Chinese American writer H.T. Tsiang’s final novel is a Marxist, feminist, pro-immigrant satire of the American Dream. It was published 80 years ago.
February 8, 2017
Radical writer and troublemaker H.T. Tsiang, whom we’ve covered in the Margins here, was a lifelong activist and critic of political conservatism both within and outside of the Chinese immigrant community. In his novel And China Has Hands, originally published 80 years ago, Tsiang dissects Chinese-American delusions of individual success amidst class and racial oppression—a searing reminder for Asian Americans today to come to political consciousness and actively resist, rather than passively condone, Trump’s xenophobic and anti-labor agenda. On this 100th anniversary of the 1917 Immigration Act, a dark precursor to our present Muslim and refugee ban, we share an edited version of Floyd Cheung’s afterword to Tsiang’s prescient and still-radical novel, republished last year by Kaya Press.
When H. T. Tsiang arrived in the United States in 1926, already in his 20s, he came with a mission: to carry on the Chinese Revolution. A youth activist and low-level official in Sun Yat-Sen’s revolutionary government, he initially intended to do so in the spirit of Sun Yat-Sen, who had long admired the theories of Karl Marx and had begun to work in conjunction with the Chinese Communists and the USSR in 1924. But with the death of Sun Yat-Sen and the rise of Chiang Kai-Shek’s more conservative government, Tsiang himself left China—one step ahead of “the executioner’s axe,” as he put it—to escape being purged, eventually finding refuge in the United States under the student exemption of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Distant from his beloved homeland but determined to stay involved, Tsiang took up writing as his main mode of activism. He initially tried writing articles for and editing periodicals such as The Chinese Guide to America. He also wrote and distributed lea?ets (an activity that lead to him being him arrested at least once), in addition to penning scores of letters to other writers, activists, publishers—and even to the U.S. government. In an article published in 1927, the Los Angeles Times called Tsiang the “leader of the radicals.”
But Tsiang had avoided Chiang Kai-Shek’s purge in China only to find the Bay Area full of Chiang supporters; Chinese Americans on the West Coast, especially those of the merchant class, had no interest in Tsiang’s revolutionary message. Tsiang thus perceived Chinese Americans from both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective, identifying with the plight of Chinese immigrants in a highly racist society while at the same time remaining witheringly critical of the oftentimes conservative attitudes of his fellow Chinese immigrants.
Perhaps more than any of his previous books, And China Has Hands is thus the work of a trickster—one who knowingly evokes and sometimes frustrates readers’ expectations in order to get them to re?ect on their own ideological assumptions. If he considered his books his “paper bullets,” as one of his protagonists described them—capable of advancing revolution as surely as well-aimed ammunition—it was because they allowed him to explore truth and its many facets. Tsiang, in some respects, expects to be misunderstood; his writings, with their vacillation between seeming naïvité, pathos, self-referential hijinks, and high political seriousness can thus be seen as his attempt to shake his readers free from unexamined, habitual ways of thinking. After all, as proved again and again by his own experiences—first as a Chinese immigrant to the United States and a highly committed activist, and subsequently as a naturally ?amboyant showman consigned to minor roles—there’s more to any person and personality than meets the eye. Perhaps the cover of his prior novel, The Hanging on Union Square (1935), says it best: “YES… the cover of a book / is more of a book / than the book is a book.”
Most obviously unsettling is the novel’s title. Grammatically sound yet syntactically unconventional, And China Has Hands must have struck readers as an odd thing to call a book—odder still once they discovered that the novel is set in New York City rather than Cathay. Though And China Has Hands doesn’t shy away from pitching itself as an entryway to the exotic—the jacket copy explicitly states that “Quite possibly you have been in the front part of the Chinese laundry; now, with this book, step past the counter and into another world beyond”—it’s an exoticism that exists in the midst of everyday New York, not across the oceans:
In any case: how can a country have hands?
Tsiang, ever conscious of the tension between an audience’s desire for invitation and his own aims for revolution, delighted in breaking rules of narrative structure. In some ways, his novel seems to meet various generic expectations. Like a typical success-story narrative, And China Has Hands follows two protagonists: recent immigrant Wong Wan-Lee on his quest to make “ten thousand fortunes” and recent New York transplant, Pearl Chang, as she dreams of becoming a famous movie star.
Like a work of psychological realism, the novel provides glimpses of how these characters view the world, not in any objective sense, but rather as refracted through the ideological and idiosyncratic lenses of their minds.
Like a finely observed ethnography, the novel invites us into the back rooms of Wan-Lee’s laundry and notices details of his work routine and cooking techniques. Like a romantic comedy, the novel gives us a meet-cute scene and takes us with the awkward couple on a date. It also shows us a falling out between the two and encourages us to root for them to get back together. And, like a proletarian novel, And China Has Hands critiques how capitalism constrains its protagonists’ life choices.
Yet even as Tsiang evokes all of these generic conventions, he simultaneously frustrates them: the ethnographic journeys to Chinatown do not reveal tong wars or hatchet men (though both are invoked in passing); the romance between Wan-Lee and Pearl never really blossoms; and neither succeeds in overcoming the challenges arrayed against them or fulfilling their ambitions.
One strength of And China Has Hands thus lies in its ability to dramatize the emotional difficulty of Wan-Lee and Pearl’s shift from idealism—i.e. their belief that they can “make it” in accordance with the American Dream—to a real reckoning with the hard facts of their severely circumscribed reality.
As he begins his life in the U.S., Wan-Lee believes that his individual investment will lead to personal profit. But a closer look at Wan-Lee’s early interpretive strategies reveals some serious ?aws in his logic. [His] insistent self-delusion is apparent in Wan-Lee’s self-congratulatory assessment of how adept he is at dealing with customers who fail to pay their bills and then begin to avoid him entirely: “His Excellency, Wong Wan-Lee, the Chinese ambassador, was happy; for he thought that he might have gained a friend for China, though he had lost a friend of his own.”
Similarly, Pearl’s fantasies of movie stardom can only exist to the extent to which she remains blind to the larger socio-political and economic forces that have shaped both herself and the world around her. Historian James Loewen produced the classic study of Pearl Chang’s real-life analogues in his book The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (1972). After the Civil War, some Southern plantation owners sought white sharecroppers to replace slave labor, but not many answered the call. Consequently, planters turned to Chinese American workers, a number of whom had recently completed building the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and who, especially in the Pacific Northwest and in California, faced “The Driving Out”—a violent movement designed to eliminate Chinese labor competition. As the editor of the Vicksburg Times writes: “Emancipation has spoiled the negro, and carried him away from fields of agriculture. Our prosperity depends entirely upon the recovery of lost ground, and we therefore say let the Coolies come, and we will take the chance of Christianizing them.”
At first, Loewen explains, Chinese Americans socialized primarily with the Black population; about 20 to 30 percent of these men, like Pearl’s fictional father, married Black women, while the rest presumably remained unmarried or faithful to their wives in China. Also like Pearl’s father, a number of migrants changed careers from sharecropping to shopkeeping as a way to move up the economic ladder. As some of these Chinese Americans improved their class status, they also began to move up the racially inflected social hierarchy of the U.S. South—albeit gradually and unevenly.
Pearl Chang’s migration to New York City thus has a historical as well as socio-economic context, as does her encounter with Wan-Lee. But, as she eventually realizes, she’s stuck between two identities: she cannot pass as either a version of the unnamed white movie star whose portrait she carries, or as “pure” Chinese. Beyond that, the Motion Picture Production Code’s explicit prohibition of representations of “miscegenation” or race mixing meant that, as a racially ambiguous woman, she was explicitly forbidden from the mainstream entertainment industry of the day.
It’s extremely likely that by the time Pearl came of age she would have already internalized the dominant view that her Black heritage was less worthy than her Chinese heritage. Very few Chinese Americans chose to socialize with Blacks, and it had become common for biracial children to “pass as ‘pure’ Chinese,” even if this meant removing themselves from communities in which their ancestry was known. Moreover, having grown up in the U.S. South, Pearl would have had few opportunities to learn about her Chinese roots. Hence, her attraction to Wan-Lee, whom she imagines to be a “Chinese prince,” assigning to him the role of a highly romanticized native informant and a valuable resource for her in her quest to develop a more worthy sense of herself.
In the end, of course, both Pearl and Wan-Lee find worth not in cultural but rather class identity. Thus, even after falling out of touch with one another as friends, they are thrown back together as low-wage workers in a cafeteria—Pearl because she wasn’t Chinese enough to pass muster as a Chinese waitress at a Chinese restaurant, and Wan-Lee because he falls prey to a money lender. By the end of their respective journeys, both Wan-Lee and Pearl have a clearer-eyed vision of political and economic reality—one that necessitates looking beyond their own personal success to advocate for other causes.
It also includes a nascent recognition of what can be achieved by banding together instead of struggling alone. So, even after Wan-Lee loses his business, he rejoices in the fact that a new Chinese laundry association meant that “the other Chinese laundrymen from now on would be protected… and would not be mistreated by the corrupt politicians and greedy loan sharks, as he had been.”
By the end of the book, Wan-Lee joins forces with Pearl not in matrimony but in collective action, participating in a strike against an exploitative cafeteria owner as well as a mass demonstration against the Japanese invasion of China. And China Has Hands concludes with Wan-Lee bleeding from a gunshot wound as he delivers a proletarian, anti-imperial call during which he first confirms his abandonment of false consciousness—
“I have no ten thousand fortunes”—and then declares allegiance to country instead of capital—“But I’ll have China!” He proceeds to rally his compatriots:
Up, China now stands, And China Has Hands—
Eight Hundred Million Hands!
Here at last is the beginning of an answer to the puzzle of the novel’s title. Author and advertising executive Carl Crow famously called China the land of four hundred million customers, but Wan-Lee replaces that interpellation of his fellow Chinese with an emphasis on their eight hundred million hands—that is, on their identity as capable actors instead of passive consumers.
People are, of course, more than just “hands.” The synecdoche does not capture the full reality of the Chinese people. After all, they have elbows, feet, hearts, minds, desires, families and so on, as well as hands. Given the way that many Americans during the early part of the twentieth century diminished Chinese immigrants with terms like “unassimilable alien” and “yellow peril,” such a corrective was certainly necessary. Laws at the time did not consider Chinese immigrants eligible for naturalized citizenship, and advocates for Chinese exclusion saw them not as humans but as automatons at best and insects bent on devouring the breadbasket of the United States at worst.
In Tsiang’s view, by multiplying the stories of Wong Wan-Lee and Pearl Chang by hundreds of millions, victory against oppression becomes inevitable—a Marxist vision indeed, and one that Tsiang undoubtedly studied as a political economy major at Southeast University in Nanjing and further developed during his work with Sun Yat-Sen.
If Wan-Lee and Pearl are not immune to the socio-economic, political, and cultural forces that buffet them, neither were Tsiang or his novel. By the time And China Has Hands was written, it would have been difficult for Tsiang to be under any lasting illusion about how he was viewed by his fellow leftists, his fellow Chinese immigrants, his fellow writers. He had gained some notoriety writing poems about the Chinese Revolution, and had worked also as an extra for the landmark agitprop play Roar China. But, at least compared with other writers of the time, his own creative output—his efforts at asserting his own subjecthood—were treated as little more than curiosities.
What Tsiang lacked in public acclaim or attention, however, he made up for in sheer, convention-busting audaciousness. If his conditions and circumstances—as a Chinese immigrant instead of a privileged observer of Chinese life, as an outsider without access to the halls of publishing power—consigned him to a certain degree of obscurity, he was not about to compromise his political convictions in order to advance himself. He would, instead, innovate.
H. T. Tsiang, like his characters, sometimes seems like a man living at the wrong historical moment. He wrote about the double-consciousness of the Asian American experience before the category of Asian American was invented. He depicted a half-Black, half-Chinese character before the rise of multiracial consciousness or mixed-race studies. He performed the role of a trickster critic during a time when audiences wanted a native informant. He railed against Chiang Kai-Shek at the very moment that Chiang was being named Time magazine’s “person of the year.” In addition, he endured Chinese exclusion, the Great Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era. In short, Tsiang sailed against the wind and tides during his time in the U.S.
Given his propensity for confounding expectations, categories, and standards, it’s not surprising that Tsiang’s methods sometimes drew criticism from one-time supporters. Artist-activist Rockwell Kent, once wrote to him: “Realize that in these terrific times, when all worthwhile people are devoting all of their energies to the advancement of causes for the common good, you, H. T. Tsiang, are doing nothing beyond trying to enlist people in the defense and promotion of H. T. Tsiang.” But Kent seems to have completely missed the point.
For a Chinese American at the time, defending and promoting H. T. Tsiang was a worthwhile aim—something Kent, as a much lauded white man, would probably have had difficulty comprehending. Consider that Kent has a whole archive of letters preserved at the Smithsonian Institution, whereas it is only through this archive that Tsiang’s correspondence has been collected at all. In other words, avoiding disappearance was no easy thing, especially for a radical, unorthodox Chinese American writer. Tellingly, Tsiang’s books—the products of his unique political and artistic impulses—have probably been encountered by fewer people than have viewed the various appearances he made in movies such as Ocean’s Eleven (where he played a houseboy) or on TV shows such as Bonanza and My Three Sons. But even when Tsiang is seen in his various on-screen performances, the person that Tsiang was—his intelligence, politics, personality—remains invisible; all that lingers on screen is an often silent cipher. The full and rich complexity of Tsiang’s personal life and experiences, all of his political struggles and idealism, disappear behind his often wordless portrayal of what others thought him to be (servant, queue-wearing punchline, etc.).
And China Has Hands represents the remaining material traces that we have of an intellect and intelligence that was unlike any other in Chinese American history—not in its experiences or its abilities, but in its refusal to shift, change, or compromise to fit someone else’s view of what someone such as Tsiang should think or how he should be.
Reprinted nearly eight decades after its initial publication, Tsiang’s And China Has Hands is indelible testament to one Chinese American’s persistent refusal, despite all of the forces arrayed against him, to vanish quietly and without a trace. Even today, that is in itself a kind of revolution.