KUED Explores Chinese Exclusion Act
In the context of ongoing national debates over immigration, Emmy® Award winning documentary filmmakers Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu tell the story of the The Chinese Exclusion Act as a special presentation of the award-winning PBS television series American Experience. The film airs Tuesday, May 29 at 7:00 p.m. on KUED and repeats Sunday, June 3 at 3:00 p.m..
“The story of the Chinese Exclusion Act – from long before it was signed into law in 1882, to long after it was repealed in 1943 – is not simply an American immigration story – it is THE American immigration story,” said directors Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu. “Given its impact and importance, it’s striking how little is remembered or known about it today. Starting after the Gold Rush and continuing long after repeal of the federal legislation during the Second World War, Chinese exclusion was the crucible in which the American debate over immigration and national identity first took shape and was forged. Nothing tells us more about how we have become the nation we are today.”
On May 6th, 1882 – on the eve of the greatest wave of immigration in American history – President Chester A. Arthur signed into law a unique piece of federal legislation. Called the Chinese Exclusion Act, it singled out as never before a specific race and nationality for exclusion – making it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America and for Chinese nationals already here ever to become citizens of the United States
The Chinese Exclusion Act, a two-hour film, explores in riveting detail this little-known, yet deeply resonant and revealing episode in American history – one that sheds light on key aspects of the history of American civil liberties, immigration, and culture – during one of the most formative periods of U.S. history.
“If there is a word that defines the Chinese American experience, and Asian American experience, it's exclusion,” says Ling-chi Wang, Professors Emeritus at UC Berkeley in the film.
The film is a deeply American story about immigration and national identity, civil rights, and human justice; about how we define who can be an American, and what being an American means. It examines the economic, cultural, social, legal, racial, and political dimensions of the law; the forces and events that gave rise to it; and the effect it had, and continues to have, on American culture and identity.
“The 60 years of national exclusion, racialized ordinances, and hate crimes, is more important than ever to bear witness to,” said Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media and Executive Producer of The Chinese Exclusion Act. “In the process of resisting the discriminatory laws, the Chinese community helped define, in the most positive ways, what American citizenship is, from birthright citizenship to the foundation for desegregation of schools to establishing equal protection under the law.”
Burns and Yu set the story of Chinese Exclusion in the riveting context of the long and complex relationship between China and the United States, from the founding of the republic, when the China Trade emerged as crucial to American economic independence through the dramatic spasm of westward expansion in the 1840's, supercharged by the Gold Rush, and the establishment of America by 1850 as a continental empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The discovery of gold in the new territory of California in 1848 pulled in miners from around the world including farmers and workers from the Pearl River Delta in Southern China who were fleeing the social and economic unrest precipitated by the forced opening of China to European and American trade during the Opium Wars.
“The Gold Rush for Anglo America was a kind of shock therapy and an object lesson that there were other kinds of people on the planet,” said the late historian Kevin Starr, former Librarian of the State of California, in the film. “California was a laboratory for the larger process of adjustment that began nationally.”
As yields in the gold mines dwindled, and competition grew fiercer, Chinese immigrants became targets of vigilante violence by white miners whose resentments were almost immediately exploited and inflamed by politicians in the new state of California.
For two decades and more, down through the Civil War and beyond, anti-Chinese sentiment was largely restricted to the West Coast and resisted in the East by economic interests in the China Trade. But with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 – whose western half had been largely built by immigrant Chinese laborers – the economic and political fortunes of the entire continent would be inexorably intertwined, bringing Chinese workers east to work on untended southern plantations and in strike-ridden northern factories.
As virulently racist anti-Chinese sentiment spread across the country, fanned by the media and politicians seeking political advantage, the “China Question” moved to the center of the American political stage, despite the fact that the almost entirely male Chinese American population in 1880 amounted to less than two-tenths of one percent of the entire American population.
In the presidential election of 1876, as Reconstruction collapsed in the South, anti-black interests in the former Confederacy converged with anti-Chinese sentiments in the Far West creating a growing consensus in Congress, among Democrats and Republicans alike, that something had to be done.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, prohibiting Chinese workers from coming to the country, and preventing Chinese Americans already here from becoming citizens of the United States. Anti-Chinese purges and incidents of violence, growing in the years leading up to Exclusion, multiplied catastrophically in the decades following the passage of the legislation, as 300 towns and cities across the American West, from Wyoming to Oregon, turned violently on their Chinese American citizens.
Over the next 30 years, subsequent federal legislation further circumscribed the livelihood and well-being of Chinese Americans – barring families from being re-united, outlawing inter-racial marriages, preventing Chinese Americans from re-entering the country after visiting loved ones at home, and barring Chinese from owning property and businesses. Chinese Americans fought back against what they considered the racist, and un-American injustice of the Exclusion laws. Unable to vote, Chinese Americans filed no fewer than 10,000 lawsuits in American courts as the country descended into hatred and violence directed against all people of color.
Chinese Exclusion, renewed every 10 years until 1904, when it was extended in perpetuity, formed the bedrock and foundation of American immigration policy. Extended in 1917 to include the “Asia Barred Zone," the legislation provided the groundwork for all later immigration restrictions to come, culminating in the historic legislation of 1924 that reduced immigration from around the world by more than 90 percent, ushering in an era of isolation that lasted for nearly half a century.
It was only in the 1940's, as anti-Asian political sentiments shifted from America’s ally, China, to its enemy, Japan, that Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered legislation through Congress repealing the three generation-long exclusion laws. It was not until 1965, when the Hart-Cellar Act prioritized the reunification of families and the immigration of professionals, that Chinese were able to legally immigrate and naturalize in larger numbers.
Directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu. Narrated by actor Hoon Lee and featuring the voices of Russell Wong, Fenton Lee, Yuet-Fung Ho, and Josh Hamilton.