From Where We Are

Modern day impacts of colonialism, imperialism remain

From Chinese laborers to anti-Asian hate, experts say history continues to repeat itself

Statue of Chinese railroad workers

As April ends, we head into May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The US has seen a rise in anti-Asian violence this past year, but it must be acknowledged this is not a new occurrence. And, as Mendy Kong reports, it has to do with the history and modern day effects of colonialism and imperialism.

The British called them “Coolies” the indentured laborers from China, India, and other Asian countries. “Coolie” is from the Indian word for wages.

Eventually, in the English-speaking West, Coolie came to be a racially charged slur against low-wage immigrant workers, and specifically, a derogatory codeword for “Asian.”

Michael Fraga is a social science professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He says Britain, which had colonized India and China, said, “let’s use those people to work in our colonies abroad.”

The laborers were however only slightly better off than the slaves had been. They were supposed to receive either minimal wages or some small form of payout such as a small parcel of land or money for their returned passage upon completion of their indentures but unlike slaves these imported servants could not be bought or sold.”

As you may or may not have learned in high school U.S. history classes, one of the first waves of Asian immigration to the U.S. was Chinese railroad workers during the 1849 Gold Rush. But there is more to the story. The migration of these so-called “coolies” to the U.S., South America, and the Caribbean was tied to the practice of slavery.

In the U.S., in Louisiana, white plantation owners looked to “coolies,” or Asian workers as replacements after enslaved Black workers rebelled and abandoned sugar plantations en masse in the 1850s.

This is also where the rhetoric about Asians being the “model minority” began to arise. Plantation owners believed “coolies” would be submissive, obedient, and easily-exploited workers.

This was not to be the case. Eventually, the Chinese workers demanded higher and more fair wages, and when that didn’t happen. they left the sugar farms. Their lives remained rough, many died young.

The story of “coolies” is a long and tragic one, as are present-day circumstances, in which Western powers like the U.S. take advantage of and enrich themselves off the resources and peoples of countries they have destabilized.

Sukhdev Sandhu teaches at New York University in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis. In 2013, he moderated a conference on Chinese and Indian coolie labor in Cuba and Guyana.

“I think in our case for scholars of migration and often kind of immiserated labor, this opportunity to excavate these histories, to hack at, and through the kind of wilderness of amnesia and of sort of misrepresentations over decades, it’s incredibly important to us. We don’t want to let go. It may be a sickness, it may be violating to us but we have to keep going through it.”

“Coolies” is a term no longer in use today, thankfully, but undocumented migrant labor is still what holds up the U.S. economy, and it is imperative to recognize how history repeats itself -- again and again -- in the American empire. Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.