A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

The Chinese Experience
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The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Photo Credit: British Columbia Archives

Chinese immigrants banded together in
Chinese immigrants banded together in "Chinatowns" in many American cities. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Chinese women and children wait at the Angel Island Immigration Station.
Chinese women and children wait at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo Credit: California Historical Society

Program Two: "Between Two Worlds"

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The 1882 Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country and becoming citizens. It also ushered in the most violent decade in Chinese-American history, with assault, arson and murder becoming ever-present dangers for a people marginalized in the eyes of the law. Part Two of BECOMING AMERICAN: The Chinese Experience tells the story of these hostile years when Chinese Americans existed in a kind of limbo, denied the rights of their new country and no longer at home in their former one. They found refuge in Chinatowns, insular worlds that provided a sense of security and the companionship of kinsmen. But as few Chinese women were able to immigrate due to both Chinese custom and U.S. law, the majority of Chinese men could not establish families here. As age, disease and death claimed the earlier immigrants, the number of Chinese declined dramatically almost to the point of vanishing from American life.

But those here clung to American life and values, and fought for their rights using the only tools of democracy available to them: the courts. Recognizing that the Constitution offered protection to all people in America, not merely its citizens, the Chinese boldly filed over 10,000 lawsuits challenging laws and practices designed to harass and oppress them. When Wong Kim Ark, a 22-year-old cook born in San Francisco, sued to be considered a citizen, it was a decisive victory against discriminatory legislation. Moyers says, "It took the Supreme Court to remind the government that the words of the 14th Amendment meant just what they said. A person born in America was American."

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent conflagration burned most of the immigration records and provided a crack in the wall of exclusion that the Chinese could use to bring others from China into America. With no records available, the Chinese already living in the U.S. could claim to have been born here, making themselves citizens. As such, they were entitled to bring their children from China. Many Chinese Americans engaged in an elaborate deceit through a widespread practice of claiming "paper sons." The Chinese immigrant would claim to be the father of a young person still in China and provide the paperwork for their "child" to immigrate. But to be permitted entry to the United States, Chinese immigrants crossing the Pacific to San Francisco had to pass through the gauntlet of Angel Island. Unlike Ellis Island in New York, which rapidly processed primarily European immigrants, the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay frequently detained Chinese immigrants for long stretches of time. They were subjected to aggressive questioning about the details of their village in China, the daily habits of their family life, important occasions in their family history and other personal information to determine if they were, in fact, the relative they claimed to be or just a "paper son." Ark Chin recalls, "I was ten years old, and so to be brought into a room for interrogation and you see this big Lo Fan — you know, the devil so to speak — it was kind of overpowering." Thousands were detained for months in a purgatory of isolation and suspense, and for some the fruitless wait ended with a return journey to China.

Despite the odds against them, Chinese still struggled to get to America, attracted by the same hopes of economic opportunity that drew all of America's immigrants. Here they found a culture often at odds with the traditional values of China. New tensions developed within Chinese immigrant families as exposure to American freedoms and attitudes inspired the women and young people to defy the patriarchal culture of their homeland. For many, the struggle to become American played out within their homes. Jade Snow Wong remembers telling her father that she had decided to go out on her first date despite his pronouncement that it was forbidden. "He was really angry because it was the first time I had talked back to him," she says. "Nevertheless, I went out, and it was my sort of declaration of independence."

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