By William Engel
Tomorrow, PBS will be airing “The Chinese Exclusion Act”, a documentary about one of the most heinous yet oft-forgotten eras in American history. From the late 19th century up until World War II, it was legally impossible for Chinese-Americans to obtain citizenship, making them an arbitrary exception to the regulations mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment. Last week, I sat down with the film’s directors, Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu, to ask them a few questions about this disgraceful law.
WILLIAM ENGEL: Why do you think this egregious act [the Chinese Exclusion Act] is such an oft-forgotten part of our history? Why don’t more people know about it?
RIC BURNS: It’s almost completely unknown. I think that there were multiple reasons why it was sort of conveniently tucked away. One is that, by the 60’s, it seemed really cognitively dissonant with what Americans wanted to think about themselves, and also with what American political leadership wanted to achieve internationally.
When John F. Kennedy articulated the idea that we’re a nation of immigrants and should be proud of it, the laws began to change – more generally, with regard to the very, very restrictive immigration policy. It suddenly seemed easier to just think about America as a place which had always welcomed this central reality of the American experience.
As for Chinese-Americans themselves, the reasons they did not speak about it were overdetermined. It was a stigma to begin with… it was dangerous to talk about your background if you were a Chinese-American, especially if your grandfather came here through fraudulent means, as was very often the case.
So there were practical reasons why it wasn’t spoken about, there were reasons that had to do with shifting politics and culture, and once we decided that we’ve always been a nation of immigrants, nobody wanted to let go of that.
It’s a form of doublethink, and I think that’s among the many things that this crucial story, the Chinese Exclusion Act, is about. It’s about the ratio of memory and forgetting in the way we think about our own past, and its impact on our own present. It’s the idea that we can, on one hand, say, “Yes, we’re a nation of immigrants! Thank you, Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty!” but also say that we have a big problem with national security with our borders, and need to keep out the Muslims and Mexicans. Those are dissonant thoughts, and they’re almost never reconciled with each other.
So this film is sort of an attempt at historical reconciliation – the history of the answer to the question, “Who can be an American?” And in this respect, the Chinese are not just one story among many. This is the immigration story.
ENGEL: How did the Chinese Exclusion Act pass and survive for so long, when it’s such a clear and obvious violation of the Fourteenth Amendment? Especially after the 1898 Supreme Court ruling?
BURNS: That’s a conundrum. And not only did it survive past 1898, it got doubled down on, extended and broadened. The way immigration was defined was largely as a non-constitutional matter of national security, left up to congress and the executive branch.
If you’re born here, the Fourteenth Amendment should protect you, since it talks about equal protection of all persons under the law. That still did not change the reality of the exclusionist stance; in fact, it was extended in 1917 to every Asian country east of the islands of Japan and west of Turkey. Then it basically became the template for a much more restrictive policy, which lead to the quota system being established. We had a disproportionately high quota for Swedes and British people, a small quota for Italians and Greeks, and nothing for Asia.
Latitude in the name of national security is something which doesn’t get questioned much. But it’s a very complicated issue, because one person’s national security issue is another person’s existential human dilemma.
LI-SHIN YU: By the 1890s, large numbers of Chinese-Americans had been here for a couple of generations. So [for them], this was home. I have cousins whose parents came here in the 20’s and 30’s; they were born here, but they do not have opportunities here. They try to go back to China, but what does that mean? It’s as foreign a country as it is to a white American. They had to find a way to keep on going, to continue to strive to find a place and a sense of belonging.
I think we see that today with so much of our population, and part of the inspiring story that this history provides is like… it’s the human spirit of not giving up and not giving in.
ENGEL: So you think we’re still feeling the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act today?
YU: Absolutely. In the Chinese-American community, those effects are still being felt. In the 50’s, after exclusion was repealed, it suddenly seemed like there was an opportunity opening up for Chinese-Americans. But then China fell to communism, and suddenly being Chinese became stigmatized again. People started saying, “Oh, their numbers have increased, they’re communist spies.” So the idea that Chinese are the “other” resurged, and is still present today.
That “otherness” that people continue to ascribe to communities across the board makes it a difficult struggle for them to have a sense of belonging. They’re here, and they know they belong, but then they’re ascribed as not belonging.
BURNS: The issue that was pioneered with Chinese migrants now has shape-shifted. Now it’s largely Mexicans and Muslims who are targeted. But back in the 1930’s, the Chinese played the roles filled by both of those groups; they were both the horde who would take your job, and the toxic, lethal threat who would kill you in your bed.
So, in that respect, it continues. What’s striking is that the rhetoric that first began in California in the 1850’s – that rhetoric, that rationale and fact-free assertion of peril – is exactly the same. It’s exactly what’s being said about Latin-Americans and Muslims, and it’s as fact-free now as it was back then. It appeals to the very basic idea of “us vs. them”. Any space that harbors vulnerability and insecurity becomes a space where these ideas can be invoked.
This is kind of an archaeology, the history of the Chinese in America. The Chinese Exclusion Act, where it came from, how it was implemented, what its effects were like and its legacy… it’s an archaeology of how America has formulated its idea of who gets to be here and who doesn’t.
It’s fascinating to me, because it touches every part of the culture. Infrastructure, economy, geography, law, politics and media are all woven throughout this story, and you realize how complicated an issue like immigration is. It seems like a pretty simple word, but it is a very complicated hot-button issue. As Erika Lee says at the end of our film, the complications and the ambiguity of it are what define us as a people.
ENGEL: At the end of the film, you mentioned that Chinese-Americans are still “othered”, but in a different way. Nowadays they’re stereotyped as the overachiever, the math whiz, the music virtuoso. Now, even though this stereotype is positive on the surface, do you think it’s still harmful to the Chinese-American community? And if so, in what way?
YU: Well, absolutely, it’s harmful. When you flatten out a group of people, you’re not recognizing the differences that we all have, the individuality. And also, the stereotype doesn’t recognize the needs of the community. People say, “oh, they’re all doing well, they’re all doctors, so we don’t have to worry about them,” whereas in fact, numerically, that’s not the case. There are still tremendous social issues within our group.
The flattening of any group in any way is harmful. We need to recognize that we are all, in fact, immigrants; we all came here to seek a better life.