BOOK REVIEW: 'A Chinaman's Chance: One Family's Journey and the Chinese American Dream': What It Means to be a Chinese American Today

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

To put it simply: America makes Chinese Americans, but China doesn't make American Chinese -- Eric Liu, in the epilogue (Page 209) of "A Chinaman's Chance"

That formulation in Eric Liu's "A Chinaman's Chance:  One Family's Journey and the Chinese American Dream" (PublicAffairs, 240 pages, bibliography, index, $25.99) is vital to grasp Liu's view of what it means to be a Chinese American -- and by extension, any kind of American.

BOOK REVIEW: 'A Chinaman's Chance: One Family's Journey and the Chinese American Dream': What It Means to be a Chinese American Today

He backs up his assertion in a relatively short book (I didn't want it to end!)  that combines a family memoir with essays on the ultimate inclusiveness of the U.S. -- despite a despicable history of prejudice and exploitation of Chinese in the nation that led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act forbidding their admittance. 

The exclusion act, which had bipartisan support in Congress, marked the first time in the history of the U.S.  that a  "group by race from entering our territory, let alone from ever becoming citizens," he writes (Page 109). The exclusion act wasn't repealed until 1940! Considering the woeful state of history instruction in our schools, I'm guessing that very few Americans are aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I don't recall reading about it in my high school history classes in Illinois in the 1950s.

One part of the book that particularly intrigued me was the anti-Chinese racism of San Francisco Irish American Dennis Kearny (Pages 111-116). Liu describes how Kearny refused to debate a Chinese American citizen on the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Liu mentions a 1995 book by Noel Ignatiev  that I've heard of -- but not read -- "How the Irish Became White".  Here's an essay on the subject: 

Ignatiev writes that Irish immigrants became "white" by showing "the WASP power structure in word and deed that they, too, were willing to trample blacks," Liu writes. "The same story, substituting yellow for black,  obtained in California. The Irish made themselves insiders by leading the stigmatization of the most marginal of the outsiders." (Page 112).

What jumped off the pages of "A Chinaman's Chance" to me was the success story of his father and his five uncles in their quest for education and employment in America.

Liu's father rose to the middle ranks of management at IBM, while his uncles achieved success in businesses and academia in the U.S. Most of them eventually returned to Taiwan, where they didn't experience the glass ceiling they faced in the U.S. 

One uncle -- "Uncle No. 5" -- even became the prime minister of Taiwan. Liu's grandfather, Liu Kuo-yun, born in 1908,  was a legendary Chinese general, fighting the Japanese and the Communist Chinese; the general's widow-- Eric Liu's beloved "nei nei" -- Wan Fang Liu-- is still alive at 101 and lives in Taiwan.

Eric Liu himself is a success story for first generation Chinese Americans: He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He's an author of best-selling books like "The Accidental Asian" and the book under review. He's a contributor to The Atlantic magazine and a correspondent for

While the book is serious, it's also full of  humor, as he tells how his mixed-race teen-age daughter Olivia joshes him about his Tiger Father tendencies. The book's title came from his father, who died at the young age of 61. Liu says his father used the politically incorrect phrase -- which originated in racist 19th Century California and which means "no chance at all" -- to describe a variety of situations, including getting to the store on time before it closed.

Liu  discusses Amy Chua's best-selling "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" as well as  "The Triple Package" by Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, published earlier this year. Liu says culture is a "coarse and deceptive filter. If it were true that Chineseness alone conferred this 'triple package' advantage, then all Chinese Americans would be thriving. That's how it may seem in the popular imagination. But it's just not true. There are hundreds of thousands of  Chinese Americans, and not just in Chinatowns, stuck in poverty or struggling to get a fair shot in life."

It's the other side of the "Model Minority" coin, he writes, noting that the poverty rate for Chinese Americans is higher than that of other Asian Americans -- and higher than that of whites. And while majority white America insists that merit alone should govern the admission of high school students to selective universities, the argument blows up in their faces when Chinese Americans and other Asians end up with a disproportionate share of students at universities like UCLA.

I was delighted to find that, like me, Liu loves counterfactual fiction, including Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" which deals with the persecution of American Jews when Charles Lindbergh is elected president. (Liu says it was 1932, but it actually was 1940 when  Roth writes that Lindbergh defeated FDR-- who was seeking a third term). 

(for my Nov. 15, 2004 review of "The Plot Against America":

The discussion of Roth's novel leads to the often made comparison of Chinese Americans with the success of American Jews.  He discusses this on pages 159-160, saying that the Jewish immigrants who created what Neal Gabler called in his book "An Empire of Their Own" -- the motion picture industry -- did so because there was little or no competition. 

Nobody thought much of the early 20th Century nickelodeons and their crude films, which allowed immigrant Jews and their sons to create the "empire." Today, he writes,  the fragmentation of our civic and aesthetic life pretty much precludes any single immigrant group from dominating an industry the way Jews did in Hollywood.

But Liu undercuts his own argument by citing fashion industry icons of Chinese origin like designers Alexander Wang and Jason Wu and editor Eva Wang. (One Wang he didn't mention was Vera Wang, the one I'm most familiar with). But then again, he's got a point: No single ethnic group dominates fashion, although Jews like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and  Ralph Lauren are among the 48 pages of "Jewish fashion designers" listed in Wikipedia. ( Forty-eight pages sounds like an empire to me, with people like Kenneth Cole, Isaac Mizrahi, Marc Jacobs, Anne Klein, Arnold Scaasi, Diane von Furstenberg and many others populating the "empire".

I was aware, dimly, of many of the topics in "A Chinaman's Chance," but not of the details of the exclusion act. This is an eye-opening book that should be read by everyone. To top it off, it's entertaining.


Eric Liu
Eric Liu

About the author

Eric Liu is founder and CEO of Citizen University. His books include "The Accidental Asian", a New York Times Notable Book; "Guiding Lights", the official book of National Mentoring Month; and "The Gardens of Democracy" (coauthored with Nick Hanauer). Eric served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for and lives in Seattle with his family. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu. 

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