A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Men walk the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown in 1910.
Men walk the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown in 1910. Photo Credit: California Historical Society

Charlie Chin plays the banjo Charlie Chin plays the banjo. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Charlie Chin

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Bachelor Society

"The sight of a child in Chinatown was remarkable at that time."

By Charlie Chin

In 1882, America passed the Exclusion Act which barred the Chinese from entering this country. It was the first time that the U.S. had ever barred a group on the basis of race or nationality. It was succeeded by additional laws, each draconian in its restrictions. Together, they meant that many Chinese and Chinese Americans could not have families in America because their wives and children were prohibited from entering the country. Below, musician and storyteller Charlie Chin tells of a visit to Chinatown in the mid-fifties before "bachelor society" faded from view.

Chinatown was the central base. Every Sunday, my father would go to get the paper, the groceries, and bring us back the latest news, the latest rumors, the latest stories that were going around. And on special occasions, like holidays, we'd all go to Chinatown.

Chinatown was small in those days. We're talking about the '50s, my earliest memories. It had a very stable community. It was predominantly men. I didn't know why when I was young. But I always noticed that when I walked down the street with my father, I must have been under the age of ten, other men would come across the street to say hello to my father. Total strangers would shake his hand and then look at me, tossle my head or offer me candy or something. For many of them, [it was] because they had children of their own in China which they had not seen in years and the sight of a child in Chinatown was remarkable at that time.

The so-called bachelor society was made up of men who were bachelors only in the sense that they were here, because of the laws, by themselves. They all had wives and children in China who could not join them here. This lasted well into the early '60s. As late as the '70s, you still could find the old Toishan uncles who were still living in little apartments, some of them six or seven in an apartment where they had been for 20, 30 or 40 years from the days when they first came over-and, trapped by time. The People's Republic of China had been founded; there was no way for them to get back home. In many ways they had lost touch with their families. They had been set adrift, cut off, because there was no way for them to get back. The world that they knew was gone.

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