A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

The Chinese Experience
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Program One
Program Two
Program Three
Personal Journeys
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About The Programs } Program One

Chinese laborers help build the Trancontinental Railroad.
Chinese laborers help build the Trancontinental Railroad. Photo Credit: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Many Chinese immigrants found work as domestics in American homes.
Many Chinese immigrants found work as domestics in American homes. Photo Credit: Courtesey of the Bancroft Library, University of Berkeley Library

Chinese immigrants arrive in San Francisco by boat.
Chinese immigrants arrive in San Francisco by boat. Photo Credit: Courtesy of San Francisco Maritime NHP

Program One: "Gold Mountain Dreams"

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As civil war and famine ravaged Southern China in the mid-19th century, word of the California Gold Rush reached the port of Canton. The prospect of making a fortune in America proved an irresistible lure to young Chinese men. Looking more for a new livelihood than a new homeland, they set sail across the Pacific hoping that hard work and sacrifice would enable them to provide a better life for their families and to return one day to their villages, prosperous and esteemed.

On the American frontier, fraught with opportunity and danger, the Chinese contended not just with the racism of 19th century America, but also with the pull of their own traditional culture. Living as bachelors, the bonds of family strained by distance and the cost of returning often out of reach, Chinese men carved out their own society. Series Producer Thomas Lennon, who has explored America's historical struggle with race and ethnicity in a number of his prior productions, recognizes the ambivalence about becoming American that many Chinese immigrants carried with them. He says, "So much American ethnic history is told as a sentimental romance. Or a litany of the wrongs done to a people. We were determined to tell this story from the inside out: why the Chinese first came, the excruciating human dilemmas they faced once here and the tug-of-war between the old world and the new."

In Part One, BECOMING AMERICAN: The Chinese Experience illuminates their all-too-forgotten role in settling the West and building the western leg of the Transcontinental Railroad, perhaps the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century. In Western cities and frontier settlements as far away as Idaho and Oregon, Chinese men also saw opportunity in the economic activities undesirable to white men. Setting up makeshift restaurants to sell hot cooked food, taking care of children, and doing laundry — all services that were traditionally considered women's work - these occupations would create a stereotype of the Chinese as servile that would persist long into the future. For the more limited number of Chinese women in America in the last decades of the 19th century, both the new country and their native culture offered few options and little hope. Even after the Civil War, most of the Chinese women in the U.S. were brought here as virtual slaves to work in brothels and saloons catering to the bachelor communities of Chinese men. For them, it was a cruel life of subjugation — prisoners of their gender, poverty and lack of status.

When the gold strikes tapped out and hard economic times loomed in California, Chinese immigrants faced a wave of violence, terror and discrimination. Anti-Chinese labor leaders like Denis Kearney, himself an immigrant, rallied Americans against these "almond-eyed lepers." An epidemic of laws and regulations spread through state and local governments aimed at limiting Chinese immigrant rights and economic opportunities. Anti-Chinese fervor ultimately became a presidential campaign issue, and in 1882 the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This landmark legislation was a turning point in American immigration policy. Chinese-American historian L. Ling-chi Wang points out, "Up until 1882 America was open to everybody who wanted to come. We welcomed everybody. The only people that we excluded by law, at that time, were prostitutes, lepers and morons, and in 1882 we added the Chinese to that list."

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