Transnational Construction Site: Building American/Buying Chinese at the Panama Canal, 1885-1887
Date of Award
Master of Arts in History
This thesis is a case study in ethnic relations and identity formation. It attempts to problematize Jewish American immigration history by examining the actions and personal development of one 19th century Jewish immigrant, not through the literature of Jewish American immigration, but through the history and literature of the Chinese migrants with whom he interacted. In 1885, Dr. Felix A. Bettelheim launched a year-long venture to obtain 5,000 Chinese contract laborers to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. This thesis is an attempt to understand how, as a migrant and a member of a persecuted minority himself, Bettelheim could attempt to control the movement and migration of Chinese laborers, oblivious to the parallels that existed between his own experiences and those of the people he sought to exploit. By building an understanding of Bettelheim and his actions through the history and historiography of the people whose movement he was attempting to control, this thesis challenges expectations that because he was Jewish, Bettelheim and his actions must be examined from within a framework of Jewish American migration history. In asking “how could he attempt to broker and transport the labor and bodies of Chinese migrants?” this thesis ultimately seeks to understand how his venture contributed to the construction of his own sense of identity and belonging as an American, and how his story helps to illuminate the history of anti-Chinese prejudice in the United States.
Elkus, Jenny, "Transnational Construction Site: Building American/Buying Chinese at the Panama Canal, 1885-1887" (2022). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 2277.