The Army’s Coolies: Chinese Military Labor and Race-Making in the Spanish and Philippine American Wars

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Justin Jackson, New York University
This paper examines the politics of the U.S. army’s employment of Chinese workers in transpacific shipping and military operations in the Philippines and its effects on immigration politics in the United States’ Pacific empire. Chinese seamen’s presence aboard army steamships  became a flashpoint in the racialized politics of labor and immigration along the United States’ Pacific Coast. American seamen’s unions’ attempts to proscribe Chinese workers from these ships shaped the politics of maritime labor reform that ultimately led in 1915 to the passage of the LaFollette Seamen’s Act, a seminal progressive-era federal labor law with international implications. A reform discourse that condemned the army’s preference for Asian labor over that of whites and citizens found its reversed racial mirror image in the Philippines. Here U.S. army officers widely employed thousands of Chinese “coolies” in field operations against insurgents as porters, litter-bearers, manual laborers, and personal servants. The employment of Chinese for colonial warfare by a national government that excluded them and foreign contract labor from entering its North American territory is explored as an imperial “space of exception” in tension with dominant institutional and cultural norms in the United States. Analyzing how U.S. army officers and enlisted men utilized and alternately praised and disdained Chinese military labor, this chapter concludes its exploration of military labor as a site of racial formation in American and Philippine histories by showing how Chinese workers’ army work contributed to the creation of Chinese, Filipino, and white Americans’ colonial, racial, and ethnic identities, and ultimately strengthened race-based restrictions in U.S. immigration policy targeting the Chinese and other Asian populations.