Hawai‘i’s Chinese and Cold War Politics

Nancy E. Riley

Hawai‘i has been in the orbit of the United States since at least the mid nineteenth century, but it was after World War II, as the United States engaged in Cold War with the USSR, that Hawai‘i became particularly important. Hawai‘i’s is a complex story with many parts, and Chinese experience is an important touchstone in terms of the racial politics of the time.

The Soviets regularly charged that the United States was a racist country, and used that rhetoric as part of a broader effort to convince peoples in the Global South to align with the Soviet Union rather than the United States. In response, U.S. government officials showcased Hawai‘i, whose population was about two-thirds nonwhite, as a place where anyone could succeed, no matter their immigrant status or the color of their skin. Some U.S. government officials began to make a case for Hawai’i statehood, which would allow them to more effectively counter Soviet arguments. As Sarah Miller-Davenport argued in her 2019 book Gateway State: Hawai‘i and the Cultural Transformation of Empire, “Unlike many parts of the mainland that called into question America’s commitment to racial equality, Hawai‘i appeared to present a ready-made model of interracial amity; it needed only to be exploited, not fostered through legislation or painful social change. . . . In short, Hawai‘i’s difference was turned into an instrument of American foreign policy.”

Chinese residents of Hawai‘i were important players in the U.S. reimagining of Hawai‘i. Chinese had initially arrived to Hawai‘i in the 1850s to labor on sugar and pineapple plantations. But from those early beginnings, they had become successful members of Hawai‘i society, rising up occupational ladders, entering schools, and earning increasing incomes throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. Starting in the 1930s, and continuing for decades thereafter, Chinese residents dominated medicine and dentistry in Hawai‘i. By 1949, while Chinese residents made up only six to seven percent of Hawai‘i’s population, they comprised 22 percent percent of physicians and 23 percent of dentists in the Islands. By the 1950s, Chinese also had strong representation in Hawai‘i’s public health sector; for example, in 1953, Richard K. C. Lee was appointed as the head of the Board of Health of the Territory of Hawai‘i, and in 1959, he was appointed to the new state’s Board of Health—the first Chinese person to hold in such a position in the United States.

Chinese residents of Hawai‘i were important players in the U.S. reimagining of Hawai‘i.

Thus, Chinese had moved far from their initial status of laborers. But the importance of Chinese in medicine goes beyond that change in socioeconomic status. Americans had long viewed Chinese people as diseased and as threatening to white society, in both San Francisco and Honolulu. Now Chinese had entered medicine and dentistry in strong numbers. That meant, primarily, that Chinese healthcare workers were available to provide Chinese residents and other communities in the Islands with medical care. But the shift also had important impacts on how Chinese people were viewed by other groups in the Islands and throughout the United States. Public health has long shaped how people outside China perceived Chinese immigrant populations. As public health officials worked to control the threats that they thought Chinese communities posed, they became powerful players in the construction of Chinese as foreign and dangerous. When Chinese began to dominate first medicine and then public health in Hawai‘i, they were able to counter earlier stereotypes about Chinese people, establish themselves as no longer subject to public health directives but actually active players in public health processes, and thereby help Chinese people to be accepted by the wider society.

The story of Chinese in medicine and public health is a good, laudable story. But it is not the only story, and one story cannot do justice to the complexities of racial politics in Hawai‘i. Many Chinese did succeed, becoming doctors, dentists, successful business owners. But other Chinese did not do as well. They worked as laborers or unskilled workers and continued to face the difficulties that came with lower socioeconomic class.

The Chinese success story also did not end the influence of race and racialization in the lives of people in Hawai‘i. The U.S. government might have advertised Hawai‘i as “represent[ing] all that we are and all that we hope to be,” as John F. Kennedy put it in a 1963 speech in Honolulu, but in reality, there were and are groups that faced systematic and widespread discrimination. Filipinos, for example, have faced regular discrimination and have ranked at the bottom of many socioeconomic measures since they first arrived in the Islands in the early twentieth century—a state of affairs that has continued to the present day.

Native Hawaiians were noticeably absent from state discourse about Hawai‘i’s place in Cold War rhetoric.  Along with the United States’ assertion that it was dismantling racial inequalities and hierarchies, it also made a show of supporting the independence of previous colonized peoples and societies. The story of Native Hawaiians—from whom the United States had stolen land and nation—pointed to the ways that the United States itself has been a colonial power. By granting Hawai‘i statehood and incorporating it into the United States rather than granting it independence, the United States sought to disappear the reality of U.S. imperialism.

The Chinese success story also did not end the influence of race and racialization in the lives of people in Hawai‘i.

In this way, Hawai‘i is a site of what Dean Saranillio calls “colliding histories” (in his excellent 2010 article of the same name). After World War II, Chinese and Japanese residents wanted statehood for Hawai‘i; many saw statehood as the best chance for gaining citizenship, and hoped it would lead to inclusion into the American polity. But Native Hawaiians did not want statehood and were not looking for inclusion; instead, they wanted to regain control of their land, communities, and nation.

U.S. government officials could point to Chinese success in Hawai‘i as evidence of the racial acceptance and harmony that existed in there and that would soon exist throughout the United States. Chinese themselves were proud of the ways that they had overcome many legal and social barriers, and were clearly coming into their own in Hawai‘i society, as their push into medicine and public health makes clear.

But it is important to recognize that Chinese success was read through the lens of multicultural neoliberalism and used to bolster that system, in which whites maintained power and (partial) admittance was allowed only for some. Indigenous peoples had no place in this process, because to acknowledge thehistory and experience of Indigenous people meant acknowledging that the United States had built and was building its empire through the use of race and racialized bodies.

It is true that the door to participation in the American polity was at least partly open to nonwhite groups. But it was open only to some groups and some kinds of lives, only to those who would enter without disrupting that system. In the process, not only did the system remain in place, but multicultural additions actually strengthened the ongoing hierarchies of white dominance, capitalist organization, and support for the still-growing U.S. empire.

Nancy E. Riley is A. Myrick Freeman Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College, and the author of Chinatown, Honolulu: Place, Race, and Empire.

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