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Making Multicultural America: Cold War Politics, Ethnic Celebrations, and Chinese America

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Abstract:

When Communist China entered the Korean War and engaged American troops in 1950, Chinese Americans became targets of anti-Communist hysteria. In 1953, the Chinese American community in San Francisco staged the first modern Chinese New Year Festival to defuse political persecution and mitigate the business downturn that accompanied the American embargo against China. The festival’s organizing committee proclaimed that the ethnic celebration was a way to fight Communist China -- wrongly accusing the Communist regime of eliminating many traditions, including the Chinese New Year. Moreover, the committee claimed that the festival defended American democratic practices because it was a demonstration of cultural diversity. In subsequent years, the organizing committee continued to situate the ethnic festival within the Cold War context and to insist on its right to preserve ethnic traditions.

Scholars have assumed that contemporary multiculturalism emerged in the 1970s, as a product of the civil rights movement. This paper, however, argues that in complex ways, Cold War politics helped to foster an early version of multiculturalism in the 1950s, one that took shape in the presentation of the New Year Festival. The paper builds on the work of scholars such as Elaine Tyler May and Mary Dudziak, who link U.S. Cold War foreign polices to domestic cultures, and extends their argument to the realm of multiculturalism. Using community and mainstream newspapers, festival publications, and oral history interviews, the paper traces how Chinese American leaders in 1953 and after positioned the festival as a vehicle for fighting the Cold War. They drew on Cold War rhetoric to equate freedom and democracy with the continuation of ethnic diversity. In their view, the festival represented a claim that American democracy allowed Chinese and European Americans alike the right to retain their ethnic heritages, putting those heritages on an equal footing. This bid for equal recognition, manifested in organizers’ rhetoric and the performance of the festival itself, anticipated later multiculturalism’s embrace of a pluralism founded on a recognition of non-European groups.

Significantly, the Chinese American leadership’s pluralist understanding reached and, at times, resonated with a set of non-Chinese American audiences. These included not just the tens of thousands of European Americans who attended the festival in the 1950s, but also San Francisco’s city government and the U.S. State Department. The city sought to market the festival to generate tourism. The State Department saw the celebration as an opportunity to publicize domestic racial equality in order to defuse criticism from the People’s Republic of China of the discrepancy between democratic ideology and the actual practice of race relations in the United States. Paradoxically, conservative Cold War politics intersected with the ambitions of festival organizers and the needs of the Chinese American community to create a public rhetoric of pluralism, one bearing a striking resemblance to the multiculturalism that would arise nearly two decades later on the left.
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Name: American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Yeh, Chiou-Ling. "Making Multicultural America: Cold War Politics, Ethnic Celebrations, and Chinese America" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, <Not Available>. 2013-12-16 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p113945_index.html>

APA Citation:

Yeh, C. "Making Multicultural America: Cold War Politics, Ethnic Celebrations, and Chinese America" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association <Not Available>. 2013-12-16 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p113945_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: When Communist China entered the Korean War and engaged American troops in 1950, Chinese Americans became targets of anti-Communist hysteria. In 1953, the Chinese American community in San Francisco staged the first modern Chinese New Year Festival to defuse political persecution and mitigate the business downturn that accompanied the American embargo against China. The festival’s organizing committee proclaimed that the ethnic celebration was a way to fight Communist China -- wrongly accusing the Communist regime of eliminating many traditions, including the Chinese New Year. Moreover, the committee claimed that the festival defended American democratic practices because it was a demonstration of cultural diversity. In subsequent years, the organizing committee continued to situate the ethnic festival within the Cold War context and to insist on its right to preserve ethnic traditions.

Scholars have assumed that contemporary multiculturalism emerged in the 1970s, as a product of the civil rights movement. This paper, however, argues that in complex ways, Cold War politics helped to foster an early version of multiculturalism in the 1950s, one that took shape in the presentation of the New Year Festival. The paper builds on the work of scholars such as Elaine Tyler May and Mary Dudziak, who link U.S. Cold War foreign polices to domestic cultures, and extends their argument to the realm of multiculturalism. Using community and mainstream newspapers, festival publications, and oral history interviews, the paper traces how Chinese American leaders in 1953 and after positioned the festival as a vehicle for fighting the Cold War. They drew on Cold War rhetoric to equate freedom and democracy with the continuation of ethnic diversity. In their view, the festival represented a claim that American democracy allowed Chinese and European Americans alike the right to retain their ethnic heritages, putting those heritages on an equal footing. This bid for equal recognition, manifested in organizers’ rhetoric and the performance of the festival itself, anticipated later multiculturalism’s embrace of a pluralism founded on a recognition of non-European groups.

Significantly, the Chinese American leadership’s pluralist understanding reached and, at times, resonated with a set of non-Chinese American audiences. These included not just the tens of thousands of European Americans who attended the festival in the 1950s, but also San Francisco’s city government and the U.S. State Department. The city sought to market the festival to generate tourism. The State Department saw the celebration as an opportunity to publicize domestic racial equality in order to defuse criticism from the People’s Republic of China of the discrepancy between democratic ideology and the actual practice of race relations in the United States. Paradoxically, conservative Cold War politics intersected with the ambitions of festival organizers and the needs of the Chinese American community to create a public rhetoric of pluralism, one bearing a striking resemblance to the multiculturalism that would arise nearly two decades later on the left.

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