8Books Review: “Asians in Colorado” by William Wei


Asians in Colorado by William Wei unearths a local and regional history of Chinese and Japanese in the Centennial State. Wei positions the unique aspects of the state’s history within the broader national story. It is the stories of little known individuals, from Chinese Americans involved in local court cases to Japanese farmers, to their far and few between white allies that add something new to our knowledge of Asian American history. As Wei makes clear in the introduction, he intends this to be an American story. It too seeks to address the fundamental question, what makes an American? This is a familiar angle for those well-versed in Asian American history, but by looking at Colorado as an embodiment of the development of the American West, it transports us out of the coasts and into the center.

Among other things, my book shows that Asian Coloradans did not lack true grit. On the contrary, they displays a dogged perseverance and refused to be discouraged by setbacks.

Overall, there is much to praise in terms of highlighting local history, for which there is never enough space in larger survey books.

Of particular interest were: Civil War general Edward McCook who welcomed Chinese to Colorado; Chin Lin Sou, who defended his countrymen in local newspapers and gained local political office; a full examination of massacres fermented by rising anti-Asian sentiment in the late nineteenth century alongside the Denver race riot; Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during WWII and then asked to serve the country as sugar beet farmers because of the war’s labor shortages; and three Japanese American sisters who aided German POWs in escaping their camp. These are but a few of the lesser known tales and events that Wei unearths.

The book’s largest flaw may come in its title. This is really a history of Chinese and Japanese in Colorado from the arrival of the Chinese in the 1850s to around World War II. A short epilogue explores the years after, when immigration reform among other reasons introduced larger and new Asian American populations. But there is little exploration—as is often the case—of the fifty plus years of recent history. Did Asian Americans in Colorado participate in the Asian American movement? An ever more interesting absence given Wei’s earlier book entirely focused on it. Further, because of the book’s organization, the opening focuses on Chinese Americans and then shifts to Japanese Americans. Chinese American return somewhat in World War II, but there are a few decades of history missing. And though there may have been no Koreans or Filipinos to speak of in Colorado in the period the book covers, their omission is never addressed. I’m left wondering.

The epilogue is perhaps too optimistic in arguing that the United States is headed towards a more equal future, with purportedly more open minded-millenials at the helm. How was Wei to know that while the book was being published, a presidential candidate would call for a bar to Muslim citizens entering the country, re-vitalizing some of the same ideas behind the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, including at Amache in Colorado?

But it is not the epilogue that makes Asians in Colorado interesting. It is rather the main chapters that bring to light individual actors among the historical Chinese and Japanese American communities in Colorado–ones that could easily be forgotten. In some cases, these stories re-affirm a broader well-known arc in Asian American and American history, but at other times, he adds a useful complexity to our narratives that furthers the argument and showcases the need for local histories.

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About Lily

East Coast Chinese American. I like thick-skinned dumplings and hard-covered books.
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