Driven Out by Jean Pfaelzer – Book Review

Driven Out by Jean Pfaelzer – Book Review

Pfaelzer, Jean. Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans.

New York: Random House, 2007


The romanticized view we have today of the West during the nineteenth century could not be more contradictory to the tremendous amount of racial violence and prejudice Chinese workers experienced from Anglos in the West. While literature exists on immigrant and Chinese American experiences in rural and urban areas across the nation, Jean Pfaelzer’s detailed narrative influences our perspective on Chinese experience during this time in U.S history, and brings to light the mistreatment and suffering they endured. Pfaelzer’s interest in this topic began when she noted the lack of Asian students at Humboldt State University. She was told that ninety years earlier, Chinese residents had been expelled from the area in 1885. Thirty years later an article in an old Daily Alta California newspaper inspired her to delve into the story of the Chinese expulsion in the West (xxv). Her aim in Driven Out is to “reconstruct a past in which memory and documents cohere” (xxvi).

In Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans author Jean Pfaelzer uses numerous sources such as libraries, private collections, local historical societies, state archives, as well as letters to newspapers, state and local legislators, telegraphs, diplomatic correspondence, songs and poems. These sources expose the horrific, racist reality Chinese immigrants faced along the Pacific Northwest and California, beginning in 1848. Through Driven Out, Pfaelzer shares hundreds of instances and events where Chinese workers were harassed and “purged” of the area. Whites in the area used intimidation, threats, boycotts, arson, and violence to try and get them to leave, and as seen throughout her book, many groups and organizations were formed by these white men in an attempt to drive the Chinese away for good. These organizations further fueled anti-Chinese sentiments by blaming the Chinese for fewer job opportunities and lower wages. The Chinese fought back through boycotting, lawsuits, and civil disobedience. She also includes the experiences of Chinese women and the hardships they experienced as well. For example, prostitution. Many Chinese prostitutes from western rural towns had fled from San Francisco where they were sex slaves (90).  

Throughout her book, Pfaelzer lists Chinese roundups and purges from the 1850s-1900s. She uses information found in diaries, journals, autobiographies, historical accounts, and legal documents to “witness how widespread and fluid was the movement to purge the Chinese,” (Pfaelzer 254). Although she admits that the list is most likely incomplete since the purges were never formally recorded, Pfaelzer explains that more violence could have taken place without us ever knowing of it.

In her conclusion. Pfaelzer argues that “the Chinese demands for full payment for their work, the lawsuits for reparations, the fight for public education for their children, the building of Chinatowns, the strikes, the purchase of weapons to defend themselves and their communities, the acts of mass civil disobedience,” was indicative of a transnational people just trying to claim their place in the United States (Pfaelzer 341). Driven Out ends with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing Public Law 199 in 1943, repealing over 60 years of legal exclusion. Public Law 199 allowed Chinese to enter the US through a quota system which allowed 105 Chinese in the country per year (Pfaelzer 346).

Throughout her book Pfaelzer refers to the expulsion of Chinese immigrants and workers as purges and pogroms, comparing them to Kristallnacht in 1938 when Nazis violently removed the Jews in Germany. The comparison of Chinese expulsions to Kristallnacht emphasizes the severity of the event. Unlike Jews in Europe, Chinese immigrants during this time were not subjected to mass systematic killings. However, both the Chinese and the Jews were mistreated, driven out of their homes, and never given the chance to earn their place in society.

Pfaelzer titles her book Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. However, this piece of history is not forgotten, simply, no one has put together all the sources to create a narrative the way she has. Pfaelzer reconstructs this “forgotten” part of Chinese history through the many primary sources and records she uses as evidence for the roundups and purges of Chinese. Her aim is to reconstruct this part of their history through these sources. She follows events in a chronological order from the 1850’s up until the early 20th century, beginning with violence from mobs which was often permitted by local, state, and federal laws. Her narrative on the history of Chinese exclusion in America broadens our perspective on the atrocities endured by immigrant races, and they ways they pushed through and fought for their place in society.