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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013), Contested Migrations is now available! The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Mariam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, Maude Lapierre, J. I. Little, David Williams, and more.

Extending Asian America

  • Marta Lopez-Garza (Author) and David R. Diaz (Author)
    Asian and Latino Immigrants in a Restructuring Economy: the Metamorphoses of Southern California. Stanford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Lane Ryo Hirabayashi (Editor), Akemi Kikiumura-Yano (Editor), and James A. Hirabayashi (Editor)
    New Worlds, New Lives: Globalization and People of Japanese Descent in the Americas and from Latin America. Stanford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Lily Cho

That we need to extend our ideas about “America” in order to reflect more accurately the South as well as the North is not new. Postcolonialists, andLatin Americanists among others have long insisted that critical work on “America” must also recognize the differential relation between the North and the South. Yet despite the push to look southward by critics such as Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Lisa Yun and Richard Laremont, Asian American studies remains largely focused on Asians in North America. Part of the project of extending our understanding of Asian America lies in the necessity of thinking of minority communities as articulated by each other and to look at the complex relations between these populations and across different geographies. Both New Worlds, New Lives and Asian and Latino Immigrants in a Restructuring Economy admirably accomplish the important work of insisting on the complicated relations between migrant populations while at the same time making a powerful case for the need to extend our understanding of “America” in Asian American studies. Both of these books challenge the northern bias in contemporary Asian American studies and demand that we extend our understanding of Asian America to more rigorously embrace the experiences of Asian communities in South America and to understand Asian migration to North America as crucially related to Latin American migration.

New Worlds, New Lives charts the trajectories of Japanese migration both to and from the Americas. The book emerges from the long term research work of the International Nikkei Research Project, a project closely associated with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. While its editors had originally planned to focus on Japanese migration to the Americas, they acknowledge the necessity of attending to the migrants of Japanese descent (300 000 by 1991) “returning” to Japan as temporary workers, or dekasegi, in search of better opportunities for work. Thus the strength of this collection lies not only in its broad understanding of migration to “America” but also in its addressing of a fascinatingly racialized labour migration phenomenon, which complicates our understanding of globalization and the identities of temporary workers. Essays such as Jeffrey Lesser’s exploration of Japanese-Brazilian migration or Audrey Kobayashi’s examination of the profoundly gendered effects of Japanese migration to Canada usefully take up the globalization rubric which Hirabayashi, Kikumura-Yano, and Hirabayashi set out. Consisting of 18 detailed case studies against which the editors’ propositions regarding the impacts of globalization on Japanese identity can be tested, this collection represents an important contribution to our understanding of race, migration, and globalization.

While New Worlds, New Lives examined Asian identities in South America as part of its project, Asian and Latino Immigrants, charts the interconnections between Asian and Latino migrants in southern California. Careful not to flatten out the differences between communities, Lopez-Garza and Diaz highlight the connections between Asian and Latino immigrants. Examining the Asianization and Latinization of labour in southern California over the past two decades in particular, this collection tracks the ways in which the exploitation of labour continues to be racialized. The collection opens with an analysis of an infamous case of labour exploitation in southern California involving the incarceration of 71 Thai garment workers who had been held captive in an apartment complex in a Los Angeles suburb, El Monte, for as long as seven years. When the case broke in 1995, the public was horrified by the barbed wire compound where these women worked 17 to 21 hour days under constant surveillance. However, as Su and Martorell clearly argue in their contribution to the collection, the case of the El Monte workers is crucially not exceptional.

Strikingly, the book’s description of current conditions is a strong echo of the conditions of indenture which impelled early Asian migration. Lopez-Garza and Diaz describe the world of snakeheads and coyotes who bring labourers to the U.S as participating in“[a] shady world of human cargo [that] feeds the exploitative industries with a vast workforce subjected to low-wage injustice on a semipermanent basis.” As though taking a page directly from indenture recruiters from a century ago, Lopez-Garza and Diaz note that “[t]he labor contractors often ensure these workers that transportation, immigrant work permits, and housing will be ‘taken care of’ as part of a normative recruitment practice. A vast majority of these workers who have little or no savings, borrow money from family members or accept ‘loans’ from the labor contractors to finance their escape from a life of terminal poverty. What they have done in reality is sold their future for a pittance on arrival.” As many of the essays in this volume suggest, indenture is not a phenomenon of the past, but a cruel reality in even the wealthiest pockets of the First World.

Finally, many of these essays contest the push-pull model for analyzing motivations for immigration. As Su and Marterell note regarding the Thai women who had been enslaved in the garment factory in El Monte: “In the face of stark poverty at home, it is questionable whether immigration is a matter of choice.” Calling for a way of understanding the complex social, economic and politic factors which impel thousands of people to put their lives at risk every year in search of work and opportunity, the collection as a whole argues for a more complex understanding of migration that moves beyond the simple dichotomy of voluntary and involuntary labour.

As both of these books demonstrate, contemporary global capitalism persists in its reliance on captive and deeply racialized bodies. Not only do these books extend our understanding of Asian America to embrace more fully the complexities of southern migrations, they also function as tools for researchers who seek to understand the ways in which the history of global capitalism’s reliance on captive bodies continues to thrive in our contemporary world.



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MLA: Cho, Lily. Extending Asian America. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 July 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #185 (Summer 2005), (Stratton, Compton, Morra, Wylie, Gordon). (pg. 156 - 158)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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