A Deceased Role Model: IRIS CHANG 1968-2004

1 Jul

A year ago, Steve Cannon, the director of A Gathering of the Tribes asked me to contrast Iris Chang’s book, The Chinese in America — a narrative history of 150 years — with PBS’s three-part series “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.” The book and the video series were released just as China is emerging as an economic force and threatening American enterprise with its cheap labor costs.

Well, I tried, but I found it difficult to reconcile my American identity with my Chinese ancestry. Earlier, when I had sought psychological counseling in Chinatown for midlife traumas — losing a lucrative job at the American Museum of Natural History, imprisonment by a rich white boyfriend, homelessness, menopause and now the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center — the NYU Chinese psychiatrist diagnosed me as bi-polar. I believe this ailment, defined by western medicine, serves as an excuse to offer the quick fix of pharmaceuticals — a means of enhancing the wealth of medical professionals.

Nevertheless, I tried several opening attempts to do the reviews as follows:

By reading Iris Chang’s book, I found the many layers of history that had affected an unwanted ethnic group in America. She writes of the white government imposing the Exclusion Act, limiting Chinese citizenships in America. The book is a page-turner and after awhile one has to laugh at all the impositions of the US on the Chinese because we kept arriving nonstop. The funny thing is that the Chinese kept arriving in search of that “Gold Mountain” dream, and still we continue to leap over humiliating obstacles. I notice this especially whenever I apply for jobs through which I might ascend to the middle-class from my impoverished milieu.

Here are some of my notes upon viewing the PBS special Becoming American: The Chinese Experience:

All narrative text is written by Anglos, except for one Asian producer, Ruby Yang. The consensus is still a white man’s interpretation overseen by one Asian woman. There are a series of oral histories defending the strengths of early Chinese history in America (excluding Iris Chang) from San Francisco to Idaho.

The series uses Chinese scholars from China who are dubbed in English to explain and describe Chinese American experiences. It becomes a mixed bag of individual narrations that are linked with Bill Moyer’s sympathetic overvoice. Does this clearly define us? Overlaps of positive and negative stereotyping … One Lo fan (white devil) explains rationale of setting up a feudalistic system so that the Chinaman can work as household laborers (i.e. Hop Sing on the Ponderosa) in exchange for learning the American culture.

The historic transition waivers from black and white, good and bad, positive and negative juxtapositions. I think representations of the negative attitudes towards the Chinese outweighs the positives we have contributed to America: rail road building versus the imposition of immigration laws which limited Asian’s arrival to America or the numerous massacres of small Chinese towns in Western frontiers. Surprisingly, a foreign Chinese scholar in China knows more about Chinese American history than any of the American Chinese. Is this a reflection of differing educational values between the two nations?

Part I: When Chinese railroad workers went on strike for equal pay, the result was a $1/day. Then there is the overview of Chinese culture, the Civil War veterans’ testimonials interspersed with the Yung Wing story, a Yale graduate who ventured throughout America and complacently settled in Connecticut … . There are crisscrosses between the West and East Coast attitudes towards Chinese, a delineation of the mass white hysteria at the beginning of Chinese migration to Massachusetts, and a breakdown of “Yellow Peril” where further anti-Asian bigotry was expressed … .

This should culminate in massive defensive retaliations, but the program focuses on individual court cases that went on for 20 years as opposed to including the Confucius Plaza demonstrations in 1972 (it is always deleted and forgotten history) or the San Francisco Internatationl House demonstrations that culminated after the Black civil rights movement. This had been a personal triumph and historic moment in Asian American history. Since this only reflects a smaller population of minorities in American it just becomes tomfoolery.

What they (young, white Americans) don’t know will hurt us, as they continue to practice the same racial hatred towards us no matter how much we complain. Throughout the presentation as white and Asian professionals, those with academic credentials, explain and interject the “sad tragic” Chinese American experience with interjections by Bill Moyer’s narration. The Asian viewer must become quite displaced and passive about these enduring persecutions … .

In the program, there are so many reality checks and associations by these “scholars” that I wonder what psychological labels will be or are cast upon us. I witnessed turmoil in my grandfather’s anger as he worked, isolated for 40 years in the laundry business, under such humiliations while petitioning the US government for the arrival of his seven-member immediate family from China. Does this documentary become an apology of the politically correct? Does it make us feel optimistic about ourselves? And why do so many young Asians want to be writers? …. Their books become the “true confessions” of the Asian American experience. Something is wrong when 1 ?% of the American population must have their stories published to become visible.


Eventually, the videos describe the Asian woman’s plight as “prostitutes held against their will,” a euphuism of men’s fantasy. It is explained as a “sordid episode” in Chinese American history in contrast to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The white man explains further about the Chinese railroad workers developing and settling a Chinese community in Idaho, which culminated in a massacre. In length, the video details how in 1876 Kearny campaigned on an anti-Chinese platform, characterizing them as an economic, yellow peril ploy. This idea became ingrained and branded in every Chinese American’s experience, while the Easterners organized their labor forces against the Chinese. We were the “eager target” for the working class.

Finally, the first part of the series ends with Yung Wing exiled from America after his Yale education, and his return as an illegal alien; he lived and died in a boarding house in Connecticut.

The producers emphasize the American Gold Mountain dream by including 10-minute addendums that further prove the double-edged sword of our duel existences. It counters the impact of all the odds against us. The viewer is bombarded with the Chinese success story. These are impressionable personal journeys of Shirley Young, a marketing researcher; David Ho, the Aids pioneer; David Henry Hwang, the playwright; Shirley WuDunn, The New York Times reporter; I.M. Pei, the famous architect; etc. What more proof does one need? Do I have to continue to review parts 2 & 3 video since a pattern prompts the viewer to expect perpetual hardships in the Chinese American experience?

I tired of viewing this kind of programming and had shelved the book and videos as more trophies for my Asian American collection, until Iris Chang committed suicide on November 12, 2004.

Now, this writing becomes a memorial of a “great” American historian, a journalist, the recipient MacArthur Foundation’s Program on Peace and International Cooperation Award, the Organization of Chinese Americans Woman of the Year Award, the recipient of two honorary doctorates (from the College of Wooster in Ohio and California State University at Hayward), a wife and a mother. In addition, she has written for numerous publications, such as the New York Times, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, and has been featured in countless radio, television and print media — including Nightline, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, Good Morning America, C-Span’s Booknotes, and Reader’s Digest. She also lectured frequently before business, university and other groups interested in human rights, World War II history, Cold War history, the Asian American experience, Sino-American relations and the future of American civil liberties.

She had written and published three books. At the age of 25, Iris wrote \italic{The Thread of the Silkworm}, published in 1993. It is about a Chinese scientist, Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen. “He [Dr. Tsien Hsue-shen] was this brilliant, Chinese-born Cal Tech aerodynamics professor and the founder of the Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena,” Chang explained in an interview with Robert Birnbaum of Identity Theory

(http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum109.html). “He was actually treated quite well during W II when they heavily relied on his brain power, but then in the 1950′s he and other scientists — some Jewish American scientists who had been active in socialists clubs in the ’30s — were suddenly accused of being Communists and possibly spies despite all of their contributions to this country. Tsien was interrogated by the FBI and then put under virtual house arrest, not really allowed to leave the country and then suddenly against his will deported to China. Because he was swapped for some American POWs. Here is an example of someone who was just a pawn in this whole chess game of international politics. But the story is so compelling because the intent of the government was to heighten and preserve national security, but the irony is that by deporting him they risked national security. Tsien went back and founded the ballistic missile program in China.” This made China a nuclear power in the United Nations, and the world had to reckon China as a first-world nation.

Upon hearing stories about Nanking from her grandparents, Iris wrote the celebrated The Rape of Nanking published in 1997. In Nanking about 300,000 Chinese civilians suffered many atrocities under a force of 50,000 Japanese soldiers. To write the book she lived with many dead photos hanging in her room, reliving the history. Through her research, she uncovered the diaries of John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who set up a safe zone for the panicked Chinese civilians in Nanking. This diary was eventually published. Iris Chang and Ignatius Ding, who heads the Cupertino-based Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, attempted to seek Japan’s acknowledgement of and an apology for these atrocities committed during World War II. An article by SF Gate read, “Chang not only believed that the horrible event was in danger of being forgotten but also accused Japanese society of collective denial about it. Translated into many languages, her book galvanized a redress movement in the United States. It was lauded in the U.S. media, drew criticism from several U.S. scholars on Japan and was vilified by right-wing publications in Japan.”

Japanese Americans have received reparations for being interned in concentration camps in America during World War II, however, Japan refutes the deaths and dismisses these atrocities as part of a “propagandist” game.

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, published in 2003, is an intensively researched, spanning 150 years. Chang describes the Chinese Diaspora to America from her own perspectives in contrast to the Whiteman’s objectivity. Again, quoting from Robin Birnbaum’s interview, I find Iris Chang’s passionate words explain why there is a continuum of racial experiences:

RB: The things you cite took place in the late 20th century. People are still viewing Americans of Chinese descent as foreigners.

IC: That’s right, and even congressmen are not exempt from this. Congressman David Woo when he wanted to give a speech at the Department of Energy –ironically to celebrate Asian History month — they stopped him. They wouldn’t let him in. This was shortly after the Wen Ho Lee scandal and even after he showed a congressional identification, they wouldn’t let him in. The reason I brought up these stories was to show that these episodes of racism occur in cycles. There is a perception that the Chinese started out downtrodden and abused in the 19th century and gradually rose to the top of society as model minorities, and you see them winning Nobel Prizes and getting into our best colleges. But it is not a linear progression. Things don’t always get better. Sometimes they get worse. I find that they occur in cycles. The pattern of acceptance and abuse is closely linked with economic and political realities of that era and the state of Sino-American relations. Often when times are good and when the US is on good diplomatic terms with China, the Chinese are viewed as a bridge between the two countries. [Chinese] Americans are seen as honorary whites and as cultural ambassadors. You saw this in WW II, when China and the US were wartime allies. Also, in the mid-19th century when the US had a severe labor shortage and desperately needed Chinese manual labor. You also see backlashes at different times, such as the Korean War, when Chinese forces clashed with American forces. You saw it in the late ’90s — not a coincidence that it occurred after the disintegration of the Soviet Empire because China then became the second greatest superpower in the world, and there were concerns in the media of China rivaling the US militarily, economically and intellectually.

Later in the interview, Chang explains how she became a success:

I started off majoring in math and computer science and then majored in journalism because I knew I wanted to become a writer one day. I felt I needed the life experience and the discipline of daily journalism to get me started. And after working as a journalist I went to a writing program at Johns Hopkins. It was interesting because it was neither journalistic nor historical, but it emphasized writing style, and afterwards I was asked to write my first book, \italic{The Thread of the Silkworm}, and then I proposed \italic{The Rape of Nanking} to the publisher. \italic{The Chinese in America} is a much more ambitious project in terms of its scope, and I have learned a lot even though I don’t have any formal historical training. I have certainly amassed many historical research gathering skills in the process. I received an honorary doctorate for my work. Maybe one of these works is considered the equivalent of a Ph.D.

However, I found a website that specializes on the history of Chinese in America where Iris Chang’s book is analyzed almost sentence and determined to be poorly researched. By challenging her professionalism, this website invalidates her arguments with documents from the time and visual evidence that contradict testimonial resources. Thus her book becomes a generalization that evokes page-turning emotions of our mistreatments by mainstream society.

Check it out, and see if it matters whether she is correct.

Iris Chang was born in Princeton, New Jersey and grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Her parents were professors at the University of Illinois. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Associated Press before entering a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University in 1990. She eventually resided in San Jose, California.

To a Chinese New Yorker like myself, Iris’s life in California represents a successful middle-class life. After a whirlwind book tour of 30 cities in one year for The Chinese in America, Iris decided to write a fourth book on the American POWs in the Philippines during WWII. As she delved and immersed herself in the research, more stories of atrocities and dead photos accumulated on her walls; Iris suffered a breakdown in June. She was released from the hospital after a four-months stay. Refreshed and renewed, Iris went to Kentucky to do further research where she broke down again and was hospitalized for three days. According to Ding Ignatius in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Chang’s current project of videotaping the former U.S. prisoners of war had been emotionally taxing for her …. She, was doing research recently in Kentucky and ran into some problem,” he said. “She got really upset, and she flew home.” He did not know what kind of problem Chang might have encountered or whether it was a factor in her death. He noted that she “took things to heart” and usually became emotionally involved in the tragic stories she wrote about.

The article continues:

Iris Chang, the prominent Chinese American author and journalist … .was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said Wednesday. She was found in her car by a commuter about 9 a.m. Tuesday (November12) on a rural road south of Los Gatos … . According to County sheriff’s office of Santa Clara, Chang’s white 1999 Oldsmobile sedan was found on an isolated private road west of Highway 17 near the Cats Restaurant. She apparently had died from a single shot from a handgun.

“There was evidence that was recovered that corroborated and was consistent with a suicide,” said sheriff’s spokesman Terrance Helm, who wouldn’t disclose the nature of the evidence or if there was a suicide note. An autopsy is scheduled …

Upon further perusing the Google results for “Iris Chang,” I discovered that there are over 3,000 entries, and we get the impression that she is a perfect role model for many Asian Americans. After her sensational Rape of Nanking, she became a literary celebrity and an advocate for human rights.

Here are a few choice websites describing her career and death:


Forgotten Holocaust (Interviewed by David Gergen)

Chinese American writer found dead in South Bay

San Francisco Chronicle refused to publish Iris Chang’s rebuttal to July 26, 1998 article by Charles Burress

Iris Chang dead at 3

Author described as ‘exhausted’ before she was found dead

The damage has been done … and it is a lesson for future Asian American writers who delve in such history. One would even suspect another unsolved conspiracy, but I defray from speculation even though I question why she had a gun in her possession.

May she rest in peace

Om Padma Hum.

Susan L. Yung

December, 2004

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: