Wong fictionalizes the story of his own family in order to make it more representative of the broader contours of Chinese life in North America--both the United States and Canada--from the mid-1800s to the late 1900s. This family story traces the lives of Chinese men who helped build the transcontinental railroads in the United States and later in Canada, examining the prejudices they faced and the ugly story of exclusion laws, lynching, expulsions, and head taxes that structured the Chinese North American community for much of the first century of its existence.
The graphic narrative begins in the present with children at a history museum, confronted with the Iron Chink, an artifact from the early twentieth century fish canneries in Canada and Alaska.
The children laugh at the racist name, but then Grandma Wong explains how the machine was created and marketed to replace Chinese and Native workers. The Iron Chink embodies the history of exploitation and rejection that Chinese workers faced over the century. When their labor was needed for the fishing industry, for building railroads, and for other labor-intensive work, the Chinese were not only begrudgingly allowed to work in North America but were actively solicited from China and brought over as cheap labor. As soon as their work was done or when new technologies made their labor obsolete, though, the Chinese were driven out and treated as invading hordes.
This graphic historical narrative nicely weaves together the struggles that individuals might face in their lives (such as negotiating transnational families during the exclusion era) and the significant political, economic, and social events that both restricted and enabled the choices those individuals could make in their lives. Wong discusses some of the Opium Wars that formed the backdrop of initial Chinese migration to North America, the gold rush, Chinese house boys, the Chinese Exclusion Act, railroad workers, farm work, paper sons, and the Chinese head tax, among other topics. Throughout the narrative, Wong also introduces historical figures such as the first Chinese North American elected officials in various places as well as a young Sun Yat-Sen, whose Western education and values were a significant feature of his leadership in China and Taiwan in the mid-1900s. Wong also identifies white allies in North America along with some significant anti-Chinese agitators who are otherwise remembered as heroes of industry. I also found it really interesting that Wong makes a point of mentioning a few sites of Asian-Native contact and even has one of his Chinese railroad workers rescued by Natives.
This book is a great introduction to the expansive and complicated history of Chinese North America. It covers a wide range of topics and historical moments in a relatively short volume, and I think it really is a great resource for pointing people to other materials. Someone particularly intrigued by Wong's narrative of the Chinese railroad workers could follow up with further readings on the topic, for example, or those interested in the Chinese American (in both the United States and Canada) experiences during WWII could follow the leads that Wong provides of those experiences.