A Chinamans Chanceby Sokthan Yeng
Every time a stranger uses the greeting “ni hao” to start a conversation with me (of Asian ancestry, but not Chinese), I’m reminded that the distinction between Chinese and the more generic Asian-American is blurry at best. The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion provides glimpses into why Asian-Americans are often thought to have origins in China. Trade between China and the United States helped open the border for immigrants from the Orient. As is the case with many histories of immigration, it wasn’t long before the number of new migrants began to grow large enough to create ugly stereotypes about the incoming brand of foreigners. Because legislators and politicians were not immune to such prejudices, the Chinese Exclusion Act was written in 1882. Not only did the Chinese Exclusion Act, as the name suggests, explicitly target Chinese immigrants, but it was used to control Indian immigrants. Because U.S. officials made as little effort to distinguish between migrants from the Asian subcontinent as they did between Chinese and Japanese immigrants, the ban worked to restrict laborers from anywhere between Afghanistan and China. In other words, U.S. law treated anyone who could be broadly considered Asian as if they were Chinese immigrants.
Much of the exhibition is dedicated to exploring the regulations within the Chinese Exclusion Act and their ramifications. Visitors can make their way through mildly interactive stations that help to relay the history of how the law came to be and understand the trials of those who sought to enter the U.S. in spite of the strict controls. By strolling through the gallery, viewers can see key dates and understand how the law fits into the larger picture of American history and the history of immigration in particular. Although the law had been extended in 10-year increments since its inception, it was Theodore Roosevelt who made it permanent in 1902. There isn’t much more information available at the installation about why he made such a decision. Even Ken Burns, in his vaunted documentary on the Roosevelts, while documenting Roosevelt’s tense relationship with the African-American community, does not mention this significant law. Historians, nonetheless, have argued that Roosevelt’s stance towards African-Americans and Chinese immigrants together reveals something telling about the President and the Progressive movement: although Roosevelt argued for the equality of Americans in the “melting pot” society, he was unable to hide his disdain for growing minority populations.
The American public at large may continue to be unaware of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its impact on U.S. immigration because narratives about popular figures are not connected to the history of Chinese immigration. This, of course, does not mean that Chinese immigrants did not have a great impact on American culture and U.S. policies. Certain practices that now seem commonplace began as a means to address the wave of immigrants from China. For instance, U.S. officials developed the government-issued identification card as a way to control Chinese immigrants. One of the stations at the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition allows visitors to see images of these government-mandated documents. A quick scroll through them reveals that these first photo-identification cards made room for now-unusual defining characteristics. Unlike existing state-issued cards, no description is given of height or weight. They often noted, instead, the placement of facial moles. How else could American officials tell Asians apart?
The curators of the exhibit show that the bureaucracy around immigration began with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Along with the intense scrutiny of medical exams, Chinese immigrants had to endure lengthy interviews to prove their identity and verify that they were able to enter the U.S. legally. Storyboards, videos, and audiotapes about these grueling interviews reveal the lengths immigrants had to go to in order to pass or outwit such exams. Those who were who they claimed to be often still needed to study or try to smuggle in notes (sometimes hidden in food) to answer the detailed questions posed about their villages in China or relatives in America.
The composite image of the immigration process provided by the New-York Historical Society, of course, also draws attention to the criminalization of immigrants. Unsurprisingly, the more laws sought to locate criminals, the more criminals were created. Stricter regulations ensured that some Chinese immigrants who could earlier have legally entered the U.S. would no longer be able to do so without thwarting the law. The expansion of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902 explicitly denied entrance, for instance, to those who worked in the laundry business. No reason is noted for this restriction but the symbolic link Frantz Fanon drew between the colored laundress and her imagined desire to whiten her race comes to mind—though perhaps through an inverse metaphor. Chinese launderers must have been a bit of an oxymoron because they would pollute, not clean. Rather than making America whiter, they would dilute whiteness.
Such thinly veiled racism is all the more apparent when the Exclusion Act is read as a companion to the Page Act of 1875. It is not a coincidence that the Chinese Exclusion Act followed only seven years behind the Page Act, which specifically targeted Asian women for their low moral character. Highlighting the problem of sexuality, however, was only a first attempt to trigger race discrimination. U.S. consuls, under this prior law, were required to ensure that any Asian immigrant was not under contract for “lewd and immoral purposes.” In order to prove that they were not prostitutes, Asian women who traveled solo first needed to pay a $500 fee just to enter the country. Legal procedures and interviews about the identity of the woman and her relation to a man of legal residence would then begin. Women who paid the bond and had their feet bound—signs of class status and immobility—faced fewer questions about their morality. The implication was that any Asian woman who was not already claimed by a man traveled only to work in the only profession suited to her: prostitution.
The interview process that sought to ban Asian women would be duplicated for the larger Asian immigrant population through the Chinese Exclusion Act. If Asian women were suspect because they could corrupt the nation biologically through reproduction, it would stand to reason that Asian offspring would also be targets of great scrutiny. Young Chinese immigrants would be allowed entry into the U.S. only if they could convince immigration officials that they were children of (male) Chinese immigrants already in America. In order to circumvent these laws, young boys and girls would become “paper children,” related to legal inhabitants by false papers. Stories about paper sons and daughters help to remind us both that migrating children are not a new phenomenon and that the U.S. has a history of criminalizing children.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, as an expansion of the Page Act, was a signal that all Asian immigrants had become as suspicious and dangerous as Chinese women. What made the Page Act peculiar was the language that linked discourses of sexual abnormality and racial inferiority. The sexual deviancy of Asians, and particularly Asian women, was emphasized in the Page Act to prove that their race was problematic. The Exclusion Act made a similar claim but steered clear of any explicit references to sexuality. Chinese men were simply dangers to the “good order of certain localities.” This did not mean, however, that the “Asian race” was no longer sexualized. It is more likely the case that it was taken for granted that all Asians were sexually deviant. How could they help it? If they were born of innately miscreant women, they, as members of the Asian race, would carry the same germ of deviance.
An event held in conjunction with the exhibit, “22 Lewd Chinese Women,” shone a light on the flawed legal system that began with the problematic sexuality of Asian women and ended with the criminalization of Asians and Asian-Americans. Members of the Asian-American Bar Association of New York reenacted the trials of men and women of various Asian heritages. Despite the nomenclature, these reenacted trials did not solely showcase injustices against Chinese immigrants. Nor did they focus exclusively on the plight of Asian women. The title, then, only really makes sense if the criminalization of Chinese women has come to represent the treatment of Asians and Asian-Americans in general.
Among the various storyboards detailing the laws concerning Chinese-Americans, visitors can also connect pieces of seemingly disparate moments of resistance and create a fuller narrative that includes cultural changes. The small installation highlighting Joyce Chen’s celebrity chef status is all the more incredible considering that Americans once shunned Chinese food. Although restaurant chains like Panda Express or P.F. Chang’s may be a far cry from the authentic Shanghai meals that Chen wanted to recreate in America, they do speak to the influence Chinese cuisine has had on American culture. Chen not only shared recipes through her PBS series but she also helped to popularize a staple of many American kitchens, the stir-fry pan. It might be difficult to believe that just a few decades before Chen was born, journalist Wong Chin Foo, angered by unwarranted caricatures of Chinese-Americans, publicly dared anyone to find a Chinese restaurant that made use of cats, rats, or puppies.
Wong continued to rail against such anti-Chinese sentiments by writing about the merits of the “Chinese American” through a weekly newspaper with this very moniker, which he coined in protest to Chinese exclusion. Those who see themselves as part of or who want to add to the Chinese-American legacy can relay stories online through the “Many Faces” tab featured on the New-York Historical Society webpage. Flashes of synchronicity are revealed in this compilation, as museum features on the Chinese Exclusion Act seemingly play themselves out in the personal dramas and family histories of Chinese-Americans.
Although pre-formed professional biographies abound, the most interesting entries are the unedited and unsolicited ones and precisely for those reasons. It is probably not a coincidence that celebrity fashion designer Anna Sui is featured in a video montage at the end of the exhibit and also provides a list of her favorite things on the “Many Faces” online gallery. The success of the Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion exhibition does not turn on the inclusion of the unquestioned accomplishments of the glitterati. It seems that the aim of the online exhibit is to collect a wide variety of reflections on the Chinese-American experience. I hope that this happens and that unsought stories will soon far outweigh the resume listings that have the place of honor now.
Sokthan Yeng is an assistant professor of philosophy at Adelphi University. She has research interests in French Contemporary Philosophy, Feminism, Critical Race Theory, and Eastern Philosophy. She has published a book, The Biopolitics of Race: State Racism and U.S. Immigration, with Lexington Books and journal articles on the philosophy of Luce Irigaray and Buddhism.