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American Studies Book Talk: Chris Suh on "The Allure of Empire

How can empire be alluring? And how is that dissonance lingering upon the very grounds we stand on today, reflecting Stanford’s role in shaping the early contours of Asian American history? Returning to campus for the American Studies Book Talk, Chris Suh (Assistant Professor, Emory University; Ph.D., Stanford History ’19) poses these questions as the foundations for his talk on his newly published monograph, The Allure of Empire: American Encounters with Asians in the Age of Transpacific Expansion & Exclusion (Oxford University Press, 2023). Weaving together frameworks from both Asian Studies and Asian American Studies, Suh traces the unique pulses of ambivalence, tension, and pleasure that thrum through pre-World War II conceptions of Japanese imperialism. It is precisely this complex patterning that calls for better understandings of the history of transpacific migration in the long shadow of empire, Suh argues, which would then necessarily shift our understanding of what it means to “belong” in the United States—not only in the first age of “Yellow Peril” (1904-5) but also in our present moment.

Opening with a timely reminder of the anti-Chinese housing bills recently passed in Florida (during AAPI Heritage Month, no less)—which were signed simultaneously as Florida began to require schools to teach Asian American history—Suh evinces how Japanese imperialism was narrativized and instrumentalized at the turn of the twentieth century. Figures as divergent as W. E. B. DuBois and Theodore Roosevelt held similarly positive opinions about Japan’s imperial expansion, which prompts the question: how did American investments in Japan as a likewise “progressive” empire fashion American ideas about Asianness prior to World War II, and how did these ideas morph alongside the shifting geopolitical landscapes in the Pacific? Furthermore, why was Japan set apart from other Asian states in this age of transpacific exclusion, branded by legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and California’s Alien Land Act (1913)? 

For Suh, it is this contemporaneity of exclusion and exception that necessitates reading across transpacific archives. Indeed, he foregrounds a particular case study pertinent to Stanford itself: in the same year that David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford whose virulent eugenicist beliefs are a matter of great controversy, was arguing that to group the Japanese with other “Orientals” was a matter of great offense to the Japanese, political activist Yun Ch’i-Ho was speaking out publicly in the American South about the harms of Japanese imperialism in Korea. Suh delves into various archives to investigate precisely what this exceptionality around Japanese imperialism might reveal to us regarding contemporary legislation, the color line belts throughout the world, and the nature of “Yellow Peril” itself. Placing Yun at the center of the transpacific world and highlighting his admiration of Booker T. Washington, Suh suggests that discussions of Japanese imperialism in Korea have in fact shaped a particular form of interrational cooperation that did not disturb—and in fact strengthened, as the exclusion of Japanese immigrants became possible in the United States following news of Japan’s violent occupation of Korea—existing racial hierarchies in the United States. 

Returning to Stanford’s figuration in this transimperial historical narrative, Suh reminds his rapt audience that this history must be held in our minds because of how it reflects on the urgent political issues of our times. Although “allure” and “empire” may seem like antithetical terms, Suh lays out both the construction and the dissipation of such a convergence, the stakes of which are integral for better understanding inter-imperial relations and their entanglements with racial hierarchies. In bridging together Asian Studies and Asian American Studies, Suh’s transpacific intervention persuasively centres the changing attractions and repulsions between so-called, self-proclaimed “progressive” empires as crucial to understanding global racial struggle in the imperial Pacific and beyond.

By Christine Xiong