. history courses with Mary Lui, Crystal Feimster, and Matt Jacobson changed my mind. By the time I graduated, my plan was to pursue a U.S. history PhD, but I wanted to do some kind of public service first. I did Teach for America in Newark and lived near my family in NJ for a few years before graduate school.
LS: Your book intersects several fields of history, speaking to Asian American, immigration, international, diplomatic, and legal history – among others! Do you see yourself as situated primarily within a particular field? Which bodies of scholarship have been particularly influential in helping you to conceptualize your project?
I’ve been influenced by scholars working in all of these fields, so although I was primarily trained as a U.S. diplomatic historian, I see myself equally as a scholar of immigration and Asian American history. Harvard had a really strong program in what it calls “international and global history.” Given all the funding opportunities it provided, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do the project I did somewhere else. I also built a solid foundation in scholarship on U.S. empire that more recent studies of Asia and the Pacific sharpened. This work, by scholars including Takashi Fujitani and Paul Kramer, guided a lot of my thinking as I was revising the book. Immigration history has been a constant since college. I’m very grateful to have found IEHS as a professional home. More recently, working on the West Coast has deepened my appreciation for ethnic studies generally and Asian American Studies specifically. I spent my entire education at institutions where people are still arguing over whether ethnic studies matters; here in California, I’m in writing groups with scholars housed in full-fledged ethnic studies and Asian American Studies departments. The conversations are totally different. It still boggles my mind.
I spent my entire education at institutions where people are still arguing over whether ethnic studies matters; here in California, I’m in writing groups with scholars housed in full-fledged ethnic studies and Asian American Studies departments.
LS: I am always fascinated by authors’ acknowledgments as they often provide a glimpse into their personal networks and motivations. Your acknowledgments reveal a rich array of communal and scholarly networks. How did others sustain you in the research & writing process? I would love to hear more about your grandparents, to whom you dedicate the book. Does their story resonate with the history you tell in this book?
I’m a big fan of writing and accountability groups. My most consistent practice is a daily check-in with two professor friends on gchat; we use the tomato timer and share our goals for each writing session. I had a baby in February, so timed writing sessions while she’s sleeping have been my main lifeline. My accountability partners are both women with older kids, so it’s been invaluable to ask their advice and hear about their experiences raising kids in academia.
My accountability partners are both women with older kids, so it’s been invaluable to ask their advice and hear about their experiences raising kids in academia.
I was always close with my paternal grandparents. My father passed away from cancer when I was in kindergarten, so they were my main connection to that side of my family. My grandfather always impressed upon me the importance of knowing your history. I did an oral history interview with him shortly before he died in 2007; that recording remains one of my most treasured possessions. I would say that my grandparents’ lives in Korea testified very clearly to the power that colonialism and empire wielded to shape entire generations. For example, they were semi-fluent in Japanese well into their older age (Japanese colonial authorities outlawed the Korean language for a time), and my grandfather often talked about his wartime experiences in Manchuria. To my mind, they also embodied a lot of the contradictions that come with being older immigrants in the United States. They came to be with their children and grandchildren, not necessarily in pursuit of any American dream. They never felt fully accepted in this country. They also never claimed it as their heart-home in the way that my siblings and I do. Nevertheless, they regularly followed American news (as mediated through Korean-language newspapers and media), became citizens and voted in every major U.S. election, and ultimately spent about half their lives here. I still remember when my grandmother told me she voted for Hillary Clinton in the NY Senate race; we just giggled. They adjusted to life in America in their own way, on their own terms, and I always respected that.
I did an oral history interview with him shortly before he died in 2007; that recording remains one of my most treasured possessions.
LS: Though I encourage students to be as thorough as possible when drawing up their dissertation prospectus, I also tell them to be prepared to abandon the original plan once they start doing research as we never know where the sources will take us. Many of us have set out to write one book, and then end up writing another. Was this the book you set out to write? If so, what drew you to the topic? If not, how and why did the project change?
Yes and no. Some changes were planned, others were not. The argument and framing of the book evolved as new scholarship on U.S. empire was published. The book definitely looks different from what I originally envisioned. I dropped two chapters on Korea/Korean exclusion that were part of my dissertation and added one on the Philippines/Filipino exclusion. The Korea chapters examined why those repeal campaigns failed while others succeeded. I deleted those (and most discussion of Korea) from the book because they didn’t really fit anymore. That made me pretty sad because my interest in the topic really began with Koreans and my personal desire to understand how US-Korean relations shaped the Korean diaspora. That was what motivated my senior thesis in college, two summers in Korea, and a whole prelims field in modern Korean history at Harvard. My initial concern with Korea is a lot of the reason why colonialism was so central to the project from the beginning. The Philippine chapter was less of a surprise; I filed the dissertation knowing that I would add it after doing research in the Philippines. I finally got to go in early 2016.
LS: You did a wonderful job of finding the “hidden” players in the legislative campaigns, including government officials from various Asian countries, and showing how Asian and Asian American activists had to balance their own strategic interests with those of U.S. legislators and officials. You reveal how activists had to re-frame their claims to be more appealing to U.S. interests which sought to project an image of the US as inclusive and non-racist among Asian countries. I thought your discussion of Mike Masaoka of the Japanese American Citizens League was particularly deft and thoughtful, capturing what some saw as his accommodationist leanings but also his efforts to create pan-Asian American and cross-racial ties. How did your understanding of these key figures evolve as you wrote the book? What was lost – and gained – by their pragmatic decisions to cast their arguments in terms that US legislators would hear?
As I learned more about their lives and what they were up against, I would like to think I gained greater understanding and a more sober view of why they did what they did. It’s easy to condemn people in hindsight. But I think there’s room for greater humility and grace. It’s like all the people who say they would have been at the forefront of civil rights had they been alive in the 1960s. That’s a nice thought, but it’s just not true in all cases, especially when the majority of Americans at the time disapproved of the movement. The more important question is how we live our lives now.
That said, I’ve also been learning that when it comes to creating a more just world, pragmatism isn’t everything. There is value to dreaming big, even when your ideas are politically implausible. I’m co-teaching a first-year seminar right now on refugees, undocumented migrants, and the stateless. We just had a whole discussion (related to the Rohingya) on why it’s important for the UN and other international organizations to censure the actions of individual states, even if they don’t have the authority or power to do anything else. One very compelling reason is that evil should never be normalized.
There is value to dreaming big, even when your ideas are politically implausible.
LS: President Trump has reignited anti-Chinese arguments since he came to office. In recent months, he has targeted Chinese migrants once again, with his presidential proclamation restricting the entry of students and researchers from China. Do you see his policies as another episode in the story you tell, about the “swinging doors” to Asian migration, closing and opening according to U.S. interests? Or are we in a different period of migration policy regarding Asia?
While I see lots of continuity with the past (I am a historian, after all!), there are signs that we’re in a different era. Alarming signs. For one, “U.S. interests” now appear to be “Trump’s interests,” and that’s downright dangerous given who is currently shaping immigration policy in the White House. And for those of us who study what historian Meredith Oyen calls the “diplomacy of migration,” it’s striking that those logics don’t really seem to apply right now; that is, we can’t count on leveraging international opinion or America’s relationships with particular powers to rein in the most nativist and racist impulses because, frankly, the White House doesn’t seem to care much what other people in the world think. That should disturb us all.
“U.S. interests” now appear to be “Trump’s interests.”
LS: What’s next? Do you have another research project underway?
Yes! My second book considers how post-1965 Asian immigration has changed and is changing U.S. evangelical institutions and politics. As with so many other projects these days, it began as an effort to make sense of the 2016 presidential election; namely, why did so many self-described Asian American Christians (and evangelical Christians specifically) vote for Donald Trump? Framed more broadly, my research connects two developments that, I would argue, have reworked the racial and religious dynamics of contemporary partisan politics: the rise of the Religious Right and the demographic transformations resulting from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
My second book considers how post-1965 Asian immigration has changed and is changing U.S. evangelical institutions and politics.
There’s a huge gap separating the media rhetoric and practical realities of US evangelicalism that’s replicated in the historical scholarship, which overwhelmingly focuses on White conservatives and partisan politics. All of this obscures the fact that people of color have long made up a plurality of American Christians and have largely leaned left politically. In the last ten years, there’s been a fascinating trend of historically White evangelical organizations and institutions electing or appointing Asian Americans as their first nonwhite leaders. The National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Evangelicals (now, Christians) for Social Action are a few notable examples. These choices raise interesting questions about the politics of representation and how White American Christians do and do not engage race.
Purchase the Book Here: https://uncpress.org/book/9781469653365/opening-the-gates-to-asia/
See Jane Hong Interview Lucy Salyer Here: https://www.iehs.org/authors-on-authors-jane-hong-interviews-lucy-salyer/