New Books Series: Q&A with Chris Suh about `The Allure of Empire`

Background image above: “The Yellow Peril,” Puck 55, no. 1412 (March 23, 1904). Keppler & Schwarzmann. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC- DIG- ppmsca- 25833.

Chris Suh, Assistant Professor of History, recently published The Allure of Empire: American Encounters with Asians in the Age of Transpacific Expansion & Exclusion with Oxford UP. In the Q&A below, Dr. Suh gives us a glimpse into the making of this, his first monograph, as part of the History Department’s New Faculty Publications series.

Books are produced over years if not decades. Give us a sense for the lifespan of this book, from initial idea to final edits.

I found the seeds of this book project when I unexpectedly came across the diaries of an Emory alum, Yun Ch’i-ho ’1893, our first international student. The summer before I began graduate school, I lived with my parents in South Korea. I hoped to use this opportunity to travel and learn more about the country where I had not lived full-time for a decade. I didn’t plan on using that summer to work on any projects. But one day, I read an interesting newspaper article about a late-19th-century Korean reformer who had studied in the United States. Yun is a prominent figure in Korean history, and there was a lot of existing literature, especially in Korean, that explored his career as a reformer in the final years of the Chosun dynasty. But no scholar at the time had paid attention to what made him stand out to me—that he had studied in the American South at the height of Jim Crow (later, in 2014, Professor Andy Urban at Rutgers University would publish the first article focusing on Yun’s student days in the South based on his postdoctoral work with the Transforming Community Project at Emory). I followed the footnotes in existing studies of Yun and learned that a version of his diaries had been published by the National Institute of Korean History (Kuksa Pʻyŏnchʻan Wiwŏnhoe). So I ended up spending much of my summer in Korea reading his diaries, which he kept from 1883 to 1943. After I entered graduate school, I was able to use this source as an entry point to what eventually become the subject of my doctoral dissertation and my book: race, empire, and transpacific encounters between the US and East Asia from the late 19th century to World War II, an era that is often characterized by the American fear of the “Yellow Peril.”

Over the seven years I spent in graduate school, I had many opportunities to make sense of what I read in Yun’s diaries and find other historical figures who had different takes on some of the same problems with which he grappled. This is where coursework proved important. I was extremely lucky to take seminars with Yumi Moon on the problem of collaboration and empire in East Asia, Allyson Hobbs on 20th-century US history, and Vaughn Rasberry on African American literature in the twilight of Jim Crow. Estelle Freedman taught me how to do archival research and write an article-length paper. Shelley Fisher Fishkin did an independent reading course with me and allowed me to closely examine autobiographies, travelogues, and essays written by some of the figures who later ended up in the book.

Serving as a teaching assistant for an Asian American history course taught by my advisor, Gordon H. Chang, was a transformative experience. It enabled me to see, for the first time, that Asian American history was part of a broader history of transpacific relations between the United States and Asian countries. Previously, I had mistakenly thought of Asian American history simply as a history of immigrants navigating the US legal system and making a new home in different parts of the country. Thinking through various issues in Asian American history with my undergraduate students in sections convinced me that a project like mine could make contributions to the fields of Asian American history, immigration history, and political history, in addition to US-East Asia relations. After reading many thought-provoking books for orals, I decided to make the American West, especially California, a central part of my dissertation. I spent many years researching Japanese and Korean American communities in California, as well as the network of white politicians and policymakers who shaped the lives of these communities and US immigration and foreign policies towards East Asia.

Just as I was finishing my dissertation, I was extremely lucky to land the job I have at Emory. But before I started my job, and even before I finished my dissertation, I began to think about how to build on my dissertation to write a more ambitious book, partly because I had a lot of material that I had researched but had no time to incorporate into the dissertation. Thanks to the timely introductions made by two generous scholars in the fields of Asian American history and US political history, I got an opportunity to speak with my editor Susan Ferber at Oxford University Press at a conference, and our hour-long conversation gave me a great road map to making the project simultaneously more ambitious and more focused.

The title—which names the problem of empire’s allure that my book seeks to address from multiple perspectives, from that of US presidents, diplomats, politicians, missionaries, academics, and anti-immigration activists as well as that of American-educated Asian elites in Asia and Asian immigrant community leaders in the United States—came to me quite late, only as I was finishing the version of the manuscript that was sent out to peer reviewers. The title unexpectedly popped up in my head as I was answering a question posed by my students after class. They were curious as to how my time in the South Korean army (which, for better or worse, forced me to take two years off during graduate school) changed my perspective on the world. I explained that I only began to understand during this period that a violent, hierarchical system of governance maintains itself not simply through suppression of dissent. Crucial to its maintenance are various measures that successfully convince those at the bottom of the hierarchy that, as long as they conform to the norms of this system, they can secure their own self-interests within the system. In my opinion, the problem with empires (and other violent systems of hierarchy) isn’t just that they are repressive. They are attractive to both those who profit from the human hierarchy they maintain as well as to those who are trying to climb up the hierarchy. After I finished my mandatory military service, I reinterpreted all the material I had from my dissertation project to figure out why, despite the rich history of anti-colonial movements and anti-racist activism, empires proved so durable during the first half of the 20th century.

Teaching Emory students and living in Atlanta during the first years of the pandemic made me rethink a lot of my core arguments. Revising my dissertation into a book while teaching courses on Asian American history and US-Asian relations helped me place the individual stories constituting my dissertation within historical changes of a larger scale. Working on community events in response to various incidents of anti-Asian violence from 2020 to 2022 pushed me to think more critically about what’s at stake when I speak and write about some of the most painful aspects of history. I finished the final version of my manuscript last summer (copyediting and other parts of the production process occupied much of my attention in the fall), and the book was released, coincidentally, on March 17th, 2023, one day after the second anniversary of the Atlanta Spa Shootings.

What was the research process like?

After encountering Yun Chi’-ho’s diaries, I began to reconstruct the world he navigated, and it was during this process of historical reconstruction that I came to identify other major figures who appear in the book, including (but not limited to) American missionaries and diplomats who shaped US-Japan-Korea relations; American academics and anti-immigration activists who questioned and challenged the nature of this relationship; and Japanese American, Korean American, and African American intellectuals who navigated the same world that Yun encountered but from different positions of power. The archives of these figures were mostly located in California, New England, and Washington D.C., and I had the great fortune of being able to visit the South Korean archives whenever I went to visit my parents over the summer. At a critical juncture during the dissertation writing process, I got to visit Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library to examine Yun Ch’i-ho and Warren Candler’s papers. Little did I know that, years later, I would be getting a job here and that the Rose Library would make the Yun papers available online ( just months before the publication of my book!

Are you partial to a particular chapter or section?

Chapters three and four are special to me because I wrote those two first, and together they anchored the whole project as I developed the book for over a decade. They are also important in that they both exemplify how I address three different areas of historical inquiry that are often treated as separate topics: the lives of Asian immigrants, students, and exiles; the political debates that shaped US immigration policy; and international relations between the United States and Asian countries. It also shows how I ambitiously try to shed new light on topics that have been well covered in existing literature, including the March 1st Movement in Korea that animated a nationwide anti-colonial moment against the Japanese empire in 1919 and the institution of the Immigration Act of 1924 in the United States that barred Japanese immigrants as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.”

Chapter 3 explains why, despite the anti-Japanese immigration movements in the American West from 1905 and on, the United States government worked so hard to maintain a cordial inter-imperial relationship with Japan, especially regarding Korea. American policymakers, diplomats, and academics believed that Koreans were not capable of self-government and needed to be under Japan’s control, just like the Filipinos under US colonial rule and African Americans in the Jim Crow South. So did American missionaries and Woodrow Wilson, the “missionary president” who reshaped US foreign policy based on his faith. When Koreans attempted to reclaim their national independence by appealing to American missionaries and Wilson during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, their strategy proved unsuccessful. While the United States continued to rule over Filipinos, Japan subdued the anticolonial movement in Korea and deployed stories of white-on-black violence from the United States to discourage Koreans from looking up to the United States as their savior.

Chapter 4 examines how, after World War I, a California nativist lobby led by V. S. McClatchy secured Japanese exclusion in the United States by reframing the immigration debates within an inter-imperial context. Upon returning from his tour of Asia, which included a stop in Korea during the March 1st Movement, McClatchy spread the fear that the Japanese could “colonize” the American West as they had done in places like Korea. His exclusionist lobby then convinced several key members of Congress to see Japan as an exclusionary empire, insisting that Japan was hypocritical to criticize the American desire for exclusion since Japan itself practiced immigration restriction at home, against laborers from Korea and China. Japan’s immigration restriction policy was fundamentally different from what the United States had instituted against various Asians (for example, the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Immigration Act of 1917). But the existence of Japan’s restrictive immigration policy served as a convenient excuse for Congress to justify the abrogation of the Gentlemen’s Agreement (which had allowed Japan to restrict the outmigration of US-bound working-class immigrants, in exchange for preventing US Congress from passing an immigration law targeting Japanese immigrants as a whole) and the passage of the Immigration Act in 1924 (which allowed the United States to unilaterally prohibit Japanese immigration).

Together, these chapters reveal the intertwined and interdependent nature of “domestic” issues (such as white-on-black violence and anti-Asian immigration movements in the continental United States) and “foreign” issues (such as anti-colonial movements in Asia). By placing empire building and Asian exclusion at the center of its analysis, my book offers a new interpretation of the Progressive Era as well.

How does this project align with your broad research agenda?

This book is part of my larger intellectual journey to think about how ideas about race shape human inequality across the Pacific, and how “domestic” and “foreign” issues influence each other to produce policies that reproduce and reinvent human inequality, both across and within nation states. Everything I write about, in a sense, explores how our limited visions of “progress” have held back our world from becoming more equitable for all and less cruel toward our societies’ most vulnerable populations.

The book also showcases my long interest in intellectuals whose visions of social justice and human progress were animated by their exposure to the world’s different cultures and their own experiences abroad. There is a reason why I begin and end the book with W. E. B. Du Bois and Yun Ch’i-ho. The two had different experiences (the former mostly in the Atlantic World, the latter the Pacific), and the two held different perspectives on the problem of race and empire until World War II. But both approached the struggles that Koreans and African Americans faced as, in Du Bois’ famous phrase, “but a local phase of a global problem.” Probably because I grew up in two different countries, I am drawn to figures who are invested in thinking about problems at the local and national levels within the global context. My nascent second project will follow the lives of several intellectuals who have lived on both sides of the Pacific to understand how they sought to make a difference in their nations and communities by using international comparisons and forming transnational solidarities. I’ve published one article from this project, on the novelist Pearl S. Buck’s campaign to generate popular support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the Great Depression through provocative comparisons between Chinese and white American women (“America’s Gunpowder Women”: Pearl S. Buck and the Struggle for American Feminism, 1937–1941, Pacific Historical Review, 88, no. 2: 175–207.). And I’ve spent this spring working on an article/chapter on Korean Americans who worked as interpreters and advisors to the US military government occupying the southern half of Korea (1945-1948). As I learned through archival research in South Korea this spring, some of them became radicalized by their experiences, criticized the US military violence during the Korean War, and even collaborated with W. E. B. Du Bois on anti-war campaigns during the height of McCarthyism. I hope that, collectively, these individuals’ stories will help us think more critically about our conceptions of “progress” that continue to shape and reshape our world today.