Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Boston. Tom Brady. Cape Cod. The Salem Witch Trials. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is famously known for many things, including as one of the first landing spots of Puritan British settlers. Growing up, I learned about the landing on Plymouth Rock and the meeting of William Bradford with Chief Massasoit, which would (in)famously lead to the birth of the first Thanksgiving (f*ck you Christopher Columbus, disrespectfully).
I moved to Massachusetts when I was just 4 years old with my parents from mainland China. Like many other Chinese immigrants post 1965 immigration reform, my father would gain entry into the United States through an academic visa due to his special skills in a STEM field. My family was one of a small but populous group of Chinese immigrants to move to Massachusetts. Many of us had similar situations, and our parents seemed to cross-pollinate parenting techniques due to our shared experiences partaking in activities like weekend Chinese school, piano or violin, and swimming lessons. Although Boston had a Chinatown, where no doubt Chinese people lived in or around, many of these immigrant families ended up congregating in the leafy suburbs outside of Boston. We bought modest to slightly upscale 4 bedroom homes, and went to “high performing” “blue ribbon” schools, which usually translated to having a decent selection of AP courses, especially in STEM fields. Centuries old towns, some older than the United States itself like Lexington, Winchester, Acton, all of a sudden saw a huge surge of Chinese immigrants moving in.
Unsurprisingly, our parents instilled within us a work ethic to “succeed” (read: gain entry into an elite university). We were to attain perfect GPAs, perfect SAT scores, and leadership positions to one day be able to receive that coveted acceptance letter from the admissions office. This part does not deviate much from the model minority mindset held by many Chinese immigrants all around the country.
However, I want to talk about how I personally feel towards being a Chinese American “from” Massachusetts.
When Chinese people think of Massachusetts, they think of Boston. When they think of Boston, they think of Harvard, or “ha fuo”. I think many Chinese people deliberately move to Massachusetts to get a leg up on getting their kid into Harvard’s hallowed halls. What Chinese people don’t know about Massachusetts is just how dark its history is in relation to China. Because, beneath the liberal, progressive veneer that Massachusetts projects with its healthcare policies and high quality public schools and industries lies the dirty secret that much of Massachusetts’ growth initially came from opium trade money.
The Boston Brahmins were some of Boston’s wealthiest families of WASP identity. The wikipedia entry for the Boston Brahmins shows a long list of socialite English colonist descendants who held much political, cultural, and economic sway along the east coast throughout American history. And unfortunately, some of these families partook in the opium trade in China. The Perkins, Cabots, Cushings, and even the Delanos (the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), would end up making a fortune by dealing opium in China. The very same trade which Anglo-saxons would end up fighting a war with the Chinese to continue selling despite Chinese officials’ attempts to crack down due to the public health crisis it was causing.
Lin Zexu was the viceroy beneath the Qing Emperor who would end up writing a memorial to the British rulers, in which he condemned the injustice of British smuggling and selling of opium in China. In his memorial, he would argue that China was providing Britain with valuable and useful goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain, while Britain in return was dumping literal poison, of which they prohibited in their own country. The memorial never received a formal response, and the British would declare war on China for trying to ban the trade.
Of these trades, about 10-15% of the trade was conducted by Americans including these Boston families. Selling opium was incredibly profitable, and allowed these families to economically ascend to the highest levels. Upon accumulating such wealth, many of these families would make generous donations to institutions such as Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and to local governments for infrastructure projects. Their legacy remains today, such as the various buildings named after them on multiple university campuses. Princeton University’s largest ever private donation was gifted by John Green, an opium trader, when accounting for adjusted inflation.
When we think about the Northeast, often we think of the abolitionists. The North were “the good guys”. They wanted emancipation for black slaves. They wanted to preserve the Union. But the dirty secret about the Northeast’s success are the millions of Chinese lives ruined by the very same opium trade that uplifted its people. The hospitals, roads, and university buildings of Massachusetts and in other areas of the Northeast are not only lined with the crushed bones and dried blood of slaughtered indigenous people and enslaved Africans, but also of Chinese opium addicts. America’s progress would not have been possible without the initial capital provided to it in its early stages by the millions of dollars they poured in from the despicable opium trade. Multiple generations of American white men benefitted from these investments, and instead of rebuking the traders’ acts, we hallow them.
To properly understand how destructive this trade was, one simply has to look at the heroin and opiates epidemic that has been ravaging the United States. All across America, from Market St. in San Francisco to struggling Rust belt towns in the midwest, Americans are dying from heroin and opiate addiction and overdose. Boston is not exempt from this, as people are seen injecting heroin into their veins using bright orange syringes on the sidewalk on the Methadone Mile. Everyday, thousands of lives are destroyed for profit in the same way that the Boston Brahmins did with their opium business.
When taking into account why people abuse such narcotics, many cases are clearly tied to mental health issues and personal struggles. Depression, poverty, and trauma have high comorbidity rates alongside heroin addiction. The people who deal these drugs to such people are profiting from their pain and suffering while simultaneously causing permanent, irreversible damage to their bodies, accelerating their path to an early death. We know that the people who fall to heroin and opiates addiction are victims. We can see just how unbelievably sad it is to see these people, who deserve to be helped by their institutions and communities and live productive, fulfilling lives, end up being destroyed for profit. And yet, we simultaneously glorify historical figures who did the same thing.
Going back to my experiences, I felt like I received a lot of intersectional racism for my Chinese identity. The bullying, stereotyping, and exclusion was relentless, and the mental and physical scars continue to burden me to this day. But knowing that the same people who inflicted racist harm against me come from families who generationally benefitted from the historical destruction of my people is absolutely sickening and must be addressed. Massachusetts and the United States at large must acknowledge the harm inflicted upon China through the opium trade and the ways that it has benefitted from it. Similar to how institutions condemned the Sackler family for its profiting from OxyContin addiction, we must follow accordingly with American opium trader families.
Chinese Americans have forever been seen as outsiders to American society as cheap laborers or deviant prostitutes. In the era of the covid pandemic, anti-asian and sinophobic racism rage on to this day in full force. Despite performative gestures such as placing Asian politicians such as Michelle Wu into office, Massachusetts and America cannot truly be absolved of its crimes against Chinese people until they acknowledge the harm caused by its role in the opium trade.
Growing up, I had long believed that success just meant getting that acceptance letter or that well paid job. But now, I realize that success to me also means acknowledging the painful historical truths that have affected my and other oppressed communities. As a Chinese American, I stand proudly alongside indigenous, black, latino, and other asian activists looking to advance racial and social justice in this country and will fight for our history to be acknowledged, taught, and reparated for. No matter how blue Massachusetts votes or how much money it pumps into MassHealth or how high its school SAT scores are, Massachusetts will never be able to properly stand as a progressive leader until the ways that it was involved with and benefitted from the opium trade are properly accounted for.