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The Chinese Exclusion Act Raised the Price of Becoming an American

A New Exhibit Tells the Story From the Immigrant’s Point of View.

By Ross Yelsey | HUMANITIES, January/February 2015 | Volume 36, Number 1

One of the more compelling images in the New-York Historical Society’s current exhibition, “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” is a black-and-white family photograph. At first glance, the circa 1961 picture appears to be a typical portrait: Surrounded by their adult children and grandchildren, a seated grandmother and grandfather, Mr. and Mrs. Low, each hold a young grandchild in their laps. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that many of the family members were not in the same room. Relatives, including the Low’s daughter, Moo Gee, and the grandchildren seemingly in their grasp, were cut from separate photographs and pasted in. After Mr. and Mrs. Low moved from China to New York, severe restrictions on Chinese immigration barred Moo Gee and her family from joining them in the United States. For twenty years, only this proto-Photoshop ingenuity could reunite the family.

Like many of the exhibit’s two hundred artifacts, images, and documents, the ersatz Low family portrait conveys the tremendous hardships that Chinese exclusion laws and quotas, from 1882 to 1965, created for Chinese immigrants. At the same time, the make-do inventiveness of the Lows’ photo illustrates the exhibition’s most salient theme: the resilience of Chinese Americans. Forging communities in the U.S. in spite of exclusion, discrimination, and family separation, Chinese immigrants spent decades struggling to achieve equal citizenship. By sharing their individual stories, “Chinese American” introduces the public to a largely untold chapter of the past.

“It is a pioneering exhibition,” says Columbia University professor Eric Foner, who helped develop the show. “It is bringing a whole new level of attention to the story of the Chinese in America, an aspect of U.S. history that has been very neglected until recently.”

To make Chinese American history tangible to a wide range of students and visitors, the museum places its guests in the position of those immigrants who arrived in America at the height of anti-Chinese restriction. As its centerpiece, the exhibition features a recreated immigration station—complete with inspection room, barracks, and hospital—that is modeled after Angel Island, a facility that operated in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940.

“We wanted to convey the daily experience of the Chinese immigrants and of returning Chinese residents who came through these stations,” explains exhibition curator Marci Reaven. “We also wanted to show people the origins of the United States’ immigration bureaucracy and show them how that bureaucracy impacted the lives of Chinese Americans. Recreating this space allowed us to explore the perspectives of the people who passed through it in a way that a collection of documents cannot.”

Far less familiar than New York Harbor’s Ellis Island in the telling of America’s immigration history, Angel Island served not only as an immigrant processing station but as a site where around 100,000 Chinese people were subject to interrogation, medical testing, and detention.

Angel Island became a necessity following the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first legislation in American history that specifically targeted one national group for immigration restriction. Extended until 1943, the Act outlawed all Chinese laborers, allowing only diplomats, teachers, students, and merchants to enter the country. It also prevented permanent Chinese aliens from ever becoming citizens. As a result, the majority of Chinese Americans—who eventually had to register with the government for special ID cards—were always vulnerable to deportation.

Congress passed the Exclusion Act in response to the massive Chinese immigration that took place from the 1850s through the 1870s. During those decades, tens of thousands of Chinese journeyed across the Pacific, drawn to mining jobs sparked by the California Gold Rush and construction jobs provided by the Central Pacific Railroad. The work was dangerous and the pay was awful, but Chinese immigrants—facing poverty, conflict, and famines in their homeland—found the opportunities in America worth the risk. A family in China, the exhibition notes, could be kept out of poverty if a Chinese immigrant sent them back one-quarter of the most meager U.S. wage. Exploiting Chinese immigrants’ willingness to work, American employers often hired Chinese workers instead of white workers, whose unions demanded far higher wages. In time, white workers—infuriated by the labor competition and emboldened by widely held anti-Chinese racist and eugenic sentiments—retaliated against the Chinese with violence and political activism.

In the ensuing years of Chinese exclusion, inspectors at facilities like Angel Island would decide the fates of the Chinese immigrants and returning resident aliens who sought entry to the U.S. Inspectors routinely subjected Chinese people to labyrinthine and lengthy questioning to assess the veracity of their stories and motives. Their questions might include “In what direction is your family’s house facing?” The immigrant’s answers would be transcribed and cross-checked against previous testimonies given by relatives and fellow villagers. As a consequence of the 1875 Page Act, all female immigrants shouldered the additional burden of proving to the inspectors that they were not prostitutes. If an immigrant’s answers did not satisfy the inspectors, detention or deportation would likely come next.

To convey the unnerving experience of interrogation, the immigration station allows visitors to listen to an audio dramatization of a 1911 interview transcript. Within the interrogation room, guests also have the opportunity to examine coaching documents that desperate immigrants memorized in an attempt to enter America by passing themselves off as the son or daughter of a U.S. resident. Those who succeeded came to be known as “paper” sons and daughters.

When designing the exhibition, Marci Reaven decided to present guests with the choice to engage with this variety of documents, objects, and interactive media. “We wanted to create visitor discovery,” Reaven says. “We didn’t want to just hand the story to visitors in a perfectly tied-up way. We used every strategy to make the story memorable. We wanted people to integrate the experience into their own thinking about this country’s history.”

A particularly haunting discovery inside the immigration station is the recreation of poetry that Chinese people had carved into Angel Island’s barrack walls. As immigration inspectors deliberated their fates, Chinese immigrants could be detained in the barracks for months or years. During confinement, one detainee etched this sorrowful poem in the wood:

Being idle in the wooden building, I opened a window.
The morning breeze and the bright moon lingered together.
I reminisce about the native village far away, cut off by clouds and mountains.
On the little island, the wailing of cold, wild geese can be faintly heard.
The hero who has lost his way can talk meaninglessly of the sword.
The poet at the end of the road can only ascend a tower.
One should know that when the country is weak, the people’s spirit dies.
Why else do we come to this place to be imprisoned?

While visitors absorb the anguish that exclusion created, they also learn about those Chinese Americans who, undaunted, fought for the right to become equal citizens through legal challenges, political lobbying, and community organizing. A short film profiles Wong Kim Ark, a cook born in California who was denied reentry after visiting his parents in China. Wong sued the government under the Fourteenth Amendment and, in 1898, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor when it established the precedent that those born on American soil, regardless of race or ethnicity, are constitutionally protected citizens. Following that victory and more years of activism, legislation ended the Exclusion Act in 1943 and eliminated nationality-based immigration quotas in 1965.

The exhibition concludes not with these legislative landmarks but with a tribute to the everyday perseverance of the Chinese Americans who lived through the exclusion era. After visitors exit the immigration station, they enter a room that chronicles the experiences of New York-based art consultant Amy Chin’s family. Twelve large panels done in graphic-novel style follow three generations of the Chins in America, beginning with Amy’s grandfather’s 1913 immigration. Reading the panels, visitors learn that her grandfather pretended to be a native-born American in order to gain entry to the U.S. and, years later, created a coaching book for an immigrant who became his “paper son;” that her uncle died while serving America in World War II; that the U.S. detained her father for three months in an immigration station; and that her parents were apart for nine years while her mother stayed in Hong Kong and her father established a successful laundry business in the Bronx. Finally, they see an adult Amy discovering and taking pride in the sacrifices her family made to become Americans.

“It is an honor to tell my ordinary story,” says Amy Chin, who provides group tours of the show. “People say I’m brave. I don’t think I’m so brave. I feel like I’m putting something out there that had been kept secret and that we should be proud of: our immigration history. Chinese Americans haven’t always been proud of their past; they still have fears. The trauma of feeling unwanted is still present today. I feel that by putting my story out there, it shows that the scars have healed—and hopefully have healed for other families too. It is important not to be afraid of the past.”

About the Author

Ross Yelsey is a writer who works at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

Funding Information

The New-York Historical Society has received $300,000 in NEH support for its exhibition “Chinese American: Exclusion / Inclusion.” The Chinese Exclusion Act: A Documentary Film, by Ric Burns, will air in the fall. It received $500,000 in NEH funding.