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Chinese Americans


 
"People always say, well, the Chinese always cling to their culture, that they never assimilated, they never really learned about America... but in terms of resisting discrimination against them, they very much assimilated. From the early 1850s, they started making use of the American judicial system when such a system did not exist in China." - Professor Sucheng Chan

As a mostly male community that had organized itself to survive, Chinese workers sent money back to China, to their wives, families and villages. But their collective well-being in America was repeatedly attacked through ordinances, acts and court rulings designed to make life more difficult. These included the 1854 Foreign Miner's Tax and the 1862 Police Tax, as well as court decisions such as People vs. Hall, which cast them as inferior to whites and denied them the right to testify against any white person, even an accused murderer.

It was natural for them to ante up a portion of their earnings to fight these discriminatory laws. They hired seasoned lawyers and challenged almost every law or court case enacted against them, sometimes with great success. The hundreds of cases they brought in the 19th and early 20th centuries helped establish legal precedents across life's broad spectrum, from livelihood and education to immigrant rights and citizenship.

"It's hard to think of a single law perceived by the Chinese as discriminatory, that they did not challenge in court." - Professor Charles McClain

Chinese woman in street


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And what about Chinese women? As the film shows, Chinese women customarily did not leave home. Furthermore, the frontier hardships and often violent discrimination suffered by Chinese men in America were hardly promising conditions for family life. Records suggest about one third of the early Chinese arrivals were married, even though the ratio of men to women in the Chinese community was at one time as high as 27 to 1.

In the resulting largely male, so-called "bachelor" Chinese community in America, a few Chinese men saw a business opportunity and imported Chinese women whom they pressed into prostitution. While prostitution was a general feature of the frontier west, the existence of Chinese prostitution gave Congress an excuse to pass the Page Law in 1875, specifically aimed at preventing Chinese women—including family members of Chinese immigrants—from entering the U.S. Not until 1970, almost 100 years later, following the major overhaul of immigration laws in 1965, did the Chinese community finally achieve a normal gender ratio of one man to one woman.

Towards the end of the film, we ask: What if Chinese women had been permitted to come and they could have had families? How would this history have been different?

Standing on a coastal stretch not far from Monterey, historian Sandy Lydon shows us a "Chinese America that might have been." He explains that here, in 1853, Chinese men and women built an American community of Chinese families, where women comprised over 40% of the population, and mothers, children and grandparents were all part of the social fabric.

Where other pioneers saw Point Alones as useless economically, the Chinese envisioned and built a thriving export industry of dried abalone, abalone shells, seaweed, dried fish and squid. They were able to succeed because white Americans at the time were not interested in fishing occupations, and they lived in the midst of a more tolerant Hispanic community. Although the Chinese were displaced by the turn of the century, they still managed to build families of three generations standing, and to create some wealth from uninterrupted entrepreneurial resourcefulness.

Abalone trader"And so we basically extended the promise of the American dream to a much wider range of human beings than the founding fathers may have had in mind." - Professor Sucheng Chan

By the late 1800s, centuries of seafaring and labor migration had led these resilient immigrants from South China to build a new home in a new land, despite the intense discrimination they faced for many years to come. As scholar Sucheng Chan notes, through their determined collective efforts, they not only helped build the frontier, they also challenged our nation to "make the word 'American' more international in scope, to encompass people from all parts of the world."

But the struggle of Asian immigrants for their rightful place in America was far from over, as we see in the next program.

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