Narrator: On June 30th, 1885 – as the fund-raising campaign for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty finally began to pick up speed – a letter appeared in the pages of The New York Sun – written by a young Chinese immigrant, and recent college graduate named Saum Song Bo – who had come to America years earlier as a small boy, and who dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
Voice (Saum Song Bo): Sir: A paper was presented to me yesterday for subscription among my countrymen toward the Pedestal Fund of the Statue of Liberty. My countrymen and myself are honored in being thus appealed to as citizens in the cause of liberty. But the word liberty makes me think of the fact that this country is the land of liberty for men of all nations except the Chinese. That statue represents Liberty holding a torch – which lights the passage of those of all nations who come into this country. But are the Chinese allowed to come? Are the Chinese here allowed to enjoy liberty as men of all other nationalities enjoy it? Free from the insults, abuse, assaults, wrongs and injuries from which men of other nationalities are free? By the law of this nation, a chinaman cannot become a citizen. Whether this statute against the Chinese – or the Statue of Liberty – will be the more lasting monument to tell future ages of the liberty and greatness of this country, will be known only to future generations.
Narrator: The solitary arm of the unfinished Statue of Liberty had languished on Madison Square in New York for more than five years – when on May 6th, 1882 – on the eve of the greatest wave of immigration in American history – President Chester A. Arthur signed into law an extraordinary piece of federal legislation..
It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act – and it was unlike any law enacted since the founding of the republic.
Singling out as never before a specific race and nationality for exclusion – it made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America – and for Chinese nationals already here ever to become citizens of the United States.
Fueled by deep seated tensions over race and class and national identity that had been festering since the founding of the republic, it was the first in a long line of acts targeting the Chinese for exclusion – and it would remain in force for more than sixty years.
It continues to shape the debate about what it means to be an American to this day.
Renqiu Yu, Historian: Chinese-Americans always have this identification with the founding principle of this country, so beautifully laid out by the Founding Fathers. And so eloquently articulated in the Declaration of Independence and in American Constitution. The Chinese identify with this fundamental principle of liberty, equality and justice for all, and all men are created equal. Now, how can you say that this is a group of people who are biologically, and culturally, unfit to live a civilized life; to appreciate and practice American culture, political and religious ideals. That’s why I think a lot of Americans had a hard time to learn that the Chinese Exclusion Act really exist, for 60 years. They couldn't believe it, the government did that.
Mae Ngai, Historian: We have to remember that for most of the 19th century, immigration into the United States was basically open. You just showed up. So the Chinese exclusion law is one of the first restrictive, really comprehensively restrictive, laws. And it's also the first and only time in the entire history of the United States — that a group is singled out by name — Chinese, by name -- as being undesirable. … So this is truly a remarkable moment.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: Starting in California, the Chinese were marked as different. And I see the 1882 bill as a link in a chain of bills and a chain of legislation, and race riots and purges that are trying to move the country toward ethnic cleansing. I think the 1882 bill was not about labor. I think it was about white purity, and how do we get rid of people who were different?
David Lei, Community Advocate: Many people think of this Exclusion law as being very racist, very unfair. But if you look at the world at that time – every country was like that, and almost every ethnicity. Try to be a citizen of China, or try to be a citizen of Japan, is impossible, unless you're ethnically Chinese or Japanese. But this is a group of people – Chinese-American, the Chinese that were here – who actually fought back, and made America better than what it was. And helped make America what it is today – the values that we have including equal protection under the law; rights to education; what it means to be American. What makes you American – to be born here. All these weren’t defined.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, Historian: The 1882 exclusion law has been forgotten. But once we remember it, it is outrageous – and it’s probably why we've forgotten it, because it is so outrageous. Many Americans today cannot believe this happened. How could this country – in its culture, in its politics, in its economics – do what it did, against a whole class of people? The exclusion law said that whole race of people are banned from this country. So it’s a racial exclusion law – So that banning of a whole category of people directly challenges foundational questions of what American freedom means, and what American history means – who “we, the people” can constitute.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: I think it’s essential that Americans know about the exclusion of Chinese – not because it's the Chinese, but because it reflects how America has come to develop. And how America saw itself at one time, and how it continues to see itself. It has much to do with the character of our national history. And that, to me, is the most important thing in understanding how we became who we are today. Some of it has to do with the fact that we excluded Chinese for 60 years.
US Census 1840
Total population 17,069,453
Free White 14,195,695
Free Colored 386,303
Indians (not included)
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: When James Polk was the president, he recruited a geographer by the name of Aaron Palmer – and asked him to make a survey of the entire West Coast, from California all the way to Alaska. And what potential there was for the United States future development. He was also very interested in finding a shorter route for the China trade. And in 1848, Palmer filed a report to President Polk And in the report he talked about the amazing natural resources and the importance of finding a more direct access to the West Coast. and recommended that we establish Chinese colonies – import Chinese labor to the West Coast – to help develop the West. And this is all before the gold was discovered in California.
Narrator: Long before the first Chinese immigrants stepped ashore in California in the mid 19th century, the story of China and America had been deeply intertwined – for hundreds of years.
Erika Lee, Historian: Where did America come from? America came from European colonization – from the fascination that explorers like Christopher Columbus had with China, And with the inception of the United States, our birth as a republic, one of the fascinating things is how important the China trade was for that revolutionary generation. —
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: After political independence one of the first things that the British did was to cut off our ability to trade within the British Commonwealth. China was among the few countries in the world not yet colonized by anybody and so we saw our opportunity to become economically independent linked to our trade with China.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, Historian:
The big problem from the very beginning was what does China want? What can we keep on giving China, so that we can get the things that we want from China –
so that we can get the teas, and the porcelains, the lacquer ware, the silks?
Mae Ngai, Historian: China really didn't want to buy much from the United States or from England. So in the early 19th century they began to import opium into China, against Chinese law, as a way of addressing their own balance of trade deficits.
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: and it was a very, very profitable trade. Millions of Chinese were addicted to this.... Massive number of Chinese around Canton, the Pearl River Delta, became addicted to opium.
Mae Ngai, Historian: And finally the Chinese said, “Enough,” and confiscated and burned thousands of chests of opium – because they were breaking Chinese law by importing it – sneaking it into the country and that was the pretext that Great Britain needed to go to war.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, Historian: Of course, this provoked the British gunships, and the Americans came in with them, because the Americans were also involved in the opium trade.
Mae Ngai, Historian: They did it under the banner of free trade; free trade as the core expression of liberty. And how dare the Chinese say they can't trade opium into China?
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: The first Opium War ended in 1841 with the Treaty of Nanking. which opened five ports including Canton to Western trade
Renqiu Yu, Historian: In one stroke, the canton system used to manage trade with Europeans was destroyed. China was forced into this new international system. And gradually, in the Pearl River Delta the foreign intrusion really became disruptive to the local economy.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: By the 1840's, what was happening in China is dire. It was a time of drought – a time of poverty. The Qing Dynasty – the Chinese government – is falling apart. And then there’s the Taiping Rebellion – which was a political, religious, utopian massacre.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: Taiping Rebellion begins about 1850, And this goes on for fifteen years. Approximately 30 million people are slaughtered. It's not just this millenarian rebellion. It’s the foreign intrusion. It's this dissatisfaction with the corruption of the Manchu government. The economy is faltering. And the opium trade is all part of this, too. And this takes place right above Southern China, so that all this farmland is trampled. So when the Chinese hear of gold being discovered in California, U.S. ships are in Chinese ports and ready to go to take people to California, for the Gold Rush.
Kevin Starr, Historian: The Gold Rush was a global event. and for Anglo-America was an object lesson, in the fact that there were other kinds of people on the planet. It brought, obviously, Anglo-Americans from the East Coast; it brought Mexicans from Sonora; it brought French mining groups; it brought English mining groups. But it also brought Chinese to California.
Narrator: They arrived in the midst of one of the most dramatic and tumultuous decades of expansion and change in American history.
David Lei, Community Advocate: 1846. America went to war with Mexico... We took over Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. July 1846, a ship called the USS Portsmouth was sent to take over the sleepy town of Yerba Buena – San Francisco. And maybe a hundred men, just walked up the hill from Montgomery Street – arrested the Mexican customs officer, raised the U.S. flag there and said, “This is America.”
Kevin Starr, Historian: California had a relatively small population in 1846; Americanized through conquest in 1846; occupied enemy territory from 1846 to '48; militarily administered United States territory of California from 1848 to '50; and then instant statehood, with full participation.
Mae Ngai, Historian: Almost at the same time, really – 1849 – you have the Gold Rush in California. And you have the opening of California to people from not just the Eastern United States, but from all over the world. The Chinese who came in the early years of the Gold Rush were mostly rural people. They're not the poorest of the population. The poorest don’t migrate, because they can’t afford to. The wealthy don't migrate, because they don't need to . And they've heard, like everybody else around the world, of this opportunity.
Narrator: The first named Chinese immigrant to arrive in California was an enterprising merchant from the Pearl River Delta named Yuan Sheng – who years earlier, on a previous trip to South Carolina, had acquired U.S. citizenship, converted to Christianity, and changed his name to Norman Asing.
On July 13th, 1849, he entered San Francisco harbor on a ship called the Swallow, with two other Chinese sojourners on board.
By the end of 1850, more than 4,000 Chinese immigrants had arrived in San Francisco harbor.
Two years later, the number had swelled to 20,000 – the vast majority from the impoverished port cities and ravaged countryside of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
David Lei, Community Advocate: There was an imperial edict, that if you’re Chinese you can't leave. But they were near Guangzhou, from the Sze Yup area – near Hong Kong, near the coast – Beijing is far up to the north – so it was easy to leave.
Erika Lee, Historian: We know the Chinese coming over for the Gold Rush – including someone like my great-great-great-grandfather would have docked into San Francisco – would have just disembarked like any other passenger. There's no inspector; there's no customs official; there's no medical examination — there are no papers.... there are some state controls over immigration.... but in terms of a federal immigration bureaucracy, it does not exist. .... Now the California that they came to was a rough-and-tumble place. It was multinational and very unsettled, and most people were going straight to the hills to try to strike it rich in the goldfields.
Mae Ngai, Historian: And in their wake, come merchants, who also smell opportunity. Not in the gold itself, but to sell things to the miners. So you begin to have the emergence of communities. San Francisco develops a small Chinese quarter. By 1852, there are some twenty Chinese shops operating in San Francisco.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: Initially the Chinese were tolerated. They were seen as a hardworking, generous, energetic people – who had a very serious set of moral codes. But the tide really turns up in the goldfield.
Erika Lee, Historian: By the time the Chinese come, the goldfields are very crowded. And we know that, from very the beginning, there’s racial strife; there’s miners fighting over claims.
Mae Ngai, Historian: By 1852, the American miners have pretty much driven out most foreign miners. White Americans think, “Well, you know, it’s our gold, so we want it all.” So when the Chinese arrive there are really not that many other foreigners around. And the anti-foreign sentiment, now becomes focused on the Chinese.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: And as soon as the Chinese get to the goldfields, immediately there are purges. And the miners hold miners' conventions. And they meet in the rough, they meet in a field -- and they very deliberately talked about: How do we purge the Chinese?
Mae Ngai, Historian: Many gold-mining camps, which made their own laws, passed resolutions that no Chinese could mine in their area. Or, that Chinese could not be first owners of a claim.
Narrator: As surface gold in the river beds became scarcer – hydraulic mining run by companies increasingly displaced the lone prospector panning for gold.
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: A lot of white independent prospector went bankrupt and became unemployed. But instead of turning their anger against the gold-mining company and the water company for exploiting them, they turned against the Chinese. They say: “Ah, the Chinese were here. They take away our jobs.” And so that is really the beginning of white working-class agitation for Chinese Exclusion.
Narrator: In 1852, a calculating 47-year-old lawyer named John Bigler was elected governor of California – by what remains to this day the narrowest margin in state history – carried into office in part by the rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment amongst white Californians.
Kevin Starr, Historian: Governor Bigler is brought into office at a time when the republic is first beginning to show serious signs of falling apart. Out here on the West Coast you have deep division growing between the pro-Southern, pro-slavery Californians and those who are from Northern states and are anti-slavery.
Erika Lee, Historian: California had come in as a free state to Missouri's slave state and the question automatically comes up with the arrival of Chinese immigrants in California. Are they another race problem? Can we afford to include another race problem? Could they even become American? And the answer is, “No.”
Mae Ngai, Historian: And so Bigler wants certain legislation passed. He wants a heavy tax on the Chinese, which he thinks will drive them away. And he begins to articulate the idea that will become the constant in anti-Chinese politics for years to come – which is the idea that Chinese are coolies, or that they are serfs or slaves; that they come under bondage. And he wants a law passed that will prohibit anyone from China who comes under a contract to engage in mining. Now most of the Chinese who came in the 1850s came on their own account -- they came as independent prospectors. But Bigler raises this spectre of the coolie. And he cites the figures of: there's 500 who came on this ship last week; there's another thousand on the way; there's 20,000 lined up in the ports to come. So he invokes this specter of people who will be paid $4 a month and bring slavery into California, which is a free state. And then he asks for these measures to exclude the Chinese. Bigler’s message is delivered to the Assembly, then printed up in leaflets, and distributed throughout the gold-mining districts. So now everybody has a kind of official license to go attack Chinese.
Narrator: On May 5th, 1852, Norman Asing – now one of the leading figures of San Francisco’s embattled Chinese community – published a soaring reply to Bigler’s proclamation in the Daily Alta California.
Voice (Norman Asing): To His Excellency Governor Bigler. Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions; and am much attached to the principles of the government of the United States. The effect of your late message has been to prejudice the public mind against my people, and to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil. I am not much acquainted with your logic – that by excluding population from this State you enhance its wealth. Immigration has made you what you are and your nation what it is. But your further logic is more reprehensible. You argue that the Constitution of the United States admits of no asylum to any other than the pale face. This proposition is false in the extreme, and you know it. The declaration of your independence, and all the acts of your government, your people, and your history are all against you. You have no right to propose a measure for checking immigration. As regards the color and complexion of our race, we are perfectly aware that our population are a little more tan than yours. Your very obedient servant,
Narrator: Bigler was unmoved – and in the years to come made sure the Foreign Miners’ Tax was explicitly re-written to target the Chinese.
Narrator: But try as he might, Governor Bigler could never realize his ultimate ambition – outright legal exclusion of the Chinese from California.
Erika Lee, Historian: The U.S. government declares that this is not a state matter, but that it is a federal matter, and that the U.S. federal government should have, and does have, jurisdiction over international migrations.
Narrator: On April 24th, 1861, word reached San Francisco by Pony Express that the Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter two weeks earlier.
In the weeks to come, crowds of pro-Union supporters thronged into the streets – to express solidarity with the embattled U.S. government on the far side of the continent.
For the 35,000 Chinese immigrants who by 1861 were struggling to make a life for themselves in California, the war would bring new challenges, new dangers – and new opportunities.
Over the next four years, wartime initiatives set in motion by the federal government would strengthen ties between China and America – encourage the free flow of people and things between the two nations – and increase the influx of Chinese immigrants – to the dismay of the exclusionists.
Mai Ngai, Historian: Californians are still agitating for national legislation to exclude Chinese. But in Washington, this is seen as kind of a West Coast, local political question. And in Washington, they’re more concerned with trade with China – that’s the national interest.
In June 1861, Abraham Lincoln sent a one-time Massachusetts congressman named Anson Burlingame to Beijing – to improve relations with China – promote friendship and commerce – and to repair diplomatic ties damaged by the opium wars.
In July 1862 – at the darkest point of the war – Lincoln signed into law the Pacific Railway Act – clearing the way for the construction of a vast transcontinental railroad – that when complete would finally connect the Atlantic world to Pacific – and revolutionize trade with China.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: The transcontinental railroad – called by some the “Iron Road to China” – is not just establishing links between the West Coast and the East Coast – but it’s also is to get us to the Pacific. And to establish American businesses, so that they can do business with Asia.
Kevin Starr, Historian: You need a very large labor force to build a railroad operation across the entire nation. The Central Pacific on West Coast looked at the Union Pacific building from the East and saw that it was employing recent Irish immigrants in large numbers. And there wasn't that kind of population in California.
Mae Ngai, Historian: There are a lot of unemployed Chinese miners out there. And there’s a great demand for labor for the Western section. And there are a lot of unemployed Chinese miners out there. So Central Pacific has this idea to use Chinese.
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: And they found out very quickly, the Chinese are very diligent; very reliable; very hardworking. And so immediately decided to massively recruit Chinese – including going all the way to China, to encourage more of them to come here.
Narrator: Between 1860 and 1870, nearly 30,000 Chinese immigrants would come to the United States – nearly doubling the Chinese population, to 63,000.
Between ten and fifteen thousand of them would find work on the Central Pacific Rail Road.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: Eventually, they would make up four-fifths of the workforce for the Central Pacific. And they have the hardest jobs – they go through the Sierras; over the Sierras; they work under the snow in the winter. They build vast tunnel systems, in which they keep chipping away at the rock.
Kevin Starr, Historian: They organized themselves; they were capable of hard work; they took great chances; and they were physically strong. They could do the labor. And you can see that from what they accomplished – the triumph of taking on the Sierra Nevada, the same way that, 2,000 years earlier, we took on the great mountains of China and built the Great Wall.
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: The Chinese could not have been able to come to the United States, to help build the transcendental railroad, had it not been for Anson Burlingame – the first American ambassador to China, because China prohibited Chinese people from going abroad. And so what Burlingame did is commit the Chinese government to allow free immigration between China and the United States.
Narrator: Less than a year before the railroad itself was completed, Anson Burlingame concluded an historic treaty between the United States and China – explicitly guaranteeing the free flow of people and trade between the two nations.
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: The treaty essentially legitimized Chinese citizens’ ability to emigrate to the United States.
Mae Ngai, Historian: The Burlingame Treaty had a structure of reciprocity. Americans can freely enter China, and Chinese can freely enter the United States. Trade goes both ways – people can go both ways. And so this treaty is a huge obstacle – a huge set back – to the exclusionists.
May 10th, 1869
K. Scott Wong, Historian: And, finally, the railroads meet in Utah, at Promontory Point – that famous picture of the two iron horses there – but the Chinese are not allowed to be in the picture. They’re somewhere off to the side. They’re out of the frame. They're there, but they're not. And so they're erased from that history. And then once that railroad's done, then what happens to these Chinese?
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: The paychecks end – they have to come down from the mountains. There’s nothing else up there for them to do. And most of them go west – toward the coast, toward Chinatowns across the state of California – and suddenly there's a big influx along the coast of Chinese people who have to create a new life outside of the railroads.
Narrator: The treaty and the railroad were triumphs of connection in an increasingly global world – tying America itself more closely together – accelerating trade with China – and bringing more Chinese immigrants to American shores.
In the long run, however, the impact of both would be to nationalize what had previously been a remote West Coast issue – propelling to national attention the frought and volatile issue of Chinese labor – which by 1869 was increasingly being called “the Chinese Question.”
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: This is an era when all of the promises of the Civil War are going to start falling apart. After the Civil War, we had the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Those are all civil-rights amendments. The 13th abolishes slavery, the 15th gives black men the right to vote. But the 14th Amendment, grants all civil rights to all persons.
Narrator: On July 9th, 1868 – just three weeks before the Burlingame Treaty was concluded – the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was formally adopted – despite bitter opposition from most states of the fallen Confederacy, which were forced to ratify it to regain representation in Congress.
Over-ruling the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, which had denied citizenship and all civil rights to black Americans – the 14th amendment’s “citizenship clause” declared that “all persons, born or naturalized, in the United States, are citizens of the United States” – who cannot be deprived of life, liberty, due process, civil rights, or equal protection under the law.
In the decades to come, the spare eighty-word text would form a last slender line of defense for the Chinese in America – as the country began a long slow descent – into an abyss of hatred and violence – directed against all people of color.
Voice (The Workingman's Advocate): February 6th, 1869. Chicago. We warn workingmen that a new and dangerous foe looms up in the far west. Already our brothers of the Pacific have to meet it, and just as soon as the Pacific railroad is completed, these Chinamen will begin to swarm through the rocky mountains, like devouring locusts and spread out over the country this side. Men who can work for a dollar a day are a dangerous element in our country. We must not sleep until the foe is upon us, but commence to fight him now. In the name of the workingmen of our common country, we demand that our government forbid another Chinaman to set foot upon our shores.
Narrator: The first flashpoint came even before the railroad was completed – in the deep south – more than a thousand miles from the goldfields of northern California – in the troubled post-war cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: After the Civil War, one of the first developments is that with the emancipation of African slaves and their descendants you get the demise of the plantation system in the South. The plantation owners in places like Mississippi and Louisiana still need work.
Narrator: In 1869 – faced with a severe labor shortage and rising costs – plantation owners from across the south gathered in Memphis to find a solution to the problem.
Mary Ting Yi Lui, Historian: At the Memphis Convention, growers are coming together, and they’re talking about bringing Chinese laborers, en masse, to replace freedmen They’ve heard these stories about the Chinese laborers, miraculously building the toughest part of the transcontinental railroad, under very difficult circumstances. And they’re hoping that this may be the magic bullet, the cure, for their labor problems.
Narrator: By the summer of 1869 – as newspapers across the country reported plans to import Chinese laborers to work on plantations, railroads, factories and homes – alarms began to go out – along with howls of protest, from workingmen’s groups and trade unions across the east – denouncing the scheme as unfair competition – and accusing malevolent capitalists of trafficking in a new form of slave labor – the Coolie Trade.
Voice (Alexander Troup): We have abolished the slavery of the black men, but these capitalists are endeavoring to resurrect it. The workingmen throughout the country should rise in a body and raise such a shout that its echo will reach Washington.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: And then, in Massachusetts – the little town of North Adams, Massachusetts – in 1870 – there’s a shoe strike. And the owner of the shoe factory sends one of his job recruiters out to California and says, “See if the Chinese will come.” So he brings in about 75 workers, probably teenagers and young men, to North Adams, Massachusetts, to break this strike. And they actually ride the transcontinental railroad, and various other connections, and get off the train in North Adams, Massachusetts. And for this brief moment of time, there are more Chinese in North Adams, than anywhere east of the Mississippi. But once that happens – once you get Chinese in North Adams – then you begin to see Chinese in Pennsylvania, working in various factories. You get the burgeoning of New York Chinatown, Boston Chinatown; Philadelphia Chinatown; Baltimore.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, Historian: So not just the plantations in the South, but the Northeast, with their factories, are actually also experiencing this. In all cases we're talking about small numbers. But it’s so blown out of proportion in the press. This becomes huge news.
Narrator: The Chinese in America numbered fewer than 64,000 in 1870 – and were never paid anything close to the starvation wages they were accused of settling for.
But the facts didn’t matter, and they would soon find themselves at the center of a rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment across the country – feared and vilified by white workers as scab labor and pawns of the monopolists – and viciously caricatured in the national press as servile automatons.
Mary Ting Yi Lui, Historian: If you look at the political cartoons, in something like Harper's Weekly, you suddenly see these concerns about. Coolie laborers, who are going to march across the nation and take over every single job. That this is going to be a threat to every white workingman in the nation – whether you are a boot maker, or a cigar maker.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, Historian: So what happens is that class and racialization converge – get confused. And the “Coolie question,” and the Chinese question, really become the big question nationally of labor and class. Can the American man compete with this degraded Asian male form of labor? They don't eat as much; their nerves are farther away from the surface of the skin, so they don't feel as much; they eat rats. You know, all this gets played out even more and more around not just class lines and racialization, but also around gender. The Chinese male is inferior – is not the same as white manhood, right. So you have that famous cover – “Meat versus Rice.” American manhood vs. Asiatic coolie-ism,? And, of course, the Asian male is inferior – but tenacious, because there are a lot of them. So they're dangerous because they're so many of them, right. Not because they really rival the actually superior white male.
Narrator: It was only a matter of time before the anti-Chinese feelings erupted into violence
Mae Ngai, Historian: When California’s connected to the rest of the country, it doesn’t have the effects that people thought it would have. It connects California as part of a national market – but that also means that cheap manufactured goods from the East now flood the Western market; prices and wages are depressed; there's actually more unemployment than there was previously in California; and in fact, the depression of the 1870s in the East will be brought by the railroad to the west a few years later. So now you have a large unemployed population. And in the cities, then, you have a much more explosive kind of racial dynamic. Where the ideas that targeted Chinese in the gold fields are refashioned for this urban context – and they get a new lease on life. And this is really where it becomes incendiary – where there are race riots in the streets.
Narrator: On the night of October 24th, 1871, hundreds of enraged white and Mexican Angelinos descended on Chinatown in Los Angeles – allegedly in response to the killing of a white man – caught in the cross-fire when a gunfight broke out between two Chinese immigrants.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: Chinatown was called “Calle de los Negros” – or, as it was known at the time: “Nigger Alley.” And the population of Los Angeles rushes in for this really brutal race riot. White people and Mexicans flock down to Chinatown. And as they capture Chinese people, they lynch them. They hang them from a church steeple; they hang them from the top of a covered wagon; from a gatepost. They cut off the finger of one of the Chinese men. One of those lynched is a child, and two Chinese women are lynched. And then they torch Chinatown. The Chinese people fight back. One Chinese woman picks up a rifle that one of the vigilantes drops and starts shooting at the mob. But the mob cuts holes in the roofs of the houses in Chinatown and drops flaming torches into these holes on the roof. And Chinatown burns.
Voice (Daily Alta California): Eighteen Chinamen were buried yesterday. They presented a most ghastly and horrible sight. Witnesses are very careful in giving their testimony, fearing to name individuals whom they know to have taken an active part in the lynching, lest they may be similarly dealt with themselves. There seems to be but one sentiment expressed by the better class of our citizens; that a great wrong has been done, which years may not efface; that the scenes of Tuesday night are a disgrace to our city.
Erika Lee, Historian: It’s still the largest mass lynching in U.S. history. We often think that this must have happened in the South somewhere, but it actually happened in L.A. And not with African-Americans but with Chinese-Americans.
Kevin Starr, Historian: That lynching was a horrible overture to a decade of projecting the difficulties of the 1870s onto the Chinese – suggesting a deep, sub-evil looking for a victim in the California psyche. By the early 70's, the failure of banks; the great depression that hit California; had filled San Francisco with unemployed, single white males. Looking for work and not being able to find it. So In San Francisco with the Board of Supervisors there, you began to get harassment of the Chinese.
Mae Ngai, Historian: The city passed numerous ordinances to harass the Chinese, thinking that if you made life miserable enough for people, they would leave. So there was an ordinance that you couldn't walk on a sidewalk with a pole on your shoulder. This is how Chinese vegetable peddlers, and other businesses, carried their wares. There was an ordinance that said that any Chinese who was arrested would have his hair shorn to within an inch of his scalp. Now, this was really obnoxious, because it meant cutting the queue, or the pigtail, which was a required form of dress for Chinese men. That was so obnoxious that it was overturned by the courts.
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: So all these, “obnoxious local ordinances and state laws” against the Chinese — every one of them eventually got challenged in court and ruled in violation of the Burlingame treaty.
Mae Ngai, Historian: So while in California they’re trying to think of all kinds of ways to get rid of the Chinese – without passing an exclusion law. they’re also lobbying in Congress to get an exclusion law passed.
Narrator: Lawmakers in Congress, for their part – still led by Radical Republicans whose principles had been forged in the fight against slavery – continued to resist all efforts to get them to legislate against the Chinese on the basis of their race.
But by 1875, the political dynamic in America had begun to shift – as Democrats in Washington began to understand that the Chinese issue could be indispensable to the post Civil War rehabilitation of the Democratic Party.
Mary Ting Yi Lui, Historian: The issue of Chinese labor becomes a very easy one to galvanise the constituents of the Democratic Party, many of whom come from European immigrant backgrounds, would have been working-class -- would have been concerned about what appeared to be the flooding of Chinese workers into the nation And that's where we don't have just simply a local story, but one that then has large national resonance.
Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: The Democrats suggest that the Chinese labor were actually equivalent to black slaves So you had this political pressure against the Republicans, who were accused of advocating for Chinese coolies. And so that make it possible for the Exclusion movement to get the support, from the East Coast politicians.
Narrator: For the first time, a pathway to Chinese Exclusion – stymied at the national level for twenty years – now began to open.
Mae Ngai, Historian: In 1875, Congress passes the Page Act, which is an effort to speak to the demands of the Californians, without circumventing the Burlingame Treaty. The Page Act prohibits the immigration of people coming under contracts to work and prostitutes. Now Chinese have been stereotyped already – all the men are coolies, all the women are prostitutes – so they think this is the way they're going to stop the Chinese immigration.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: There developed this sexist, racist, misogynist attitude among Americans, that Chinese women were naturally prone to become prostitutes. And, therefore, Chinese women, who wanted to come to the U.S., had to prove that they were never prostitutes; that they weren't prostitutes then; nor would they ever become prostitutes. Now, of course, one can't prove what will not happen or happen in the future. So many women chose not to even go through that humiliation. So we had that first act that's passed, that is very racial and gender-specific.
Mae Ngai, Historian: The Page Act is spectacularly successful at keeping women out. Not because all women coming were prostitutes, although some were, but because the interrogation of the female arrivals was so horrific that once you hear about this, you don't want to try it. So female immigration plummets.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: When the United States Congress passes the Page Act in 1875, and it bans most women, except merchants's wives, from entering the country – that's ethnic cleansing. Without women there won't be family; progeny; lineage; children -- and so the population will just die off. And it was intended to die off…
Narrator: By 1876, a starkly reconsolidated white racial calculus was on the rise across America – from the streets of San Francisco to the halls of Congress.
That year, Reconstruction would collapse entirely in the bitterly contested presidential election of 1876 – when Republicans in Congress – choosing self-interest over justice and equal rights – agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South – in a back room deal that sent their party’s nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, to the White House – even though he had lost the popular vote to his Democratic rival, Samuel Tilden.
During the campaign itself platforms of both major parties openly called for excluding Chinese.
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: It came at a time when American politics was sort of balanced on a knife's edge between Republicans and Democrats. If you look at the period between 1876 and 1896, you have five Presidential elections in that period. They were all very close. The 1876 election in which the winner of the electoral college and the winner of the popular vote were different –- the difference in the Electoral College was one vote. Now, California had six electoral votes – maybe they're decisive. Oregon had three; Nevada had three – maybe they're decisive. So the pandering for political support from the Pacific coast votes converts what would have been a local issue, with local agitation, into a national political issue.
Narrator: Legitimized by recent federal legislation and the stunning outcome of the 1876 election, a rising tide of political reaction now washed back across the country to California.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: The minute the Northern troops are withdrawn from the South – and Reconstruction falls apart – and the South is voting again in Congress, and can take apart the civil-rights victories of the Civil War – it becomes an invitation to race wars.
Mae Ngai, Historian: So you have in California a political movement for exclusion – you have all this legislation going on; you have violence; you had gangs of kids that would throw rocks at the wagons of Chinese arriving from the docks, on their way to Chinatown. They’d stand on the bridges and throw rocks at people, or spit upon them. It was horrific. And then Chinese become the target of a so-called “Workingmen's Party”and a Workingmen's movement Denis Kearney – a recently naturalized Irishman – emerges as a leader of the Workingmen's Party in San Francisco.
Erika Lee, Historian: He was very effective in pointing to Chinese immigrant men, male laborers, as being the source of the white workers’ trouble. Because the Chinese immigrant was the tool – he was the slave of the fat-cat industrialist boss, who was exploiting workers – not paying a living wage – and out to prevent white workers from gaining their fair share.
Mae Ngai, Historian: And they have sandlot rallies, with incendiary speeches. And their slogan is: “The Chinese must go!” And Kearney would rile up these crowds. And after the rallies people would fan out into the streets, and they would burn down Chinese wash houses and attack any poor soul that would happen to be on the street. It was just utter chaos. And the city of San Francisco actually had to dispatch police and citizens groups to hold back these mobs.
Narrator: And now, in Congress, the firewall of Republican opposition itself began to crumble.
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: So, finally, the issue had been agitated for such a long time, and the political impact of the issue had taken root in the Congress, that you got the 1879 15-Passenger bill.That was a bill that said that there could not be more than 15 passengers of Chinese background on any ship entering the United States. Otherwise, the ship would be turned back, and the captain would be fined, and so on and so forth. In the first major debate in the Congress, on the 1879 15-Passenger Bill -- Senator James G. Blaine of Maine broke from the northeastern Republicans, who basically opposed Chinese exclusion, to support exclusion..... His theory was, if you had people who could not assimilate and become part of the body politic -- and, therefore, should not become American citizens -- then you also should not permit them to immigrate. Because if you allowed them to immigrate, you would always have a political underclass -- seething with resentment; unable to enjoy the full fruits of the American Dream. That, he said, would create social problems for the country. So better not to let them come at all. Senator Blaine makes this statement: “We have today to decide whether we shall have on the Pacific coast of the United States the kingdom of Christ or the kingdom of Confucius.” So a choice had to be made: restrict immigration and restrict citizenship rights, or give the Pacific coast over to an alien culture and an unassimilable population, unfit for citizenship.
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: The 15 Passenger bill ultimately got vetoed. Because President Rutherford Hayes, on the advice of his Secretary of State, said: “We have treaties with China -- the Burlingame Treaty, specifically — that appears to allow for the free movement of peoples between China and the United States. And the 1879 legislation violates the treaty.” People in the Congress knew it violated the treaty. At the same time, however, President Hayes then sent a delegation to China to renegotiate the Burlingame treaty, so that some kind of legislation could pass. And that negotiation gave the United States the right to restrict, or to suspend, immigration of Chinese labor. The Chinese government really didn't want that treaty. America pushed it on them. China objected. America assured them that the treaty would be administered in a fair way
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: So in April of 1882, when they passed a 20-year exclusion act, which essentially barred an entire generation of Chinese labor from coming into the United States. That evoked a veto from President Chester Arthur. And then Congress came back, very shortly thereafter, with a 10-year bill. And at that point President Arthur said: “Look. This is apparently the will of the Congress. Ten years is not as offensive as 20 years.” And he didn't exercise the veto pen again. And May 6th, 1882 the legislation becomes law.
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: I daresay that people who voted for the Chinese exclusion laws, who came from Ohio – or Michigan – or Minnesota – probably never saw a Chinese person at the time they voted for those laws. And, certainly, the Southern states were full of people who had never seen Chinese people either. Southern Senators and Congressmen voted for Chinese exclusion – not because they had a Chinese issue within their own constituency, but because they felt if they attuned themselves to the political exclusionary interests on the Pacific coast, they would gain sympathy for what they wanted to do in their own region of the country, to voters of African background. which is: disenfranchise them. The fundamental point is: “You have your problem and we have our problem. We'll support you – you support us.”
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: It was an argument against civil rights, and it was an argument against immigration. But there was still lots of dissension in the Congress against barring immigration, and there was absolutely dissension against barring naturalization. Hannibal Hamlin of Maine – Abraham Lincoln's first Vice-President – chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – was very opposed to it. And on the floor of the Senate he denounced it. And he said, “I'm opposed to this. It violates fundamental American principles.” And he says, “I leave my vote, the last legacy to my children, that they may esteem it the brightest act of my life.” This is a person with enormous moral authority. So, as the Congress acted, the voices of dissent were not muted. They were, in fact, active – eloquent – prominent – and, ultimately, insufficient. So anything that the Congress did in these years was not by accident.
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: It really did two things. One is an exclusion from immigration, and the other thing was an exclusion from citizenship. at the time there were approximately 105,000 Chinese in America. Now, they were just two-tenths of one percent of the overall American population. So what happens to the people who are already here – people legally in the United States? And what that law said was, “These people cannot assimilate. They are too different in terms of their culture – in terms of their appearance – in terms of their language – the clothes that they wear – and the food that they eat – and the gods that they worship. They cannot assimilate into the American population. And in that sense, they are different from European immigrants. So we’re going to make, as a Congress, a judgment. We’re going to say that because they are an unassimilable population, they cannot come to the United States, and those that are here cannot become American citizens.”
Mae Ngai, Historian: When the exclusion law is first passed, it’s a 10-year suspension of immigration of laborers. And then they renew it in 10 years, and a whole slew of ancillary laws get passed to control, or to prohibit, the entry of people.
K. Scott Wong, Historian:: The first Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, really sets the parameters of which Chinese can and cannot be in this country. It says no Chinese laborers may enter for a period of 10 years. It also says they can’t become citizens, they cannot bring their wives, and they can’t have families. At least, laborers. Now, merchants were allowed to enter they could bring their families; students were allowed to enter. But as the years passed, the definition of a merchant became narrower and narrower, as well as students, and the definition of laborers became broader.
Erika Lee, Historian: The challenge for Chinese immigrants living under the exclusion era was multiple – because the exclusion laws were so restrictive. There’s the whole ordeal about entering the country under the exclusion laws. And then there’s the similarly difficult ordeal of living under the shadow of exclusion and trying to reunite with family.
Mary Ting Yi Lui, Historian: And Chinese-American families have to really make some hard decisions about what to do with their children, and what to do with their families. Where should they really think about their future? Is it going to be in the United States, or will it have to be back in China – with the political conditions there being so uncertain in this period.
Mae Ngai, Historian: At the same time, Chinatowns themselves become much more insular and segregated, in a way, because it was dangerous to live outside of the community. You could be much more easily attacked.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: So you see Chinese predominantly living in Chinatowns – ethnic enclaves – for two reasons. One, self-protection; and, two, because they're not allowed to move out. It's hard for them to find property or businesses that will take them outside of Chinatown. I think, to a great extent, it keeps Chinese right where many Euro-Americans wanted them. And the borders are permeable only to a certain extent. And they're more permeable for non-Chinese. So Chinatowns do become walled off.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: As we look at this dark period, I think it’s important to think about Chinese people in the context of Jim Crow; of what was happening to African-American people; of putting Native Americans on reservations. In California, what had started as a population of 200,000 Native Americans, by the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act there were only 16,000 Native Americans in California. So the effectiveness of racism, and the presumptions of what we now call “whiteness," ran very deep.
Narrator: The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 opened the floodgates to an era of violence and brutality towards Chinese Americans – and all people of color – almost without precedent in America history.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: The Chinese Exclusion Act codified a lot of energies that were happening at the local level. At this point the Chinese people weren't just on the Pacific West Coast. And all through the 1880's there was horrific violence going on against the Chinese people – and brutality, that never found justice.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: There was widespread violence throughout the West against Chinese. They are driven out of towns; they’re driven off of small farms that they might have homesteaded.
Narrator: On the night of February 6th, 1885, a mob of 600 angry white Californians in the north coast lumber town of Eureka – enraged by the killing of a member of the town council – descended on Chinatown, screaming “Murder the Chinese” – and “Burn Chinatown” – then drove every Chinese immigrant in Eureka out of town and onto ships bound for San Francisco.
After the purge, the town council passed an ordinance excluding Chinese – that remained in force until 1950.
In September 1885, at a coal mine owned by the Union Pacific Railroad in Rock Springs, Wyoming, angry white coal miners – many of them immigrants themselves – attacked a group of Chinese miners following a labor dispute – and burned their homes to the ground.
Voice: Some of the Chinese were burned alive in the houses. The whole number of Chinese killed was twenty-eight and those wounded fifteen.
Erika Lee, Historian: The examples are too numerous to cite. And, again, they happen in small towns that are isolated, but in huge cities like Tacoma and Seattle. The example of Tacoma is striking in and of itself. The entire Chinese population is expelled from Tacoma in 1885 – 800 to 900 people.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: There are 300 purges across California, Oregon, up to Seattle in Washington, as far East as Rock Springs in Wyoming. So they’re all over the West.
Narrator: In early June 1887 – along a remote stretch of the Snake River, separating Idaho and Oregon – a settler thirty miles south of Lewiston caught sight of the first of many badly decomposed bodies – washed loose by the heavy spring rains, and floating down stream.
The mutilated corpses – riddled with gunshot wounds and partially dismembered – were all that remained of 34 Chinese gold miners – who in late May, investigations revealed, had been ambushed, savagely tortured, and systematically executed, by a gang of horse thieves and schoolboys from Wallowa County, Oregon, sixty-five miles upstream.
“Every one was shot and cut up, then stripped and thrown in the river,” an investigator reported.
Six white men were eventually indicted by a grand jury.
“I guess if they had killed thirty-one white men,” one man said, “something would have been done about it. But none of the jury knew the Chinamen or knew much about it, so they turned the men loose.”
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: I don't know. You know, I think that the racism of the era was so ingrained, and the creative ways people were coming up with to tag and mark people as different, were invoked as ways of making it impossible for them to survive. I truly can only intellectually argue that. In some ways, I can't wrap my mind around the quantity of violence and hatred.
Erika Lee, Historian: Once exclusion was the law of the land, then Chinese immigrants turned to trying to figure out how to open up avenues within the laws. We know how active Chinese immigrants were in resisting, protesting, challenging these laws by every means possible: by writing to presidents; talking about the injustice in the newspapers; and taking cases to court.
Mary Ting Yi Lui, Historian: You see people immediately taking up the pen, and writing essays. You have Chinese intellectuals who are here in the United States during this period – like Wong Chin Foo, for example – who writes and decries the Chinese Exclusion Act as anathema to American values. And says, “Why are you particularly persecuting the Chinese?”
David Lei, Community Advocate: He started a newspaper, called The Chinese American – the first time that that term was ever used. And he thought the Chinese would become American, and should vote, and this is a country that Chinese should settle.
Renqiu Yu, Historian: What made the Chinese survive the most difficult conditions in this country is mainly their identification with American founding principles – and also their faith in themselves; and that they refused to be excluded.
Voice (Yan Phou Lee “The Chinese Must Stay” The North American Review): No nation can afford to let go its high ideals. The founders of the American Republic – asserted the principle – that all men are created equal, and made this fair land a refuge for the whole world. Its manifest destiny, therefore, is to be the teacher and leader of nations in liberty. Its supremacy should be maintained by good faith and righteous dealing, and not by the display of selfishness and greed. But now, looking at the actions of this generation of Americans in their treatment of other races, who can get rid of the idea that that Nation, which Abraham Lincoln said was conceived in liberty, waxed great through oppression, and was really dedicated to the proposition that all men are created to prey on one another? How far this Republic has departed from its high ideals – and reversed its traditionary policy – may be seen in the laws passed against the Chinese.
Renqiu Yu, Historian: This is the basic theme in Chinese-American history. The Chinese-Americans always challenge the anti-Chinese Act and policies. They always appealed to the American judiciary system to protect their rights. Under the most difficult conditions, these people actually did not give up their faith. They fought – they fought for decades. It is a remarkable resilience.
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: They looked to the law to protect themselves, because they could not look to the political institutions to protect them. Their only recourse was the courts. Sometimes they won, often they didn't.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: This is where the 14th amendment becomes critical. The Chinese can’t become citizens. There are a series of laws that says that can’t be naturalized. But the fourteenth Amendment, really grants all civil rights to persons. And it's Chinese litigants who are going to discover in the 14th Amendment that it applies to persons, not to citizens.
David Lei, Community Advocate: Between the exclusion law 1882 and 1905. There were more than 10,000 lawsuits the Chinese filed with the federal courts. And about twenty of these went to the Supreme Court. . And the population of Chinese in America was about 110,000 at the time. This is 8 – 9% of the people sued the federal government to change this.
Mae Ngai, Historian: Chinese used the courts in large part because they didn't have access to the ballot box – they didn't have the vote. But they knew they could use the courts, so this becomes their principal strategy for legal change. And from the 1880s through the end of the 19th century, there are a slew of constitutional cases. One type has to do with immigration, and the other type has to do with civil rights. They mostly lose the immigration cases. . But in the question of civil rights it’s a little more mixed. The most famous civil-rights case is Yick Wo v. Hopkins in 1886. That’s the laundry case, where San Francisco had passed an ordinance that said nobody could have a wooden structure for a laundry. But if it had been built before that time, you could still operate it if you had a permit. And they just refused to give permits to Chinese, but they gave permits to whites.
David Lei, Community Advocate: Right away, 280 laundries applied, and 80 got their permit, 200 did not. The problem was all 80 were white, and all 200 were Chinese. Now there was this guy named San Lee, he had this laundry, called Yick Wo. And he stood up and said, “I'm gonna operate without this permit, and be arrested to test this law.” So he was arrested. The China Six Company and the laundry association backed him. And they took it all the way to the Supreme Court – saying that – although a law is good on the surface – if you apply it differently to different groups of people –it is against the 14th Amendment – which provide equal protection under the law. It was never tested before.
Kevin Starr, Historian: The idea of a Chinese person being harassed, seeking the courts at remedy, at the same time that his people are being excluded from the country, to mix ethnic metaphors, shows a lot of chutzpa. And Yick Wo pulled it off – he pulled it off. .
Mae Ngai, Historian: And this is a really important case, because the court said, first, that the 14th Amendment provision for equal protection applies to all persons. That's the language of the Amendment. Not just citizens – not just whites – all persons. So this is the key ruling that applies the 14th Amendment to aliens, to immigrants.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: The Chinese Exclusion Act had to be re-upped every 10 years. And in 1892, it’s re-upped again by Congress with the Geary Act. And this time they add a provision that every Chinese person has to carry on their person a photo identity card. The United States never has had, and still does not have, an internal passport, and this was the first.
Mae Ngai, Historian: And if you don't have it, you'll be deported. And if there’s a good reason why you don’t have it – like your house burned down or something – we’ll only let you stay if you have at least one white witness to vouch for you.
Renqiu Yu, Historian: Now, the Chinese refuse to believe that this could be a law of this country.
Mae Ngai, Historian: So the Chinese say, “You know what? We’re not going to respect this law.” And the leadership of the community organizes a boycott. And this is very daring. They're telling people: “Don’t get the certificate. We’re going to have a mass civil disobedience, basically.”
Voice (Jee Gam, February 1892): If America is fair in her dealing, her laws ought to be applicable to all people, regardless of nationality. To single out the despised Chinese, the only people who hold no votes, shows cowardliness. For the only class that are required to give photographs are the criminals, and the only animal that must wear a tag is a dog. The Chinese decline to be counted in with either of these classes, so they refuse to register, and I do not blame them.
Jean Pfaelzer, Historian: And one morning, across the country, posters emerge saying, “Do not register for this card.” And over 103,000 refuse – they don’t register. The mass refusal of over 100,000 Chinese I think is the largest act of civil disobedience to date.
Mae Ngai, Historian: And the Chinese then went to court, to challenge the constitutionality of the Geary Act, and they lost – they lost.
Martin B. Gold, Attorney: The Supreme Court said, “Congress has the power to do what it’s doing.” So it’s not for us to decide, as the court, whether the political branch is doing the proper thing. They have the power to do it. So if you have a quarrel with what they’ve done, take it up with them. Except you don’t have any power to take it up with them, because you’re not a voter.
Narrator: Soon, an even more fateful and fundamental legal battle was under way – over the very definition of citizenship in America.
Erika Lee, Historian: Wong Kim Ark was a native-born American, born of Chinese immigrant parents in California in the 1870s. He had made several trips to China a few times before. But in 1894, he goes again and he comes back through San Francisco. And at that time the San Francisco collector of customs is a well-known anti-Chinese opponent named John Wise. And he was eager for a test case to have the U.S. government consider: “Is there such a thing as a native-born Chinese-American who can be a U.S. citizen – if his parents are ineligible for citizenship under the nation's naturalization laws?” So even though Wong Kim Ark had been allowed to reenter the United States a few times before as a native citizen born in the United States – John Wise decides to deny him reentry in 1894.
Narrator: At stake was a bed-rock constitutional issue: under the 14th Amendment, could a Chinese American, born in the U.S. of immigrant parents, be considered an American citizen – or not?
The U.S. Attorney arguing the government’s case insisted that even though Wong Kim Ark had been born in the United States, it was an accident of birth, that did not override the fact that his parents were foreigners, ineligible for citizenship.
David Lei, Community Advocate: Wong Kim Ark fought it all the way to the Supreme Court – to establish something that we take for granted today.
Narrator: In 1898, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court – citing the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment – ruled that Wong Kim Ark, like any one else born on American soil, was an American citizen.
Erika Lee, Historian: And this is the case – this is the precedent – that establishes a U.S. birthright citizenship – for all.
Mae Ngai, Historian: Wong Kim Ark, of 1898, is really important, because it secures the citizenship status of Chinese born in the United States, and all children born of immigrants in the United States. The court said that the language of the 14th Amendment is plain. And if you started to tinker with it, you would jeopardize the citizenship of all the children of Europeans in this country. So it was not necessarily out of any love for Chinese people, but an understanding of what the implications would be more broadly.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: As the years passed, the Chinese Exclusion bill is reenacted – first in 1892 – then again in 1902 – and then tacked onto a bill that had nothing to do with immigration whatsoever – in 1904, that simply declared: “All existing Chinese Exclusion Acts will be extended indefinitely.”
Narrator: The tribulations of California’s despised community of Chinese residents would soon be compounded – when in 1906 one of the worst natural disasters in American history struck San Francisco – and with it, the heart of the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America.
David Lei, Community Advocate: The earthquake totally destroyed San Francisco's Chinatown. But the Chinese word for crisis has the word for opportunity in it. That whenever there's some danger, there's always opportunity. So the flip side was, all the records were destroyed in City Hall of who was born here; who immigrated here; who had kids here. So all the records were gone -- a clean slate.
Erika Lee, Historian: Chinese were very, very clear in their own minds that what was happening to them and the exclusion laws was unjust: Knowing that the United States was open to every other immigrant group who was coming over; that there were jobs; that there was economic opportunity. Yet, they had been singled out. So you have undocumented border crossings, as well as the birth of what we call the "paper son system," or immigration through fraudulent papers and with false relationships.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: This paper son system really picks up after the San Francisco earthquake,. When all of the records in San Francisco are destroyed. All the birth records – all the immigration records. The Chinese figure out, “They have no idea who's legal, who’s not legal. They don't know who's born here, who's not born here.” So the Chinese developed this system – this paper son system – in which they eventually tell the authorities: “I was born here, in America, at such a date. And during this time, I have gone back to the village in China to visit my parents. Or my grandparents. And, during that time, I also married. But because of your laws, I can't bring my wife. Or my wife is taking care of my parents still in China. But during all these trips, I have fathered three sons. These are their names – these are their ages.” And the American authorities would take that information down. That gentleman would then let it be known, both in Chinatown, and back to the village in China: “I have just created three slots. I’ve created three fictional men.” And those slots would go up for sale. People in the village would buy those slots. They would have to learn the fictional lives that people would create, in order to enter the country.
Narrator: In 1910 – as Chinatown rose from the ashes and rubble of the earthquake – and as enforcement issues of the Exclusion Act spiked upward – a new immigration facility opened on an island far out in San Francisco Bay – that in the years to come would become synonymous with the hardships, heartbreak, and long-deferred or broken dreams of the Exclusion era.
Mai Ngai, Historian: Somebody once said that Ellis Island was to let people in – and Angel Island was to keep people out. Only 1% of the people who showed up at Ellis Island were turned back. So Ellis Island really was a gate that swung in, and Angel Island was where the gate was closed, and you had to really fight to get in.
Narrator: Over the next three decades, from 1910 to 1940 – when the immigration facility finally closed – just three years before exclusion itself was rescinded – more than a hundred thousand Chinese immigrants would come through Angel Island – whose principle purpose was to enforce exclusion more strictly than ever before – weeding out as much as possible paper sons – segregating detainees from family and friends - and at the same time safeguarding American citizens from foreign contamination.
Unlike Ellis Island, where 98 percent of the incoming immigrants made their way through, eighteen percent of the applicants at Angel Island were initially rejected – and five percent deported outright – after grueling interrogations, and harrowing detentions – that averaged more than two weeks – and sometimes stretched to more than a year.
Erika Lee, Historian: The longest detention that we know of was 756 days. Questions could range from 200 questions asked to a thousand questions asked. Angel Island is not unlike the history of Chinese Exclusion, in that it is hidden in plain sight. It has had so much impact on our history, and on who we are as a people – yet it remains almost out of reach – almost mysterious – it's in the middle of this urban area – yet so few people know about it. And then there's the ghostly presence of the building itself.
Narrator: In counterpoint to the harsh and bureaucratic reality of the processing center itself was the palimpsest of writings scores of Angel Island inmates carved on the walls of the barracks-like detention center.
Erika Lee, Historian: You can still see the peeling paint – the layers of paint that immigration officials had continuously put over the walls of the detention barracks, to cover up what they thought was graffiti. And how the immigrants kept on reclaiming that space, and writing it over, or carving it even deeper. So there’s so much about that space – where the walls literally talk to you.
Voice: Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent. The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.
Voice: On the little island the wailing of wild, wintry geese can be faintly heard. 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?
Erika Lee, Historian: There's one poem in particular that has always spoken to me, and it was written by an author who only identified himself as one from Xiangshan. And he wrote: “There are tens of thousands of poems composed on these walls. They are all cries of complaint and sadness. The day I am rid of this prison and attain success, I must remember that this chapter once existed.” That speaks volumes to me. It’s about remembering that there's the suffering, but also there's a hope that he will be released – that he will be able to get off of the island But that it was important to never forget the origins of that journey.
Narrator: In the years following the opening of Angel Island in 1910 – the epic human tide – that had brought twenty-four million/OR tens of millions of immigrants to the nation’s shores – in less than two generations – would be slowed to a trickle – and the gates of immigration all but closed – ushering in forty years of demographic isolation in America, and the most exclusionary era the country has ever seen.
In 1917, Congress passed a new and vastly more far-reaching Immigration Act, based on the Chinese Exclusion laws, creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone” – a vast empire of excluded nationalities – encompassing every Asian nation east of Turkey, and west of the islands of Japan.
Erika Lee, Historian: Then in 1921 the U.S. government extends what had been racial-restriction laws aimed at Asian immigrants to southern and eastern Europeans – and national-origins quotas get established – to ensure that the United States would continue to predominantly be of northern and western European stock.
Mae Ngai, Historian: So, in 1924 is really the key legislation that numerically restricts immigration into the United States, in general. Before World War I you had an average of over a million coming a year. And in 1924 there's a ceiling put on that -- it's an annual quota of 150,000. That's a huge decrease. Now we have a quota system that has an absolute numerical limit - parceled out to countries based on a very complicated formula of who's more desirable than others. So Great Britain has a huge quota – Italy has a tiny quota. And Asians are excluded all together. So the treatment of the Chinese foreshadows this more comprehensive restriction policy.
Mae Ngai, Historian: Things start to change in the run-up to World War II – Japan has invaded China – it's taken over Manchuria – it's threatening the rest of China. So American sympathies start to go towards China. Not so much because it favors China, but because it's against Japan.
Mae Ngai, Historian: And once the United States enters the war after Pearl Harbor, it becomes an official ally of China against Japan. Many Chinese-Americans join the army. They volunteer, if they're not drafted. And war propaganda has to accommodate this new international relationship and win the support of the public.
Mae Ngai, Historian: One of the things that hurts the United States is Japan's propaganda in Asia. Japan is telling the rest of Asia: “Throw off the Western colonial master. Come with us, we'll have an Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” is what they call it. And so they point to the United States and they say: “Look – they don't like you. They have exclusion laws against Asians.” So the American exclusion laws become a point of embarrassment.
Archival audio FDR: My friends, today we and the Republic of China are closer together than ever before in deep friendship and unity of purpose….
Erika Lee, Historian: Franklin Delano Roosevelt does explicitly say, “We must right a historic wrong.” He has a very eloquent speech. He needs to convince the American public that this immigrant group –that we have maintained was important to exclude – are now our friends and our allies. And we must remove these discriminatory barriers to immigration.
Mae Ngai, Historian: These laws begin to look anachronistic, in an international context where the United States wants to present itself as the standard-bearer of democracy and equal rights.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: Repeal comes because of the politics of the war – and not because there’s a realization that Chinese should not be excluded – based on moral grounds.
Narrator: On December 17th, 1943 – the Chinese Exclusion Laws were officially repealed – with the passage of the Magnuson Act – which kept in place laws, prohibiting Chinese nationals from owning property – but which did permit – for the first time in nearly 62 years – a small number of Chinese workers, to enter the country every year – in strict accordance with the 1924 quota system.
Renqiu Yu, Historian: In 1943, it was repealed, but the repeal was quite symbolic. The quotas were only 105. It's so insignificant.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: Yeah. What's important about it is that it's 105 Chinese a year. Not just people from China. So it's 105 a year, based on blood. You could come from London: you were part of that 105. And it's the only country that was treated that way. And it’s based on the 1924 quota of 105 being the bare minimum. So the Chinese got the bare minimum. The door prize, yes.
Renqiu Yu, Historian: Nevertheless, it is very significant that the Chinese now had the right to be naturalized – to become naturalized citizens in this country.
Mae Ngai, Historian: It is a important opening. Because, first, on principle, the idea of exclusion is overturned. That's huge. That no longer marks Chinese as the one group who, by name, cannot enter the United States. That's a huge victory, and it also opens up opportunities for Chinese to come. Chinese men can now bring their wives over from China, where they couldn't before, under the War Brides Act
Narrator: Immigration to America was at an all time low, when on the verge of the 1960's, a sea-change began occur – in the federal policy towards immigrants – who for the first time in American history – would soon find themselves officially embraced as a crucial and defining aspect of the American experience.
Erika Lee, Historian: It’s a very recent phenomenon. It's a post-World War Two; a Cold War and civil-rights phenomenon. In the 1950s, Senator John F. Kennedy published A Nation of Immigrants – advocating for reform of immigration laws at that time. Kennedy believed that not only was there a civil-rights prerogative – but also a Cold War, international-relations prerogative – to be changing these discriminatory immigration laws – because we were shutting out the vast majority of people from around the world – while also proclaiming ourselves the land of freedom, democracy and the American way.
Narrator: The sea-change would be consecrated in 1965 – in a landmark piece of federal legislation, called the Hart-Celler Act – which in the years to come – would dramatically transform, the face of America.
Mary Ting Yi Lui, Historian: The Hart-Celler Act is the immigration law, that really took away those national race-based quotas, and instead tried to make immigration much more fair and even across-the-board. When the senators and congressmen debated the passage of the Immigration Act, they had no idea what was going to happen. But the reality is that because the Hart-Celler Act – privileged certain occupations, like the medical fields; the science-industry fields – Asian immigration completely skyrocketed. And changed completely, in many ways, the face of Asian-American communities in extraordinary ways.
Mae Ngai, Historian: So in the late '60s and early '70s you have a disproportionate number of highly educated Asians who came in under the 1965 Act. This is a period of an expanding economy in the United States, with more and more R&D work; technical work. Now, a curious consequence of the Hart-Celler Act is that we're still left with the idea that Chinese are other. They may not be the Yellow Peril of the 19th century and early 20th century. But now they're the super-achieving students who keep your kids out of college – right? So they're either evil or super-achievers. But the Chinese never stopped being the other. They never can seem to find a place of just being part of the mainstream. Narrator: With the passage of time, the realities of the Chinese Exclusion Era – so painful for Chinese Americans themselves – faded from public memory, and were forgotten – in a nation that now preferred to think of itself – in principle at least – as having always welcomed immigrants.
K. Scott Wong, Historian: Those of us who are descendants of "paper sons," and discovering that you're a descendant of a paper son. That generation -- my generation, who did not know that our grandfathers were paper sons, because it was a secret that were kept in our families and never talked about. And then, one day, perhaps before a funeral -- or before a birthday party or something -- something is said that lets everyone … know… and … you realize: “Oh, that's why we never talk about him.” Or: “Oh, that's why that family in Chinatown is related to us, but we can't figure out why, or something.” It's because of that legacy of exclusion, and getting around exclusion. And once you realize that, then that sense of alienation, perhaps -- or that sense of understanding that you are a legacy of exclusion -- hits you. And you realize: “Oh, I'm part of that long history of immigration; exclusion; assimilation; acculturation; or marginalization.” All of those processes that take place has its seeds in exclusion. It made me feel even more a part of that flow of generations – of that Chinese experience in America. And for those generations who came after, who didn't have to face exclusion, I don't think they fully understand that, because they never had to deal with it.
Erika Lee, Historian: The history of Chinese exclusion highlights that we have had a complicated relationship about immigration from the very beginning. And that it's that duality – of welcoming immigrants; of understanding their need; our dependence on them; how they contribute to the United States – as well as our fear and anxiety of the different; changing demographics; changing economic structure -- that has made us who we are. That duality in our complicated relationship of immigration has shaped who we are as a nation; it's shaped our economy, our society, our politics. And it continues to shape our ongoing understanding of what it means to be an American, and how we continue to debate that to this day.
Renqiu Yu, Historian: When we look back, I think we can learn that, the Chinese have this resilient faith in the founding principles. I think that's Chinese-Americans' contribution to this grand American experiment. The exclusion law can be seen as a fundamental flaw, a huge mistake, in that historical process of great experiment. I think, if you really look at this system, you can also say that: the exclusion law was democratic, was legal -- but it was wrong. So something wrong could be done in that process of building a democratic system there. On the other hand, even under the enormous difficult circumstances — with so many disillusions, so many disappointments, and so much suffering — generations of Chinese-Americans never give up their faith and their hope. And I think that's very remarkable.