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date: 08 February 2023

The Cold War and Asian American Literaturefree

The Cold War and Asian American Literaturefree

  • Heidi KimHeidi KimDepartment of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


The Cold War (defined here by the popular, though much-questioned, time frame of 1947–1991) coincides initially with a post-World War II wave of literature by Asian Americans as well as reforms affecting immigration numbers and national origins. Post-1965, further immigration reform and refugee admission led to a different wave of authors, which coincides in its turn with geopolitical shifts, including the ongoing massive conflicts and regime changes in Asia, that would ultimately lead to rapprochement and the generally accepted end of the Cold War around the late 1980s. Furthermore, these years coincide with the birth of pan-Asian American consciousness and political movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Thus, there is an unsurprising plethora of literature from this era, as well as an increasing volume of literary criticism on it, though neither usually treats the geopolitical or domestic US concerns most commonly identified with the Cold War. Asian American literature and authors importantly fit the logic of the early Cold War by illustrating, as proto-model minorities, the blessings of life in America as a contrast to an increasingly Communist-identified Asia after the “loss” of China to Communism in 1949. Their identification with Confucian or other traditional ideals also made them role models for the domestic social containment that constrained middle-class America to conformity in the 1950s (though, of course, there were less mainstream narratives that combated this trend). However, both of these narratives shifted in the 1970s. From exemplary immigrants, Asian American literary depictions turned toward much more ambivalent and traumatized refugees, chiefly from Southeast Asia. Likewise, a generation of authors rebelling against the model minority image protested racial inequities in both a domestic and international framework. Linking nation and globe via Third World solidarity, later Cold War works and post-Cold War reflections on the period heavily critiqued the US military presence in Asia and reflected on the enduring traumas and difficulties of racialization for Asian Americans inextricably identified as foreign or Other. Calling for civil rights out of a re-narrated history of exclusion, incarceration, and discrimination, rather than appealing to the vague pluralism of the early Cold War, Asian American literature illustrates this era’s conflict through exemplars of containment and a more explicitly revolutionary and diverse set of works.


  • North American Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing

The Cold War period is most often bookended by commonly recognized political events: in the United States, the 1947 National Security Act and ensuing development of the doctrine of containment, and the 1991 dissolution of the USSR. The nearly half-century period between these events coincides with radical changes in the Asian American population in the United States and massive, protracted conflict, death, and refugeeism in Asia, which caused increasing Asian immigration and political representation post–World War II, especially during the 1970s. A consideration of Asian American literature and the Cold War thus necessarily coincides not only with the development of an Asian American identity but also with many of the most important and foundational works of literature, including efforts in the 1970s to define a field of Asian American literature, anthologizing and historicizing writings from earlier in the century. Works from this era then, regardless of their particular emphases, reflect the international and domestic tensions of the Cold War in some way.

The twin poles of Cold War logic can be roughly summarized as containment of Communism abroad and containment of Communism at home, which translated socially to a repression of political and social difference that had profound repercussions for minorities of various kinds and for gender roles.1 Asian Americans, as immigrants or citizens identified with an area of the world that was rapidly “falling,” over the course of the Cold War, to Communism, thus served two political purposes: on the one hand, to demonstrate the brutality of Communist regimes in Asia, and on the other, to demonstrate the liberality and equality of American democracy.

Such cultural positioning did not fail to have further consequences for the image of Asian Americans, as when Japanese Americans were dubbed the “model minority” by sociologist William Petersen in 1966.2 The Asian American movement of the 1970s can also be seen as a direct response, a rebellion against a monolithic narrative of successful assimilation and acceptance. The authors of that generation exposed the conflict between the nation and the individual or community that had been contained by the assimilative and celebratory pressures of the early Cold War. However, this article will specifically focus on the varied Asian American literary perspectives on containment and anti-Communism, both domestic and foreign, bearing in mind that the term Asian American is an anachronistic grouping for the early decades of the Cold War. Specific ethnic literatures were no less varied in their political positions, while focusing on individual communities and cultures.

Cold War literature in the United States encompasses both formal and political shifts, as the politics of US authors changed drastically from the post–World War II period to the era of the Vietnam War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, and as modernism gave way to postmodernism. Post–World War II American literature, in general not hailed for formal innovation (with a few notable exceptions), largely moved away from the leftist critiques of the “cultural front” in the 1930s and 1940s, which Michael Denning characterizes as an avant-garde new American movement associated with the Popular Front and marked by pro-labor and anti-racist values.3 The United States’ geopolitical and cultural prominence in the wake of Europe’s devastation, and the rise of Communism around the globe, created a new climate that left many authors torn between supporting and critiquing American dominance and social cohesion. Mainstream publishing, like other booming American businesses postwar, had to serve a large and growing audience of readers, freed to read by economic prosperity and the GI Bill, who were simultaneously consuming political messages of American triumph and the uncertainties of a new war. However, over the course of the relatively conservative 1950s, new voices continued to gain a foothold in the literary mainstream and culminated in the renaissance or, in some cases, the first major flowering of several minority literatures in the 1970s, of which Asian American literature was prominently one.

The Instrumental Immigrant

Coming-to-America narratives of Asian American hardship in Asia and during immigration, transitioning to prosperity in the United States, took on a new importance during the early Cold War, demonstrating the abuses of Communism and the blessings of democracy. Such narratives continued across the entirety of the Cold War, with different national origins and differing degrees of reference to their geopolitical framework. Although it was authored by Lin Yutang, an ardent Nationalist, the novel Chinatown Family (1948) scarcely mentions Communism. Rather, the large and loving family’s experiences speak quietly for a consideration of Chinese and Chinese Americans as worthy members of democracy, implicitly contradicting a Communist identity or association. In contrast, Chin Yang Lee (published as C. Y. Lee), a student who had been stranded in the United States by the outbreak of further hostilities in China, explicitly referred to the exile and loneliness of his similarly positioned characters. In his most famous work, the novel The Flower Drum Song (1957), made more famous by its stage and film adaptations by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the romantic heroine May Li, her father, and indeed the whole Chinese American community are explicitly positioned as refugees, though some evidently immigrated before the Chinese civil war.4 In both works, the modernity of life in America awes the newer arrivals, and their old-fashioned ways serve to point up American advancement but also to remind Americans to hold onto their thrifty immigrant values.

In Cold War narratives, the harsh critique of early postwar immigrant memoir such as Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (1946), which grew out of the labor-focused perspective of the cultural front, largely disappeared. Grateful Asian American memoirists (and fictional characters) illustrated the comforts, commerce, and, for the most part, egalitarian socioeconomic opportunities of life in the United States at the same time that national political figures on the international stage, such as then–Vice President Richard Nixon, sought to paint a life under Communism (particularly the Soviet regime) as one of harsh privation. Jade Snow Wong was by far the most famous exponent of this kind of narrative, not only in her memoir of childhood and young adulthood, Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950), but also in her speaking tours for the State Department in Asia, in which she expounded the ideals of democracy and stressed the opportunities, rather than the discrimination, that she had found in the United States to a sometimes skeptical audience. She detailed these tours in a much less well-known memoir, No Chinese Stranger (1975), describing her feeling of “moral obligation” to help East–West relations. Interestingly, perhaps reflecting the slightly freer and more critical climate of the 1970s and/or her own shifting politics, she sneaks in an aside about how “‘Communist’ was a catch-all, a scapegoat term,” much as Asians she met on her travels denigrated all Americans as capitalist.5

In these representations of new immigrants, now seen as charmingly quaint amid US postwar prosperity rather than an economic yellow peril, even the difficulties of Asian American characters (or memoirists) illustrated good old-fashioned American values. The Wongs’ frugality, as Jade Snow learns to do the marketing properly, or Old Master Wang’s parsimony in The Flower Drum Song, rather than offending, demonstrated the desire of Asians to succeed by their own efforts in American society. These works mentioned but largely glossed over inequity, prejudice, and discrimination, except as they pointed up the greater determination and success of their exemplary protagonists. In particular, Jade Snow Wong purports to be stunned to be told of her limited career opportunities outside Chinatown, though her astonishment reads as somewhat incredible considering the segregation of Chinatown. Moreover, although Wong’s memoir was extolled as evidence of assimilation and exemplarity, her ventures into mainstream white society are fleeting. Within the memoir, they are contained neatly in Chinatown, as her ceramics career both draws upon traditional Chinese forms and sees her literally seated in a Chinatown shop window. Her triumph, not only in ceramics, but also in the memoir that the reader holds in her (or his) hands, implicitly provides the counter to the erroneous claims of discrimination by an unnamed white American. Even C. Y. Lee’s explicit reflection on the limitations of opportunity that drive young Chinese American male characters to work in a restaurant in The Flower Drum Song is softened by the focus on the protagonist’s love life.

To some extent, even the 1950s memoirs of Japanese American incarceration during World War II ironically fed into this image of equality, since these narratives often contrasted the trauma of the concentration camps in equal measure with the prosperity and happiness that the (usually) US-born authors and their immigrant parents experienced prewar. Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953), for example, devoted half the memoir to a happy and even idyllic childhood and adolescence prewar, only rarely marred by racial discrimination. Even during her family’s incarceration, one of the most detailed anecdotes tells of her brother’s chaotic wedding, celebrated with special passes into the nearby town to shop, relatively abundant refreshments at the reception, and hilarious makeshifts and hijinks.6 Likewise, many of these early memoirs ended with scenes of reconciliation and contained no sense of blame for the American government or society. Such narratives, in addition to recuperating the image of Japanese America, spoke also to the recuperation of the US public’s image of Japan postwar, as it became an important bulwark against Communism in Asia. Rather than calling for the US to examine its past actions, they recast Japanese Americans culturally and capitalistically as normative participants in American life.

Containing and Celebrating Racial Difference

The supposedly traditional and characteristically Asian values of restraint and discipline perfectly suited the early Cold War ethos of containment at home, a philosophy by which difference and deviation were portrayed as opportunities for Communist infiltration, with profoundly damaging effects for homosexuals (the “Lavender Scare”) and heavy pressures toward assimilatory, middle-class behavior for racial and ethnic minorities. White, middle-class, heterosexual, single-family units blanketed media portrayals as the postwar marriage and baby boom, paired with the rise of suburbia, created an aspirational vision of harmonious American family life and society. So, too, did the family narratives of Asian American literature in this era build a picture of Asians who could fit into that vision.

Wong’s memoir, Fifth Chinese Daughter, was perhaps the paramount example of the type of duality that Asian American narratives, particularly female-centered narratives, could specially encompass by celebrating liberation from a more backward culture but using that traditionalism to guard against fears of too much freedom in America. The memoir focuses on her strict father and mother and the careful rearing of all the children—but particularly the girls—in an upwardly mobile working-class family. The modernization and liberation of the growing Jade Snow are tempered by her Chinese values and filiality, as well as the supervision of her tightly-knit immigrant family. “Daddy had never permitted . . . his daughters either to learn to dance or to attend dances.” Wong slowly develops a social life behind his back, and matters come to a head when a Chinese American boy asks her out to a movie, and both her father and her mother forbid her to go and “run the risk of corrupting your purity before marriage.” But Wong asserts herself, promising to “remain true to the spirit of [their] teachings,” but that she also has to “[grow] up to be a woman in a society greatly different from the one [they] knew in China.”7 However, as she lives at home throughout almost all of her childhood and young adulthood, with only brief stints living-in as a domestic worker in adolescence and during her years at Mills College, this freedom is indeed partly a matter of spirit. Such a narrative perfectly suited an era in which the average age of Americans at marriage dropped and in which women, who had entered the workforce in relatively large numbers during the war, had to be relegated to the home to make way for returning veterans. By playing out her liberation in a social setting, with the only opposition arising from her parents, Wong captured the spirit of postwar containment and liberalism.

Some novelists were able to avoid hewing to the containment ethos, though they did so by depicting Chinatown as separate and sometimes exoticized, a life that was essentially foreign to the rest of the United States. These works did not shrink from portraying squalor, crime, and the sexual desires of their characters, which reflected decades of legally imposed gender imbalances among Chinese Americans. Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea boldly took on the topics of sexual immorality, infidelity, and violence in New York Chinatown among the younger, US-born population who are still ruled by their “bachelor” elders. Although Chu was not concerned with making his characters conform to the morals and exterior appearances of containment, his Chinatown setting nonetheless depicts a society similarly affected by changing demographics, as the young married couples must push out the elder generation. The novel suggests that because of the discriminatory laws that governed their lives and marriages, the immigrant generation cannot participate in this new postwar society. Lee’s The Flower Drum Song dealt heavily with the sex life of the young male protagonist (his focus in lieu of having any real career opportunities in US society), and Lee’s little-known succeeding novel Lover’s Point also deals with sexual intimacy as a decidedly insufficient compensation for the loneliness and fragmentation of life for Asian Americans of all ethnicities, from an abandoned Japanese war bride to a stranded Chinese exile in postwar San Francisco.8 The more obvious presence of racial segregation and prejudice in such works offered a very different set of containing forces.

Wong’s fame and her State Department–sponsored activities clearly demonstrate which literary depictions of Chinese Americans gained mainstream favor; her narrative of a united and virtuous family and a successful young Chinese American reflected postwar domestic ideals. In the 1960s and 1970s, as changing cultural mores and second wave feminism rapidly changed views of what was desirable, the family would nonetheless remain an important vehicle for the portrayal of Asian Americans. More and more often, however, the containing family unit would be burst or betrayed in literature by the rebellious American-born child claiming more freedom or a non-Asian identity. Likewise, a focus on the limitations imposed by society would become more explicit and more widely accepted. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, for example, poses her as combating first her family and then a hostile outside world, following in the footsteps of a Fa Mulan–like mythic figure. However, as the controversy over orientalist reception of The Woman Warrior showed, mainstream perceptions still often focused on elements that were considered traditionally Asian, such as the disciplining and strongly united family.9 This coincided with the rise of the “model minority” stereotype, which partly attributed Asian American success to the strength of family networks that had previously been considered pernicious means of illegal immigration and unfair economic competition; the strong Asian American family became the counter to rising stereotypes of broken and dysfunctional African American families. Thus, even as mainstream social constructions were shifting, the fears that such change bred resulted in the continuing identification of Asian Americans with a containing family unit.

The Early Cold War and the Writer-in-Exile

The 1950s saw the first wave of formally recognized refugees from Asia, though the relatively small number of refugees from Communist China were, for the most part, lost in the much more popular discussion of waves of refugees from Europe, particularly Southern and Eastern Europe. Beginning with the turbulent days of the Nationalist–Communist conflict in China (which predates the usual commencement of the Cold War in US political history), a number of educated, elite refugees or transnational dwellers—nearly always women, echoing the popularity of Madame Chiang Kai-shek as a representative of an enlightened, Westernizing China—wrote of their personal experiences or of general conditions in war-torn China; this class of memoirs and nonfiction, largely forgotten after a decade or two, targeted and presumably found a small elite audience just as the authors found their way into elite cultural circles, chiefly in New York. (For example, Mai-Mai Sze, the Wellesley-educated daughter of a Chinese diplomat, was the longtime companion of costume designer Irene Sharaff; Helena Kuo became a prominent literary figure and married the artist Dong Kingman.)

The form of these memoirs thus unsurprisingly focused largely on the exotic and privileged childhoods of the writers, with the rising tide of Communism and the harrowing refugee journey compressed into a hasty chapter or two, then briefly capped by happy endings in America. In Kuo’s memoir I’ve Come a Long Way (1942), the first and most influential of this genre, her childhood in Macao, full of memories of perfumes, tapestries, and Western-influenced schooling, serves to engender the reader’s sympathy for her suffering during her trip on a riverboat steamer across China, at the very beginning of a journey that would turn her into an “expert refugee.” While Kuo’s memoir predates the traditional time frame of the Cold War, its lasting impact in the 1940s and Kuo’s prominence during the next decade make it important to examine in this context. Arriving at the dock “expecting that our official positions would enable us to obtain passages reserved by the government,” Kuo finds herself instead buying a sailor’s berth in steerage, “pitch dark and . . . as stuffy and fetid as a lion house at a zoo. . . . Every possible kind of vermin slithered down the walls.”10 These brief but vivid passages seal her identity as a suffering refugee in the mind of the reader.

Yet refugee experience is only part of her identity; it does not define it. Like Wong, Kuo stakes out her self-worth with a kind of America-identified feminism expressed through rebellion against traditional Chinese expectations for women and a desire to serve her country. She leaves her traditional fiancé when he expects her to give up her job and go live with his mother: “Back to bondage again, to scrub floors and wait on a family. Never!” Kuo modestly and appealingly describes feelings of insecurity and insufficiency next to men with important government careers. When an influential American flippantly decides, “I think this girl will be a good ambassadress for Free China. . . . I think we might export her,” Kuo is overwhelmed with gratitude for this opportunity to tell the world about a modernized China. She speaks specifically for the women of China in her book, extolling the possibilities of her country when it is reborn out of its current conflict.11 Diana Chang’s novel The Frontiers of Love (1956), often cited as one of the first novels by an Asian American woman, occupies a similar space, dramatizing the struggles of three elite mixed-race women in Shanghai in 1945. The protagonist temporarily finds an identity and a cause in Communism, but turns away for personal reasons, offering a sentimental anti-Communism.12

Writers such as Kuo or Chang addressed China and US feelings toward China rather than a specifically Chinese American or (anachronistically speaking) Asian American experience, relying upon sympathetic, feminized visions of Asia and Asians. Even the sections on the authors’ lives in America usually dealt with their feelings of gratitude, bemusement, and cultural clash or—equally illustrative and sympathetic—their easy transition among the international elite. As the conflict in China settled into a Communist victory, these appeals to the US public died down.

Perhaps the only literary output of this kind in the next decade came from Richard Kim, who viewed himself as a Korean in exile and offered a much darker and more complex vision of the intertwining of anti-Communist conflict and its impact on individual lives. His first novel, The Martyred (1964), offers a remarkable existential meditation on the nature of truth, faith, and political alienation during the Korean War. The narrator, Lee, must investigate the murder of twelve North Korean Christian ministers by Communist forces in order to potentially use them for propaganda. However, in the course of his investigation, he finds that the lone sane survivor, Mr. Shin, reviled as a traitor who caved to Communist pressure and therefore survived, has actually chosen to hide his own heroism and the complicity of the executed men in order to invent the martyrs that he feels the suffering Korean public requires. “And they [the Communists] laughed at us,” Mr. Shin preaches to an angry congregation, furthering this propagandistic lie. “They said it did not really matter whether or not we signed. They laughed at us. . . .” The veiled irony of Shin’s words, which suggest that the truth does not actually matter to the anti-Communist side either, devastates Lee, who keeps insisting (for the protection of his own worldview) that Shin’s motive is a selfish desire to protect the church. Lee and Shin’s confrontations coincide with Lee’s mental and physical breakdown and the war’s downturn. The weight of the truth is too much for most characters. Shin dies a true martyr in the North, and the son of one of the false martyrs, who figuratively dies of the burden of knowing his father’s guilt, writes, “I have been clinging to the precipice of History, but I give up.” Lee, however, survives with a strange sense of hope for the future—a completely unspecified future which, in a sense, links him as a character to Kim, who had himself served in the South Korean army and later immigrated to the United States, and suggests that the unspecified future is one not only of Korean political and nation-state status but also of Korean and Korean American identity.13

Though, like the war it depicts, Kim’s novel—a critical success and bestseller that doubtless appealed to a US public struggling with the ethics of the Vietnam War—was forgotten for a time, its republication and Kim’s return to literary acclaim in the 2000s reflect the aching uncertainty of the Cold War and its narrative demands on Asian Americans and Asians. These writers carved out literary careers in the United States before a politicized Asian America came into existence. They reflect in their lives and works the ways in which Asia was riven by conflict in this era and the limitations of narrative to capture fully the difficulties of speaking out, first as an author in Asia and then as an elite refugee and perpetual foreigner in America. Even the thin optimism offered at the ends of these narratives would diminish later in the Cold War as conflict in Asia and the United States’ ambivalence toward it increased.

The Later Cold War and the Refugee Writer

Memoirs by 1970s and 1980s refugees from Southeast Asia, who arrived in unprecedented numbers enabled by special federal legislation, take a different approach in narrative by emphasizing the hardships and brutalities of their lives in Asia and as refugees. In a sense, such narratives retreaded the path of earlier refugee memoirs by implicitly reinforcing the dichotomy between an Asia tragically fallen to Communism and the promise of American democracy. However, their nuanced depictions of problematic American involvement in Asia, how trauma followed refugees to the United States, and the far-from-easy transitions into American society paint a more hesitant picture of late Cold War geopolitical relations. Likewise, they firmly established the figure of the Asian refugee in American popular consciousness in ways that the elite postwar Chinese American writers had eschewed, paving the way for similar narratives by those of other ethnicities.

A Cambodian Odyssey (1987), Haing S. Ngor’s coauthored memoir, arriving on the heels of his Oscar-winning performance in The Killing Fields, brought the Cambodian genocide further into American popular consciousness, with excerpts in Reader’s Digest and a wave of sentimental mainstream media coverage. Ngor draws the reader into the contradictions of his experiences: his precarious, near-starvation existence under the Khmer Rouge and the surreal glitter of the Academy Awards ceremony. Like the previous generation of refugee writers, Ngor, a physician in Cambodia, came from a well-to-do family. Though the memoir glosses over his childhood quickly, he nonetheless serves as the educated, Westernized narrator of this English narrative dotted with as many French words as Cambodian. The narrative takes less time than early Cold War memoirs to establish his elite status, in favor of detailing the loving relationship between himself and his wife, Huoy, and their excruciating suffering under the brutal regime.14 He operates as a figure who can bridge a modernizing Asia with the United States and offer a more familiar, sympathetic version of the refugee to mainstream readers.

Though Ngor achieved the most mainstream fame of all refugee writers, even the starry success of his film experience is constantly undercut by memories of his trauma, as he describes weeping uncontrollably throughout his audition and a public film screening and feeling intense guilt at his privilege in the movie world compared to his life and work among other refugees. Despite a lengthier, happier description of the Academy Awards near the close, his narrative concludes with deep ambivalence; he still deeply grieves the death of his wife, unable to move on and find someone else. His niece Sophia has run away from him and cannot be found, and there are ongoing human rights violations in Cambodia. Ngor’s narrative questions the efficacy of the old immigrant or refugee narrative as a reconciling or happy journey, instead suggesting that neither the political nor the personal can be healed by the United States.

Cultural bridging is also the ostensible goal of Le Ly Hayslip’s first and most famous memoir, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1990), later made into an Oscar-nominated film by Oliver Stone. Hayslip attempts to explain the Viet Cong and how “long before [Americans] arrived, my country had yielded to the terrible logic of war.” She observes that “we knew little of democracy and even less about communism,” but her memoir contrasts the two states in an oblique fashion, as she learns about the United States via her encounters with American men in different positions of power in Vietnam. Isolated and harried, Hayslip must deal with officials in order to bribe her way to America, undercutting the potentially triumphant escape narrative with tales of incessant corruption and resentment, including that of her own family. Nor does her marriage serve as a means of bridging or reconciliation, as her much-older husband often is distant or absent, unaware of or indifferent to the difficulties that she is facing in arranging the departure. Even the extremely brief account of her visit to Vietnam in 1986, though it depicts a full emotional reconciliation with her family, ends as the view of Ky La “vanishes into memory,” but in its place the reader receives no very happy or full picture of Hayslip’s life in America.15

Asian American refugee writing, begun in late Cold War works and burgeoning in later decades, offered ambivalent and complex identities for writers and protagonists, who could still be upheld as exemplary achievers of the American dream in the wider society but expressed deep conflict about that position. (Such writing of post-Communist refugee memoir continued in the 2000s in a new wave of memoirs by North Korean refugees.) A number of other works not commonly thought of specifically as Cold War literature can be read through a similar set of themes. Toward the end of the Cold War, a number of works appeared focusing on immigrants who were particularly affected by United States and other imperialist linkages of an earlier era, exposing the difficulties of their supposedly model minority lives. Velina Hasu Houston’s play Tea (1987) describes the decades-long struggle of Japanese war brides against isolation and hostility. Kim Ronyoung (Gloria Hahn)’s Clay Walls (1987), though set before World War II, speaks to the difficulties of a Korean family’s transition to life in America, complicated by their ongoing concern with the political situation in Asia (in the novel, Korea’s movement for independence from Japan) as well as the US climate after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jasmine (1989), by Bharati Mukherjee, depicts the violent and turbulent life in America of a very young woman from Punjab whose emigration to the United States commences after the death of her husband in a bombing. Jasmine (whose name changes to reflect her shifting localities and identities) had been predicted in her childhood to live in “exile” by an astrologer, but the novel ends with her determination to reshape that fate. Her life is counterpointed by that of her adoptive son, Du, a Vietnamese refugee; “[w]e’ve seen the worst and survived,” she thinks at the end, as she leaves the middle-aged white man she is living with, who calls her Jane and cannot understand her life. Such works move far away from the more celebratory refugee tales of elite Chinese in the 1940s and 1950s.16

Even Amy Tan’s popular Joy Luck Club (1989), usually thought of as a tale of loving but combative mother–daughter relationships and often condemned for its negative depictions of Asian American men, can be read as a Cold War refugee text, as the framing narrative of the story focuses on events caused by the Chinese civil war. Suyuan, who fled China and left behind twin daughters, constantly battles with her US-born daughter Jing-Mei, a failed piano prodigy. Only when Jing-Mei goes to China and meets her long-lost half-sisters, recognizing their familial resemblance, does she reconcile with the memory of her dead mother, whose pain and desperation she now understands in its refugee context. While again the strongly reconciliatory tone of Joy Luck Club, as well as the distracting descriptive writing, serves to mask its politics, it nonetheless both originates and ends with a contemplation of Asian refugee experience and how it carries forward into Asian American identity formation.17

Such later works depict the peculiar difficulties of Asian Americans who were affected both emotionally and publicly by the constantly shifting foreign policies of the United States and the collateral conflict within their own countries of origin, which were racked by the conflict between Communist and anti-Communist nations and forces (even the Sikh nationalists of Jasmine carry Uzis and Kalashnikovs, and others import goods from Eastern Europe).18 While such interpretations of Asian American experience did not necessarily shift mainstream views away from orientalism, they importantly constructed a genealogy of ambivalence and a renewed emphasis and contradicted an ethnic nationalist emphasis on US experience in favor of an insistence on the transnational lives of Asian Americans. Works such as these paved the way for a new generation of refugee writers in the 2010s, when Southeast Asian American writing in particular reached new prominence.

From Containment to Civil Rights

Concerns with imperialism abroad could hardly fail to be linked to concerns about equality and representation at home. In later decades, scholars came to see the domestic struggle for civil rights as inseparable from the larger social and political framework of the Cold War; the United States, as the beacon for democracy abroad, constantly faced the difficulty of addressing its own conflicts and inequities. For Asian American authors, the popularity and efficacy of such narratives largely arrived with the political movement in the 1970s with a new generation of chiefly US-born Asian American writers who broke free of Cold War containment in both the domestic and the foreign policy senses. These writers protested the geopolitical situation that spoke most clearly to the tenuous position of the Asian in the US imperial project, forged Third World alliances, and worked to reclaim their own racial identities and experiences from the pressures of domestic politics.

Kingston, in China Men (1980), wrote of “The Brother in Vietnam” not merely as a reflection of her own brother’s actual experiences in Vietnam, but also of her family’s long history of war, from World War II to the Chinese civil war to Vietnam. The impossibility of avoiding war, and its toll on the innocent, runs through her family’s memories of fleeing the Communists and her brother’s mournful reflection over the napalm-filled photos of his student who has already gone to Vietnam. The chaos of his experiences, from his bad dreams to the illogic of the army and the brutalities of war, cause his life to temporarily lose meaning when he comes home; even familiar Chinese traditions cannot ground him for a while. Kingston elaborates on the peculiar stress for Asian American soldiers: the “faces of the strung-up people are also those of his own family, Chinese faces, Chinese eyes, noses, and cheekbones.” This is a reflection not merely on appearance, but also on the political position of Asian Americans caught in a net of illogical racialist policies.19

This political dilemma would continue to concern Kingston throughout her work, expanding to a consideration not only of the difficulty of Asian Americans’ political positioning but also their ability to enter into cross-racial alliances, something that she mentioned in passing as early as The Woman Warrior (1976). Her depiction of Wittman Ah Sing, a peace activist in Tripmaster Monkey (1990), though humorous and absurdist, reflects upon the difficulty of finding common cause as Wittman encounters people of different races and creeds across Hawai‘i. Such cross-racial solidarity and its possibilities became another common topic for Asian American writers seeking to explore the rapidly shifting politics of race after the 1970s. Activist/writer Frank Chin’s plays offer an occasionally homoerotic admiration of black masculinity as a model for the politically and socially emasculated Asian American male. This is only one element, however, of Chin’s advocacy of art as activism that, like Kingston’s work, seeks to recapture Chinese American history and political power. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s renowned experimental text Dictée can also be read in this political light, especially in her focus on female revolutionaries past and present.20

One key inspiration of literature dealing with domestic discrimination and injustice was the Japanese American incarceration, which generated memoirs, novels, poetry, and drama over the course of the Cold War. While immediate postwar memoirs had steered clear of direct attacks on government policy, John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957), written at the height of containment, exposes the failure of government policy by focusing on the plight of Ichiro, once a promising Nisei college student but now adrift and ostracized for refusing to take the loyalty oath or serve in the military. Trapped by his loyalty to his fanatically pro-Japanese mother, Ichiro is contrasted with his friend Kenji, who is dying of a wound he received during his military service; these two characters represent the poles of young male Japanese America in their political actions during the war, but both are alienated from full participation in society and, indeed, life itself. Neither through school, employment, nor even in the symbolic body of a loving and equally wounded woman (Emi, a war widow) can Ichiro reconcile himself to the nation. Even the act of violence that concludes the novel, which may drive one particularly hostile veteran to recognize the common emotional horror that both veterans and “no-no boys” face, does not allow Ichiro to achieve a sense of reconciliation.21

Later narratives of the incarceration, such as Lawson Fusao Inada’s poetry collection Before the War (1971) (as well as his more famous post–Cold War collection, Legends from Camp [1992]) and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar (1973), tended to be more direct in their critique of government actions, though still mostly stopping short of naming names or assigning individual blame. In particular, the Houstons’ harsh descriptions of the conditions of camp and the failure to reestablish lives and communities postwar was a drastic shift away from the 1950s narratives of prosperity and postwar peace.22

Other narratives of this era, rather than dealing with civil rights in the legal sense, instead attacked orientalism (particularly after the publication of Edward Said’s influential study Orientalism [1978]) and argued for full social visibility and acceptance for Asian Americans. Two seminal plays by David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda, M. Butterfly (1988) and Yankee Dawg You Die, treated mainstream perceptions of Asian American masculinity as a question of socioeconomic equality. Yankee Dawg’s two Japanese American protagonists, divided by generation; political views on race, gender, and sexuality; and career aspirations, clash continually on the proper way of being an Asian American actor and role model but find their opportunities and choices inextricably linked and limited by the same social forces and their shared status as the perpetual foreigner. M. Butterfly provocatively takes up a similar question of Asian emasculation and performance ostensibly set in Communist China, suggesting that the belief in Western superiority and machismo that leads Gallimard, a French minor diplomat, to fall in love with Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer, and think him to be a woman, is the same blindness that led Western nations into morasses such as the Vietnam War. “[You thought that] being Oriental, I could never be completely a man,” Song taunts Gallimard with the personal and geopolitical blindness that ruins his career. Hwang links social inequality at home to Cold War logic via the disjointed Chinese setting and American diction and cadence, reminding the audience that foreign containment and domestic social acceptance are, for Asian Americans, two sides of the same coin.23

Discussion of the Literature

The beginning of the Cold War period coincides with a wave of post–World War II literature by US-born Asian Americans as well as the start of growth in immigration. Post-1965, immigration reform and refugee admission lead to another wave of authors, which coincides with geopolitical shifts that would ultimately lead to rapprochement and the popularly conceived “end” of the Cold War in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Furthermore, these coincide with the birth of pan–Asian American consciousness and political movements in the late 1960s and 1970s.24 What is more, Asian American literature continues to reflect on the turmoil of this era, in notable works such as Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land (1996), in which a young Chinese American girl struggles with her identity in the late 1960s, or, focusing more explicitly on politics, Susan Choi’s American Woman (2003), in which a Japanese American anarchist bomber caught up in a roman à clef tale of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping mingles her resentment of the Japanese American incarceration with her anger at the Vietnam War and racial prejudice at home. The transnational works of Ha Jin, who writes about life in both post–Cold War Communist China and the United States, also exemplifies a new literature focused on a rapidly shifting post–Cold War ethos of political and cultural conflict.25

Thus, an unsurprising plethora of studies deal with the literature, authors, and concerns of the commonly designated Cold War period, but until recently, few explicitly framed them through Cold War narratives and political events. (South Asian diasporic writing, in particular, has not been interpreted as often within a Cold War framework because of the lack of direct identification with Communism, though again, many works in this time period can be read as inflected by the overarching geopolitical concerns of the Cold War.) More commonly, those studies that place the literature in a historical framework have adopted the master narrative of Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts (1996), framing Asian American literature through a series of US government interventions (or an overarching imperialist project), but not necessarily placing those in the explicit context of the Cold War, instead focusing on domestic racialization (following Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, 1986) or imperialism and foreign policy with regard to specific countries (Vietnam War and refugee policy, for example).26 However, newer studies focused on the Cold War unite these two perspectives, in keeping with the continuing trend of viewing the Cold War not only as an anti-Communist foreign policy but also as a set of related policies and restrictions within the United States.

The extensive work of Asian Americanist historians during and about the Cold War is essential to fully comprehend the political pressures under which artists operated during these years. Histories and sociological studies, such as the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study published as The Spoilage (1946) and The Salvage (1952), Rose Hum Lee’s The Chinese in the United States of America (1960), and Betty Lee Sung’s Mountain of Gold (1967), demonstrate the pressures of assimilation and the fractures within various ethnic communities. In the 2010s, historians have revisited the complex positioning of Asian Americans in the Cold War, moving away from defining them by assimilation or complicity and reexamining the transnational nature of their lives or images. Cindy Cheng’s Citizens of Asian America (2013), Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success (2014), and Madeline Hsu’s The Good Immigrants (2015) all describe how the construction of the public image of Asian America was inflected by Cold War concerns at home and abroad, highlighting authors such as Jade Snow Wong and C. Y. Lee. These works provide invaluable context for the lives and publications of Asian American authors in this era, considering their place in the largely black-and-white dialogue over civil rights, the construction of the model minority conception, and the contrast between elite student or refugee migrants and working-class or undocumented migrants.27

Amidst the surge of work on Cold War cultural topics in the 1990s and 2000s, Christina Klein’s important work on Cold War Orientalism (2003) refigures cultural ties between America and Asia during the Cold War as sentimental and integrationist. Thus, Asian and Asian American people and characters became essential bridges between the two regions, wielded philanthropically by figures of national and international celebrity such as Pearl Buck, Oscar Hammerstein, and Dr. Tom Dooley, at the same time that they were subject to the containing pressures of domestic US society. Klein’s book paved the way for a reexamination of how Asians were used to further the cultural logic of the Cold War, an area of investigation continued by scholars such as Caroline Chung Simpson.28

For the most part, literary criticism explicitly about Asian American literature and the Cold War has focused as much on the afterlives of the Cold War as on the era itself; given the number of literary works still focusing on the Cold War, this trend can be expected to continue. Contemporary critics, tracing the transnational and diasporic lives depicted in Asian American fiction, have used Cold War and post–Cold War era cultural productions to trace the lineage of American incursions in Asia and their effects on Asian America. Josephine Nock-hee Park’s Cold War Friendships (2016) examines both Cold War–era writings and later works that revisit the precarious position of Asians or Asian Americans who are “friendlies,” not quite friends, essential to the imperial incursion into Asia and also to the project of integration. Taking the reverse perspective, Jodi Kim’s Ends of Empire (2010) offers a reading of how Asian American literature and film disrupt the logic of the Cold War, as seen in government documents, by “imagin[ing] alternatives to empire” in addition to betraying the contradictory, incomplete, and perilous ends of empire—and the Cold War. Both of these important studies examine how Cold War foreign policy and containment make incursions into the domestic scene, Park’s via the depicted body of the refugee and Kim’s via cultural production.29

Links to Digital Materials

Most literary archives from this period are not yet digitized due to copyright, but there are a plethora of digital archives of contextualizing historical documents and oral histories. The following are only a small sample.

Further Reading

  • Borstelmann, Thomas. The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Cheng, Cindy I-fen. Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race During the Cold War. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
  • Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Hsu, Madeline Yuan-yin. The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Kim, Jodi. Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Nadel, Alan. Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Park, Josephine Nock-Hee. Cold War Friendships : Korea, Vietnam, and Asian American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Von Eschen, Penny M. “Who’s the Real Ambassador? Exploding Cold War Racial Ideology.” In Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945–1966, edited by Christian G. Appy, 110–132. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
  • Wu, Ellen D. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.


  • 1. Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).

  • 2. William Petersen, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” The New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966, 20–21, 33, 36, 38, 40–41, 43.

  • 3. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1998).

  • 4. Lin Yutang, Chinatown Family, ed. Cheng Lok Chua (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007). Biographical information about Lee is given in Madeline Yuan-yin Hsu, The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 104; C. Y. Lee, The Flower Drum Song (London: Pan Books, 1960), 214; and Henry Koster, “Flower Drum Song” (Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 1961), 133 min.

  • 5. Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart: A Personal History (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946); Jade Snow Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950); and Jade Snow Wong, No Chinese Stranger (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 55, 92.

  • 6. Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953).

  • 7. Wong, Fifth Chinese Daughter, 114, 129–130.

  • 8. Louis Chu, Eat a Bowl of Tea (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1961); and C. Y. Lee, Lover’s Point (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958).

  • 9. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York: Vintage International, 1989); and Maxine Hong Kingston, “Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers,” in Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, ed. Guy Amirthanayagam (London: Macmillan, 1982), reprint.

  • 10. Helena Kuo, I’ve Come a Long Way (New York: D. Appleton, 1942), 228, 230–231.

  • 11. Kuo, I’ve Come a Long Way, 240, 244.

  • 12. Diana Chang, The Frontiers of Love (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).

  • 13. Richard Kim, The Martyred (New York: Brazilier, 1964), 123, 193.

  • 14. Haing Ngor, A Cambodian Odyssey (New York: Macmillan, 1987); and Roland Joffe, “The Killing Fields” (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 1984), 141 min.

  • 15. Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace (New York: Plume, 1990), xiv, xv, 362; and Oliver Stone, “Heaven and Earth” (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 1993), 140 min. Ngor also appeared in the film Heaven and Earth.

  • 16. Velina Hasu Houston, Tea (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2007); Kim Ronyoung, Clay Walls (Sag Harbor, NY: Permanent Press, 1987); and Bharati Muhkerjee, Jasmine (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 240.

  • 17. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (New York: Penguin, 2006).

  • 18. Bharati Muhkerjee, Jasmine (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 63, 75.

  • 19. Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men (New York: Knopf, 1980), 291.

  • 20. Kingston, The Woman Warrior; Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (New York: Knopf, 1989). For discussions of Chin, see, for example, Daniel Y. Kim, Writing Manhood in Black and Yellow: Ralph Ellison, Frank Chin, and the Literary Politics of Identity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

  • 21. John Okada, No-No Boy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).

  • 22. Lawson Fusao Inada, Before the War: Poems as They Happened (New York: Morrow, 1971), and Legends from Camp (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 1992); and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D Houston, Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience during and after the World War II Internment (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

  • 23. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1994); David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York: New American Library, 1988); and Philip Kan Gotanda, Yankee Dawg You Die (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1991).

  • 24. For a discussion of this shift, see Min Song, The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

  • 25. Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land (New York: Knopf, 1996); and Susan Choi, American Woman (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

  • 26. Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

  • 27. Dorothy S. Thomas and Richard Nishimoto, The Spoilage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946, 1969); Dorothy S. Thomas, The Salvage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952); Rose Hum Lee, The Chinese in the United States of America (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960); Betty Lee Sung, Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America (New York: Macmillan, 1967); Cindy I-fen Cheng, Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race During the Cold War (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Hsu, The Good Immigrants; and Ellen D. Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

  • 28. Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); and Caroline Chung Simpson, An Absent Presence: Japanese Americans in Postwar American Culture, 1945–1960 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

  • 29. Josephine Nock-Hee Park, Cold War Friendships: Korea, Vietnam, and Asian American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Jodi Kim, Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).