Past Event

Celebrating Recent Work by Mae Ngai

April 13, 2022
4:00 PM - 5:30 PM
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Celebrating Recent Work by Mae M. Ngai

The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics

April 13, 4:00pm ET


Register here for virtual attendance via Zoom Webinar

Register here for in-person attendance at the Heyman Center Common Room. In-person attendace is for Columbia Univesity affiliates with "green passes" only. Reception to follow panel.

How Chinese migration to the world’s goldfields upended global power and economics and forged modern conceptions of race.

In roughly five decades, between 1848 and 1899, more gold was removed from the earth than had been mined in the 3,000 preceding years, bringing untold wealth to individuals and nations. But friction between Chinese and white settlers on the goldfields of California, Australia, and South Africa catalyzed a global battle over “the Chinese Question”: would the United States and the British Empire outlaw Chinese immigration?

This distinguished history of the Chinese diaspora and global capitalism chronicles how a feverish alchemy of race and money brought Chinese people to the West and reshaped the nineteenth-century world. Drawing on ten years of research across five continents, prize-winning historian Mae Ngai narrates the story of the thousands of Chinese who left their homeland in pursuit of gold, and how they formed communities and organizations to help navigate their perilous new world. Out of their encounters with whites, and the emigrants’ assertion of autonomy and humanity, arose the pernicious western myth of the “coolie” laborer, a racist stereotype used to drive anti-Chinese sentiment.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States and the British Empire had answered “the Chinese Question” with laws that excluded Chinese people from immigration and citizenship. Ngai explains how this happened and argues that Chinese exclusion was not extraneous to the emergent global economy but an integral part of it. The Chinese Question masterfully links important themes in world history and economics, from Europe’s subjugation of China to the rise of the international gold standard and the invention of racist, anti-Chinese stereotypes that persist to this day.

About the Author:

Mae M. Ngai is Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and Professor of History, and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. She  is a U.S. legal and political historian interested in the histories of immigration, citizenship, nationalism, and the Chinese diaspora.  She is author of the award winning Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004); The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010); and The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (2021).  Ngai has written on immigration history and policy for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, the Nation, and Dissent. Before becoming a historian she was a labor-union organizer and educator in New York City, working for District 65-UAW and the Consortium for Worker Education. She is now writing Nation of Immigrants: A Short History of an Idea (under contract with Princeton University Press). 

About the speakers:

Elizabeth Blackmar, professor, specializes in social history of American property relations and the built environment. She received her B.A. from Smith and her Ph.D. from Harvard. Her publications include The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (with Roy Rosenzweig, 1992) and Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (1989).Articles include “Of REITS and Rights: Absentee Ownership at the Periphery” in City, Country, Empire: Landscapes in Environmental History (2005); “Appropriating the Commons: The Tragedy of Property Rights Discourse”in The Politics of Public Space (2005); “Peregrinations of the Free Rider: The Changing Logics of Collective Obligation,” in Transformations in American Legal History: Essays in Honor of Morton Horwitz (2008); and  “Inheriting Property and Debt: From Family Security to Corporate Accumulation,” in Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-century America (2011). 

Lydia H. Liu is the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She teaches in the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture and at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Her publications include The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (2010), The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004); Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (edited, 1999); Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity (1995) as well as many books in Chinese. Her co-edited volume The Birth of Chinese Feminism (2013) with Rebecca Karl and Dorothy Ko is included on the New York Public Library’s list of Essential Reads on Feminism.

Mary Lui is Professor of American Studies and History. Her primary research interests include: Asian American history, urban history, women and gender studies, and public history. She is the author of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton University Press, 2005). The book uses a 1909 unsolved murder case to examine race, gender, and interracial sexual relations in the cultural, social and spatial formation of New York City Chinatown from 1870-1920.

Moderated by: Adam Kosto specializes in the institutional and legal history of medieval Europe, with a focus on Catalonia and the Mediterranean. He received his B.A. from Yale (1989), an M.Phil. from Cambridge (1990), and his Ph.D. from Harvard (1996). He is the author of Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: Power, Order, and the Written Word, 1000-1200 (Cambridge UP, 2001) and  Hostages in the Middle Ages (Oxford UP, 2012), and co-editor of The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe , 950-1350 (Ashgate, 2005), Charters, Cartularies, and Archives: The Preservation and Transmission of Documents in the Medieval West (PIMS, 2002), and Documentary Practices and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge UP, 2012). He is a member of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique and currently serves as program director for Columbia's History in Action initiative.

Register here for virtual attendance via Zoom Webinar

Register here for in-person attendance at the Heyman Center Common Room. In-person attendace is for Columbia Univesity affiliates with "green passes" only.

This event is sponsored by ISERP, the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Dean of the Division of Social Science, and the History Department.