Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Did the coolie exist? Yes and no. On one hand, there have been, since the sixteenth century, people called “coolies.” On the other, the word “coolie” names historically not a person but a type of work, or rather, an interface between personhood and work, mediated by race, that affected the global history of labor from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Though we can say that certain people have historically been called or have called themselves “coolies, " we can also say that the “coolie” has never really existed. Or if it has existed, it has only done so as a sociocultural concept whose various dimensions-historical, economic, racial, political, syntactic-make up a complex that could not have been, and were never, embodied in a single person or group of people. Let us distinguish, then, between what history has called “a coolie, " meaning a single worker from India or China, usually recruited to do common or heavy labor in the Americas in the nineteenth century, and what it has called “the coolie, " a concept larger than any single worker, whose deployment in the economic and political language of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries constitutes a crucial part of transnational Asian American history. To put it in more forceful terms, the person called “a coolie, " or even the total collection of people so thought (“coolies”), should not be considered identical to the concept of “the coolie” that governed them. (Similarly, culture differentiates “an American” from “the American, " “a Negro” from “the Negro” only the second of these uses will lend itself to adjectival formations like “the Negro problem, " or nominal ones like “Americanism.”) In this way “the coolie” has a strange relationship to the idea of the human person. Like the “slave, " which describes a kind of person who according to legal and practical use is less than a person, the “coolie” is a kind of person whose relation to work and to race marks him (for the figure of the coolie is male, if not unproblematically so) as less than human. At the same time, because the word refers to an entire complex of socially organized conceptions of labor and practices of being, the “coolie, " like the “slave, " also refers to something far greater than a single human person, who would be dwarfed by the immense history of hope, violence, economy, and politics that lie behind the word.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781317698418
ISBN (Print)9780415642484
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

Cite this