Bitter Strength


HOST: I’m George Takei…Here is the story of the first global drug wars…Our final chapter of First Contacts. “Bitter Strength.”

The first English ship came to China in 1626. And the English became addicted to Chinese tea. By 1785, the English East India Company paid China 35 million pounds sterling per year for it. Most of Britain, America and some other European countries loved their tea. But rather than pay cash, they wanted to trade with China. China didn’t need any goods. It was growing increasingly wealthy off tea sales. So Britain began selling Indian opium to China. And the British used their profits to buy tea. The opium trade was not legal in either country, and China fought back. Thus began the Opium Wars.




JACK TCHEN: Later on with the opium wars what the British effectively were doing was trying to reverse the balance of trade. By finding something that the Chinese became addicted to, namely, this drug, that became the means in which the balance of trade shifted dramatically. By the 1830s opium accounted for fully 2/3 of the value of all British imports into China. It was really becoming the chief trade item exchanged for tea. This spawns a series of battles in which the British and then the Americans join in, are defending the right to open trade, quote, unquote open trade in the name of the drug traffic as a wedge to further open up access to the markets within China as well as the goods that they want from China.

JUDY YUNG: The opium war against Britain where China lost meant there were a series of indemnities China was fined with and that they had to give extra territorial rights to Britain and later to Germany, Russia, US, Japan, other countries also that set up treaties where they could trade with more than just the few ports that were open for trade in the middle 1800s.

SAILOR: The Chinese government was weak. First the Opium Wars…So much fighting in China. The Tai Ping Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion…It was a terrible, terrible time.

JUDY YUNG:…so there was political unrest. There was economic instability, and on top of that the natural disasters that constantly were always there. All these combinations I think led to poverty conditions …

JACK TCHEN: What we tend not to know about is the history of what’s now called the Coolie Trade, quote, unquote “Coolie trade” in which these same ships, British and American ships in particular would be packing hundreds, thousands of South Asians as well as Chinese into those very same ships that were used to traffic enslaved Africans.

SAILOR: Some of us were drugged and taken to the ships. Some of us were taken in broad daylight or lost our freedom in a roll of the dice. We did not go willingly with these men. They made us sign papers and threw us like cargo into crowded, stinking ships. They call us “coolie.” We cried to lose our families…our homes…


JUDY YUNG : Ku Li, the two characters, mean ‘bitter strength.’ The coolie trade also included Asian Indians as well as Chinese. So coolie is really a Tamil term, an Indian term, and for Chinese they took that Indian term and made it into a compound term, ‘bitter strength’. But coolie trade was never allowed in the United States. Men were either recruited or coerced into becoming contract laborers or coolie labor and then sent to Peru, mainly, and to Cuba and to the West Indies to work on the plantations under very harsh conditions. The contract were for eight years of hard labor. And by then many of them because of the abuse they suffered committed suicide or they did not live long enough to be freed.

JACK TCHEN: From 1838 to 1870 there were over half a million Chinese and South Asian men who were basically shipped in this coolie trade.

JUDY YUNG: They would be guaranteed food, housing, and some clothing, and then they would have to work off the contract for a certain number of years.

SAILOR: Many of us died before we could work off the eight years on the contract. But some of us lived. And we stayed and raised families in South America and the Caribbean. Some escaped from the ships and settled in New York, New Orleans… In any American port…we were there…

JACK TCHEN: Even though the government may have been officially saying the coolie trade was evil, and kind of began to officially ban it in the mid-19th century, merchants were still heavily involved in trafficking of human bodies as well as drugs.

SAILOR: We came from China, India and Japan but three generations from now, our descendents will be proud to say we, Coolie Workers, helped to build America.

JACK TCHEN: If different parts of Asia, from the Middle East to Japan to Korea to China are seen as shifting perils, then we’re never going to be able to get beyond a historical cycle in which the American self is always defined as new and progressive and these foreigners are somehow defined as dangerous, potential spies, or perpetual foreigners, others who can never be part of the American dream or the American vision of we the people.

SAILOR: In just a few years, our cousins will come by choice. They will earn money to send home to their families. They will follow the dream of ‘Gum San’, Gold Mountain. They will work the mines and railroads just as we sailed the seas. We Ku Li workers. We workers with bitter strength.


HOST: You heard “Bitter Strength” by Sara Caswell Kolbet and Dmae (DEE-MAY) Roberts…. Featuring Professor Jack Tchen, of New York University’s Asian Pacific American Studies Institute. You also heard Judy Yung, Professor Emeritus of University of California, Santa Cruz and Crossing East’s lead scholar.

Our actor was…..