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American Workers, Colonial Power: Philippine Seattle and the Transpacific West, 1919-1941

By Dorothy B. Fujita-Rony

November 4, 2013

Review By Geraldine Pratt

THIS IS AN AMBITIOUS bookthat aims to “recontextualize, if not challenge” (9) several standard historical narratives: of the American West, of Asian American settlement, and of Filipino experiences in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. These theoretical ambitions are achieved by drawing upon archival documents and a rich store of interviews: 27 conducted in the early 1990s by the author, and good number more through the 1970s and 1980s as part of the Washington State Oral/Aural History Program and the Demonstration Project for Asian Americans. 

Fujita-Rony recasts the boundaries of the American West such that the development of Seattle is conceived within American colonialism, with the Philippines the most western part of the American empire. Contrary to an assimilationist model of immigration, she details a fluid transpacific culture and economy. As American nationals, a passport to enter the United States was unnecessary until 1934, and Filipinos had free access to US public high schools. Education was an important aspect of the American colonial venture in the Philippines and Fujita-Rony argues that education in the United States was seen by Filipinos as an extension of education in the Philippines; the University of Washington was a key site in this process.  

Filipinos’ status as US nationals distinguished them from other Asian immigrants, and this distinctiveness is something that Fujita-Rony considers throughout the book. Certainly the Filipino experience was shaped by and within the institutionalized racism experienced by other Asian immigrants, and there was a loss of legal distinction through the 1920s and 1930s as legislation was passed to restrict Filipino entry into the US and their possibilities for permanent settlement. But Filipinos’ experiences are not usefully collapsed into a generalized Asian-American model. Although Filipino settlement in Seattle was mostly in and around Chinatown, Filipinos owned few businesses there. Fujita-Rony interprets this relative absence of entrepreneurialism to not only a lack of capital but the fact that Filipinos, due to their skills in English, were not enclaved within the labour market in quite the same way as Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Beyond this, Chinatown was only one site of Filipino experience because Filipinos were exceptionally migratory, moving up and down the west coast, from Alaska to California and into the interior of Washington state as seasonal labourers. Seattle was the hub of this network of migration, but the Filipino community demands a regional rather than an urban frame of analysis. 

A further narrative from which Fujita-Rony wishes to distance herself is one that characterizes early immigrant settlement as a “bachelor society.” The Filipinos who moved to the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century were mostly young men. In Washington State in 1930, for instance, there was only one woman for every 15 Filipino men. But to render the Filipino community as a bachelor society is to simplify. Fujita-Rony also questions a tendency within Filipino-American history to privilege union politics and singular male heroes, such as Carlos Bulosan. She attempts to write women into this history, and to do so in ways that also disrupt standard tropes within women’s history. Countering the tendency to portray women as more stable than men, she tells stories about the many Filipinas who moved between the United States and the Philippines through the course of their lives. 

Fujita-Rony writes as an historian, but she also brings a rich and persistent geographical imagination to her project. She urges us to reframe conventional scales of analysis: from urban to regional, and from national to transnational. She is alert to the geographical specificity of labour organizing and contrasts, for instance, the distinctive political possibilities for Filipinos in Seattle and Hawaii. She explores some of the social possibilities made available through geographical mobility as, for example, when mixed race couples crossed state lines to avoid miscegenation laws (which were state-specific). She explores a complex negotiation of nationalist and class sentiment: it was in part class-based organizing that enabled workers to overcome regional and ethnic loyalties (based in the Philippines) and forge a nationalist “Filipino” identity within the United States. This was a “careful nationalism” and demands for an independent nation were often framed against the backdrop of an earlier Spanish rather than U.S. imperialism. Hence the popularity and neutrality of Rizal Day, which commemorates a Filipino hero who fought against Spanish rather than American imperialism. 

This is a case study that speaks to large questions and broad theoretical debates, and thus warrants a wide readership. For the most part, the empirical study can do the work that is asked of it, although the significance of women for community building is as much asserted as demonstrated. In the last chapter, the author touches on her frustrations about certain silences that she was unable to penetrate, in particular, ones surrounding leftist politics and non-heterosexual practices. I would have been interested to learn much more about her difficulties extracting the types of historical narratives that she yearned to tell, especially because she actually interviewed a good number of historical actors. That said, the book successfully unsettles a number of standard interpretations and tells a compelling story of the ways that Filipino subjects of colonialism themselves shaped the American West.