“The Chinese Exclusion Act”: An Examination of Historical Racism


For 18 years, my grandmother May raised two children in Hoiping village in China, while my grandfather George forged a separate life in Oakland Chinatown, 7,000 miles away — working at restaurants and hotels and living above his family association on 9th Street.

In the 1930s, there were few ways to communicate or send money, and it was difficult to get in and out of the country without being interrogated for months or detained on Angel Island. As a woman, grandma was not allowed to come join her husband.

I can only imagine the unbearable loneliness of this life, which was imposed upon thousands of Chinese under one of America’s most historically-discriminatory laws.

This law is the subject of a new documentary, “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” which closes CAAMFest’s 35th anniversary program on March 19. Directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shun Yu, the film tells the story of the first federal law, passed in 1882, which excluded the immigration of one nationality for over 60 years.

Courtesy of sheriffmichaelhennessey.com

Courtesy of sheriffmichaelhennessey.com

Following the CAAMFest premiere, the directors are teaming up with PBS and the Center for Asian American Media to launch an educational campaign over the next two years to get the film into schools across the country. The campaign comes at a perfect time to remind us of our long and shameful history of racism in U.S. immigration policy. 

As Donald Trump attempts to ban all travel from seven predominantly-Muslim countries and build a wall along the border of Mexico, we must ask ourselves as a nation, do we want to repeat the mistakes of our past?

After viewing “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” the answer should be, “no!” Through archival documents and photos narrated by historians, the film provides critical global, economic, and political context around the run-up to 1882. Starting with the confluence of the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and the Gold Rush, the directors show the root causes of why thousands of Chinese like my grandpa chose to immigrate and leave their families behind.

Courtesy of CAAMFest

Courtesy of CAAMFest

The film reveals that while 300,000 gold-seekers came to California from around the world — including many from Latin America, Australia, and Europe –Chinese immigrants were targeted in part because the national identity of the U.S. was still in flux, following the Civil War. The Chinese were culturally different in dress and customs, and were viewed as a threat in an uncertain economic landscape.

California’s third governor John Bigler passed a miner’s tax only for Chinese in 1852, the year Oakland was founded. UC Berkeley founder of Asian American  Studies Ling-Chi Wang shares in the film how Bigler saw the Chinese as “heathens with no commitment to build a Democratic society in California, with weird customs and practices and lifestyles.”

A major theme throughout the film is the central role of U.S. capitalists in bringing the Chinese immigrants as a source of cheap labor. Interviewees explain how the Chinese were instrumental in completing the Transcontinental Railroad. Similar to African slaves and Mexican farmworkers, companies wanted their labor, but not for them to be part of mainstream American society.

George Quan, my grandfather. Courtesy of Lailan Sandra Huen

George Quan, my grandfather. Courtesy of Lailan Sandra Huen

Extreme xenophobia led to no less than 15 federal laws and a host of local and state anti-Chinese laws, culminating in President Chester Arthur signing the  federal Exclusion Act in 1882. When the Act was finally repealed in 1943, only 105 new visas per year were allowed until 1965, when discriminatory quotas were finally eased. 

The film begs the question, “What does it mean to be American?”

The projection that the U.S. will no longer be majority white as of 2043 has alarmed many Caucasians who have dominated American society for more than 250 years. One takeaway from the film is the realization that diversification could have come much sooner, if not for
racist immigration policy.

In 2017, politicians are again exploiting what Wang calls “white working class agitation” during a time of economic uncertainty caused by the expansion of capitalism. Protesters proclaim that Trump ran a campaign to “Make America White Again,” with an agenda to reduce the numbers of immigrants of color. Indeed, a ban targeting Muslim countries and the threats to sanctuary cities represent major steps backwards.

Given that the United States is essentially a nation of immigrants and their descendants, the Act wasn’t just discriminatory, but also hypocritical. Among its impacts were the impeding of social progress and acceptance of cultural diversity. Had the Act never been passed, the Chinese American population would be much more sizeable, anti-immigration rhetoric might be less effective politically,  and we wouldn’t have had to wait until 2009 to elect the first Chinese American woman Congressmember Judy Chu — who forced Congress to express regret for the Exclusion Act in 2012, 130 years after its inception.

The documentary’s tracing of the long history of San Francisco Chinatown’s leaders fighting for civil rights underscores how profound the fight has been to protect the neighborhood and its people for almost 170 years. Following the 1906 earthquake, officials tried to move Chinatown because of its valuable location; in the film, NYU Professor Jack Tchen describes how the community resisted by working together to rebuild faster to make sure they were not displaced.

George & May’s daughter born in Livermore, Jean Quan. Courtesy of Lailan Sandra Huen

George & May’s daughter born in Livermore, Jean Quan. Courtesy of Lailan Sandra Huen

Chinatown family associations hired skilled lawyers to take 10,000 immigration, citizenship and fair treatment appeal cases to the courts – winning many cases by  upholding the constitutional guarantees of equal treatment and setting legal precedents used by civil rights lawyers ever since. Despite these court victories, the film explains how it took nothing short of a World War to suddenly make China an ally; xenophobia’s next target became the Japanese and Japanese Americans.

When Congress passed the War Brides Act of 1945, after two months of interrogation at the Immigration Station on Sansome Street, grandma May was finally able to join grandpa George in 1946 – because he had served as a cook in the U.S. Army during World War II. Together, they opened the first Chinese restaurant in Livermore, helping to launch the trend of Chinese-American fare served up in small towns across the US. 

While the Act hinged on the belief that Chinese people could never assimilate, hundreds of loyal white customers happily came to my grandparents’ restaurant for the best chow mein in town. And their daughter, my mother, who grew up in that restaurant’s kitchen, would go on to become one of the first Chinese woman School Board members, Councilmembers and Mayors in Oakland. 

Assimilate we did, but on our terms, as we fought to realize the promise of America. The film reviews many of the
legal cases where Chinese Americans used the highest values of the U.S. Constitution — justice, equality, liberty — to make their arguments.  An unintended consequence of the Act was the necessity to organize politically, which has catapulted dozens of Chinese Americans into office to uphold the democracy which Bigler insisted we were incapable of. 

Ultimately, the documentary offers an important perspective on the current fight for immigrant rights and how the racial battles of today are a continuation of past struggle over identity and power. It also provides context on California’s historical racism, in stark contrast to the eventual embrace of immigrants defining our state’s identity. 

March 19th Closing Night
“Chinese Exclusion Act”
Tickets $15-20 are available at

To learn more, visit the Chinese Historical Society of America at 965 Clay Street to see an exhibit sharing the context before, during and after the 1882 Exclusion Act, Tuesdays-Fridays 12-5pm, Saturdays-Sundays 10am-4pm.


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