BOOK REVIEW: Lone Star State Asians, a rich and varied history

ASIAN TEXANS: OUR HISTORIES AND OUR LIVES

Edited By Irwin A. Tang

(Austin, Texas: The It Works, 2008, 416 pp., $35, hardcover)

Who would ever have thought that there were one million persons of Asian ancestry living in Texas? Or that they have had such a stunningly rich and varied history? Well, pardner, this is what you can learn from the book “Asian Texans: Our Histories And Our Lives,” which blows sky-high all stereotyped images of the state as composed entirely of 10-gallon hats, chile and oil billionaires.

This volume, assembled and self-published by writer and activist Irwin A. Tang — himself a native of College Station, Texas — with chapters drafted by a diverse cast of community historians and university professors, offers an accessible and absorbing history of seemingly every Asian group in the Lone Star State. Coverage ranges from Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese (the first immigrants) to Vietnamese and South Asians (today’s most numerous Asian populations) and beyond.

The book is well worth acquiring for the wonderful stories and nuggets of information spread through it. A chapter on Indonesian Americans, for example, opens with the story of the Javanese sailors who jumped ship in New York during 1946 (escaping service on Dutch ships rerouted to Indonesia to put down the revolt for independence) and were then incarcerated by the Justice Department alongside Nikkei at the Crystal City camp in Texas. Isolated and unable to speak English, they passed much of their time watching Hollywood films. In the chapter on Indian Americans, the book describes how immigrants (including those expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s) were able to get visas under then-prevailing federal law by purchasing hotels (for a $10,000 down payment) which they then proceeded to resell to newly arriving family members. The result was that after several years a majority of motels in Texas were Indian-owned, with a sizable chunk run entirely by people named Patel!

The book contains many enlightening sections for specialists on Japanese Americans. Thomas Walls, author of “The Japanese Texans,” devotes a set of chapters to the state’s historic Japanese community. In the Brownsville area, most notably, the Saibara family invested in agricultural property and developed a native rice industry. There is also a section on World War II and the aforementioned Crystal City camp.

Perhaps most striking is the book’s discussion of Texas as a borderland entry point for Chinese and Japanese immigrants during the period when they were excluded from legal entry. Asian communities grew up in Mexico, where immigrant men married local women, set up stores and businesses and raised families.

At various times Asians, both newly arrived and Mexican-born, crossed over into Texas. Some sought greater opportunity, while others fled race-based persecution south of the border. The book provides a fascinating portrait of the Chinese who sought asylum in Texas during the years of the Mexican Revolution. The guerilla chief Pancho Villa gained such a fearsome reputation for leading anti-Asian pogroms, that U.S. officials in Texas suspended the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in order to shelter them — even as Chinese workers volunteered to join Gen. John Pershing’s punitive 1916 expedition into Mexico to capture Villa.

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