The 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act: A Time to Reclaim Our History

San Francisco Chinatown circa 1900's
New York Chinatown Protest against Japanese Militarism

by Gordon H. Chang

Nothing more symbolizes the racist treatment of Chinese in the U.S. than the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. One hundred years ago, Congress enacted legislation that added Chinese workers to prostitutes and imbeciles as undesirable elements prohibited from entering the U. S.

It was the first exclusionary immigration act based solely on nationality. Its affect on the Chinese of America was profound as it was on all Asians when the Act was expanded in subsequent years.

On this centennial anniversary of the passage of the Act, it is highly appropriate to review this history as there is discussion now taking place in government circles concerning a new immigration bill that will seriously hurt thousands of Asians and others in the country. Politicians are discussing elimination of the 5th preference immigration category which, if abolished, would end a main avenue a U.S. citizen can utilize to bring overseas brothers and sisters into the U.S. as permanent residents.

The Exclusion Act and follow-up bills terminated large-scale immigration of Chinese into the U.S. for some 80 years. But perhaps even more significant was the Act's other main provision which prohibited Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens of the U.S. They were labeled "aliens ineligible for citizenship," a status that brought a wide range of other restrictions (such as prohibitions of land ownership in many states, limitation of the right of habeas corpus), relegating Chinese to an officially inferior status, deprived of even the most basic rights.

The intention of such legislation was not to simply limit further entry of Chinese into the country but to drive them entirely from the U.S. By 1924 it was even illegal for a U.S. citizen to bring a Chinese wife into America. 'The Chinese population here dropped from close to 200,000 in 1900 to just around 60,000 in 1930.

The record of atrocities against the Chinese in America is long indeed. It includes legal discrimination as well as anti-Chinese massacres. But accompanying this history is a widespread belief that the Chinese just passively accepted this fate. Perhaps outraged or insulted as victims but always the "long-suffering Chinese."

But this conception is not so much real as contrived by those who wish to have Chinese and other Asians themselves believe in the myth of passivity and not take heart from the actual history of Chinese who fought for justice and equality. For too long, historians and commentators of the Asian experience in America have ignored the Chinese as participants in the making of history. It is time that the Chinese-as-hapless-victim go join the happy-go-lucky-slave and other racist conceptions.

Soon after the 1882 Act, Chinese tried to oppose the discriminatory measures through the courts. Fong Yue Ting sued the government all the way up to the Supreme Court. Another Chinese, Look Tin Sing, successfully fought to have U.S-born Chinese recognized as citizens with full rights. Other Chinese pressured the Chinese government to protest the immigration acts as these fell in the bounds of diplomatic concerns.

But many became disillusioned with legal processes and diplomatic dancing. They recognized that political and mass pressure was necessary to influence the judicial system and because the Chinese had few avenues of traditional recourse to press for righting grievances, they took other approaches. In 1892, when Washington demanded all Chinese to register with the federal government, over 85,000 individuals boycotted the requirements under threat of deportation. The mass boycott was so successful that the government had to modify its policies.

Later in May, 1905, Chinese in the U.S., China and around the world boycotted goods of American companies in protest of another anti-Chinese immigration law.

Over the next year, the $50 million U.S. trade with China was cut 50-70% due to the movement. It became such an international issue that President Roosevelt had to issue an executive order directing immigration authorities to cease "arbitrary" mistreatment and abuse of the Chinese. This attempt to defuse the issue though was not successful and the protest continued. It was only when the Manchu government in China felt that the boycott was becoming too radical that it stepped in and sup pressed the protest. The acquiescent and even collaborationist stance of the Chinese government with regard to the American immigration law and treatment of Chinese impelled many Chinese in the U.S. to look for ways to change the administration in China.

Thus, in the early 20th century thousands actively supported the great reform movement led by K'ar Yu-wei and Liang Ch'i-ch'ao in China. The aim of this drive was to remove the most stubborn feudal elements the Manchu court and modernize the country. By 1904 the American section of the reform movement claim 103 branches with a membership some 10,000.

Later when it became evident the reform movement would not successful, increasing numbers Chinese in the U.S. joined the ranks Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary movement. During his trips to the U.S. in 1896, 1904 and 1910, Sun collected money, material aid and other forms of support for his attempts to overthrow the Manchu government. Supporters of Sun even established over 20 military schools in the U.S. to train Chinese to return to fight against feudalism and imperialism. And it is critical to recognize that this passion to affect the course of events in China was directly connected to the brutal treatment Chinese faced in America. It was reasoned that as long as the Chinese nation itself was degraded by foreign powers, the treatment of those of Chinese ancestry overseas could never qualitatively improve.

Due to the recent efforts of many people, the record of Chinese experiences at the immigration depot on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay is becoming more well known. During its 30 years of operation, this processing station gained a reputation as a hell hole for Chinese and other Asians who were interrogated and mistreated there before being allowed into the country. Some were locked up for two years while their fate was deliberated by the authorities.

But it is also now becoming known the indignities suffered by the Chinese on the island were not endured in silence. Chinese kept in the depot formed a group known as the Angel Island Liberty Association which sought assistance to expose the mistreatment. Anger at the detention even broke out in the open as in a 1925 rebellion involving 200 individuals. Subsequently the authorities modified their activities to try to prevent another such occurrence.

The wooden walls of Angel Island's depot still speak to us today of the feelings in the hearts of those kept in cells. Inscribed poems tell us of dreams, hurts and hopes for revenge that the Chinese intensely felt.

Just as every people's history is marked by activities that differ due to the class and social position of its participants, so does the Chinese American experience have a diversity of responses to the anti-Chinese record. We have in the 20th century activists like Ng Poon Chew, the founder of the first significant daily Chinese language newspaper in 1900 and a Christian minister who traveled the country campaigning for the rights of the Chinese. He argued personally with President Theodore Roosevelt for a more lenient policy, and he publicly debated the right-wing labor aristrocrat [sic] Samuel Gompers who wanted to send all Chinese back to China.

Ng Poon Chew as a middle-class reformer placed great hopes on convincing political figures that the Chinese were no threat to the country. He simply wanted the Chinese to have an "equal opportunity."

But others from the laboring classes did not share the sort of faith in individual effort held by Ng Poon Chew. Rather they sought out the power of organization to advance the interests of the Chinese against government discrimination and social inequality.

Some activists joined the Communist Party, USA, or organizations based in the Chinese communities associated with the left-wing. They linked their struggle for a change in their status with the future of the working class and a radical transformation of American society. Groups such as the Chinese Workers Mutual Aid Association, the East Coast Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, or the more student oriented Chinese-American Democratic Youth League combined an avid interest in the Chinese revolution with efforts to improve the position of Chinese in America.

Despite the considerable distance between leaders like Ng Poon Chew and the socialist-minded workers of the Chinese community, they shared a commonality. They all faced a social system that denied them basic equality and reminded them day in and day out that they had to struggle simply to remain human.

Despite formidable odds, the Chinese in America were persistent in their efforts to gain justice. The anti-Chinese immigration laws were a prime target of their anger for decades, and the anguish as well as protest against these restrictions run as a red current through the history. It is not enough for the Chinese-Americans of today to look back and quietly empathize with those who have suffered before us, for we should also look back and see their courage, creativity and determination. To do anything less belittles our predecessors, but also diminishes ourselves.

Now 100 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, the racist anti-Chinese immigration laws have been removed from the books. As a result of the efforts of many people and changing circumstances, Washington slowly altered its official policies, which no longer overtly discriminate on the basis of race or nationality.

But while the targets of the struggle have changed, the nature of the problem remains. National oppression is woven into the fabric of capitalist America, and the mounting anti-Asian sentiment seen in the country today testifies to this.

There is work to be done.

Contributing Editor Gordon Chang is a professor of Chinese history and the Coordinator of Asian American Studies at Laney College in Oakland, California.