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The cover of elusive refuge.

Chinese Refugees in North America: An Interview With Prof. Laura Madokoro


By Apr 03, 2017

Laura Madokoro is an Assistant Professor in History and Classical Studies. She received her M.A. from University of Toronto and her PhD from UBC. Her main interests are in the history of refugees and humanitarianism, with a focus on North America and settler-colonialism, human rights, and race. She is currently pursuing research on the history of sanctuary in Canada since Confederation.

Her book Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 2016) addresses the history of migration and resettlement of Chinese refugees to the white settler societies of the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. This work provides a unique look at how this population has been received throughout time, and is an important topic within the larger conversation on human rights. Contributor Amanda Hills had the opportunity to speak with her about her book and its place in the wider discussion on refugee policy, human rights and migration.  

Amanda Hills: You have written quite extensively on refugee and migrant related topics. What inspired you to write a book specifically about Chinese migrants during the Cold War?

Laura Madokoro: I worked as an archivist for a number of years at Library and Archives Canada, and based on the records I was working with, the limited historiography and my own politics, I was inspired to do a PhD that would examine the history of refugees in the cold war. My original idea was to focus largely on the European context, but I happened to read a general text in my first year of study that reference the arrival in Canada of a group of one hundred Chinese families in 1962. The authors claimed that it was the first time Canada had “served as a haven for non-European refugees,” and I was really struck by this single phrase. I had never heard of this refugee resettlement effort and it occurred at a time when Canada was only beginning to remove the last vestiges of official exclusion that had shaped Chinese migration to the country from 1885 to 1947. I was really struck by the timing as well as the lack of commemoration, institutionally, when compared with the resettlement of other groups such as Hungarian refugees following the 1956 Revolution and Indochinese refugees in the aftermath of the American War in Vietnam. The sense that there was a larger story about exclusion and the evolution of global humanitarianism to be told animated my research into Chinese refugees specifically. Hundreds of thousands of people left the People’s Republic of China in the immediate aftermath of the Chinese Civil War and in subsequent years. Many returned or went to Hong Kong with the idea of waiting out the worst of the turmoil. Hong Kong quickly became overcrowded, and it was here and in Taiwan that a humanitarian agenda emerged around assisting Chinese refugees.  I focused on the history of migrants in Hong Kong because it was a way of understanding the relationship between this last of the British colonies and British white settler societies. For you see, I ultimately came to the conclusion that we cannot understand the history of refugee resettlement and humanitarianism in any single country without thinking about how these politics were animated by larger histories of global migration and coordinated state efforts among white settler societies to exclude people they did not consider desirable as citizens.

AH: You mention several US efforts to help the refugees, such as the CARE packages, and how they simultaneously represented the US and Canada as generous givers and the Chinese as “grateful recipients” (70). To what extent were relief efforts focused on these countries' desire to promote their image as nations committed to humanitarian causes?

LM: There was an interesting tension between the work of relief organizations on the ground and governments, particularly the United States, that came to see a pronounced benefit in marrying their political interests with humanitarian efforts on behalf of refugees and other residents of Hong Kong. What I found so interesting about the work of NGOs and church organizations is that their efforts, which in many ways were meant to bridge the gulf between donor and recipient, exacerbated these differences because of the way recipients and benefactors were represented. This was partly due to the way that government officials exploited these campaigns for political ends to promote themselves, and the Western liberal democratic societies they represented. So I think in many ways, humanitarian campaigns that originated amongst transnational religious and secular organizations weren’t necessarily intended to promote specific nations as humanitarian but that for government officials, they became important aspects of how states advanced themselves as humanitarian nations and this was a critical component of the West’s cold war positioning.

AH: It is noted throughout the book that Chinese refugees were frequently portrayed as vulnerable and in “need for more privileged individuals, namely the citizens of white settler societies, to assist in some way.” (128). You write that many people acted out of “sheer emotion” (90), compelled by a feeling of superiority, rather than a genuine interest in helping the refugees. Do you think intent matters in a situation such as this one?

LM: This is a great question. I don’t think I was suggesting that there wasn’t a genuine interest to help refugees, at some level, but I wanted to show that compulsion to assist people in the Cold War was complicated by geopolitics, colonialism and a sense of superiority. Part of the reason I was interested in exploring the topic of Chinese refugees in the Cold War was to consider how it was that only a few were assisted through physical resettlement but many were assisted financially, through the donations of citizens and states. I wanted to understand whether there was something significant about the various kinds of assistance that were imagined for particular groups of people. For instance, was there a sense that refugees from Europe were best assisted through resettlement opportunities that simultaneously met labour market needs and family reunification goals among white settler societies? My answer to this question is yes, and I argue that the fact that Chinese migrants were consistently assisted from afar, through financial contributions rather than resettlement opportunities, reveals a great deal about structural inequalities and the persistence of racism in the structures of global migration in the late twentieth century. So yes, I think intent matters to our understanding of the history of humanitarianism, especially in terms of how some forms of assistance are considered desirable for certain groups and not others. In the case of migrants from China, providing financial assistance was a means of helping without doing the much more difficult work of physically resettling and welcoming individuals within the body politic of various white settler societies.

AH: In addition, you write that this compassion reinforced differences between the refugees and the Americans (125). How did this affect the refugees’ transition into life in the US, especially as they were expected to become “good American citizens” (140), and to what extent, if any, do those challenges persist today?

LM: One of the phenomenon that became very pronounced as I looked at how humanitarians galvanized support for the cause of Chinese refugees beginning in the 1950s was how they depicted migrants in a particular light (alone, destitute, starving). When migrants began to be resettled to the United States, particularly in the 1960s, representations of the arrivals were very different – showing beaming, reunited families, often clothed in Western dress. The visual record shows a marked transformation in how Western audiences perceived the impact of their assistance, whether it was financial, emotional or moral. It also revealed the high expectations that people had that their interventions would have a tangible impact on people’s lives, and the trajectory of the global Cold War. These were not trivial or mundane expectations, and my sense is that they created a great deal of pressure on those who were resettled and assisted as refugees. Some people definitely fared better than others, especially after the initial fanfare and excitement over their arrival abated.

We can definitely see contemporary parallels. The thing that I am most struck by is how arguments to resettle refugees at present, whether they be from Syria or Africa (where the most protracted refugee situations exist) is that proponents look to successful historical precedents to make their case. This means that there is not only a lot of pressure on people to integrate and assimilate upon arrival but in many ways to do more than that, to become more successful and accomplished than the average person. Future refugee movements depend on the success of current ones. This is a lot of pressure.

AH: Some view history as being linear, meaning that societies are constantly progressing and doing things “better” in some sense. Do you believe the history of immigration policy in the US and Canada supports or negates this narrative?

LM: The million-dollar question. I think we can point to progress, though hardly of the uniquely linear fashion. What concerns me about how the narrative of progress is presented however is that the contests, the debates and the impassioned politics that accompany change are often lost in the historical record. Yet these are the aspects of any sort of progress that I find most compelling. For instance, the resettlement of Indochinese refugees to Europe, North America and Australasia in the 1970s is heralded as these really progressive moment in terms of race-relations. And it was. But that narrative of progress is complicated when you consider the previous three decades of lobbying and activism on behalf of refugees from China, with which white settler societies and other Western nations only engaged with reluctantly, and even then in limited fashion. My argument is that those three decades of heavy-lifting and hard work to convince people that migrants from China were worthy and deserving of aid laid the groundwork for how the international community responded to events in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s. I therefore have a very different take on the celebratory narrative of progress that accompanies conventional interpretations of how we understand the history and impact of Indochinese refugee resettlement efforts.

AH: The media seems to have been quite influential in controlling the response to the refugees, such as the 1962 three-page spread in Life magazine that featured images of the refugees in Hong Kong (124). You highlight the image of Kim Puc, the “Girl in the Photo” who was published in 1937, as having had a significant impact on the public perception of the refugees (125). In response to today’s refugee crisis, what role have we seen the media play? Do you think it has played a comparable role?

LM: The most obvious comparison is how the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi galvanized public opinion to encourage Canadians in particular to do something for Syrian refugees. The knowledge that this young boy died because his family was trying to make it to Canada really hit home. So, the media has a very powerful influence on how we understand the gravity and seriousness of conflicts and circumstances that cause people to make dangerous journeys. In this case, social media was especially important because Kurdi’s image circulated widely as conventional newspaper outlets debated whether or not to publish the tragic, heart-breaking photo of the young boy’s body, washed up on a Turkish beach.

The other way that the media remains very influential is in the language that they use to describe people and events. It makes a big difference if journalists or governments refer to people as illegal migrants, asylum-seekers or refugees.

You will notice that throughout this interview I have used the terms refugee and migrant pretty interchangeably because it is part of my methodology for studying the history of migration whereby I don’t privilege official categories but try and open up the space to consider how particular language gets used at any given moment in time. In other words, I want to understand the history and political context of the terms that officials use to describe migrants (and what that reveals about their politics) and the language that migrants use themselves to understand how they understand their histories. My use of the term migrant in no way suggests that the people in motion cannot be considered refugees, either officially or in their own narratives, but to emphasize that people are not born refugees. There are historical contingencies that lead to the embrace or refusal of this term.

AH: To what extent do the US and Canadian responses to the current refugee crisis represent continuity with, or a break from, the countries’ policies toward Chinese migrants during the Cold War?

LM: I see strong continuities. The thing to remember is that national immigration regimes are at their very core, exclusive. They are designed to screen, regulate and admit only certain people. The reasons for exclusion might vary over time: religion, race, class but that the history of nation-states, and white settler societies specifically, is the history of exclusion remains a palatable and relevant reality in our present moment.

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