Scarlett Zuo visits "Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion," an exhibition at the New York Historical Society.
After an endless journey across the Pacific, you have finally made it to shore. But all of a sudden, you are pushed into a small room, where three tall, stern white men look down on you and seat you in a hard wooden stool. Suspicion written all over their faces, they bombard you with questions: Who are you? Where are you from? Who do you know? And most importantly, how can you prove that your words are true? You feel tense, fearful and vulnerable, but you somehow manage to answer the questions in the correct manner. When they finally give you the nod, you sigh with relief: I am now in America.
This was the experience of Jung Joong, a nineteen-year-old from southeastern China whose immigration interview on June 8, 1911 at Angel Island Immigration Station is recreated with audio and photography at the "Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion" exhibition at the New York Historical Society. The rich texts and materials at the exhibition offer a rare chance for audience to engage with an often-overlooked history of the twists and turns of the Chinese American experience.
The exhibition begins with the historical background of the initial US-China encounter. In the nineteenth century, under a trend of global migration, thousands of Chinese arrived in America as voluntary emigrants. A series of Jake Lee paintings vividly depict Chinese laborers mining gold and silver, working at vineyards, building railroads and manufacturing goods.
However, Chinese migrants were not very popular in the US. Many were considered "coolies," a slur against unskilled, low-wage immigrant workers who, like the enslaved Africans, could not act as free men. As job competition intensified, Chinese workers, often seen as too industrious and too different, soon found themselves as targets of racial hostility. A set of timelines at the exhibition illustrates the eruption of anti-Chinese violence, whose tactics included beating, murder, arson and mass expulsion, which had brought unending terror to many Chinese Americans since the 1880s.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first immigration restriction law explicitly based on country of origin. The act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering and reentering the country. Chinese immigrants who wished to enter the country must have proof of their exemption from exclusion as students, teachers, merchants or diplomats. Jung Joong, the young man who passed the inspection, was indeed very fortunate, for many who failed to answer such questions during their interrogations faced longer detention and deportation.
The next part of the exhibition accounts the experience of less fortunate Chinese immigrants who often had to stay in immigration and detention centers for days, if not months. Visitors are invited to walk into a recreation of men and women's detention barracks on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, through which most Chinese immigrants entered the US. The barracks are bare and crowded, resembling prison cells. Immigrants in these barracks were not called by their names but only by their assigned serial numbers. On a similar note, the Geary Act of 1892 required that all Chinese persons in the US must provide white witnesses and carry government-issued photo ID cards to maintain their legal status. These ID cards with headshots had only been used for criminals previously. The exhibition quotes a Chinese American commenting that he and his people had indeed become "prisoners of the state."
To circumvent immigration laws, Chinese helped one another pass the exhaustive inspections by creating false identity papers and coaching materials. In a recording of interrogations, the officer even went into such details as how many rows of houses there were in the interviewee's village. After passing the interview, many immigrants became "paper sons, daughters and wives"--false relations with legal residents that existed only on official documents--but they were at least allowed to lead new lives in America.
Despite decades of struggle against discrimination, conflicts and suffering, the final part of the exhibition narrates Chinese Americans' endurance amid hardship and eventual prosperity during times of progress. An enlarged comic book tells the story of the family of third-generation Chinese immigrant Amy Chin. Visitors can see Amy's grandfather making the journey to the US and opening a laundry shop, immigration laws separating her parents, and her family finally buying their own house with hard-earned money.
Unfortunately, the story does not tell us what Amy is doing now and whether she is still carrying on her family's laundry business. Despite major steps toward inclusion, Chinese Americans cannot be merely seen stereotypically as laundry workers or restaurant owners. They can also be politicians, doctors, lawyers, artists, or anything they aspire to become.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that this display is on show simultaneously with a related exhibition called "Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving" at the Museum of Chinese in America and with the airing of the first Chinese American-centered TV series Fresh Off the Boat. All of this publicity and media attention reminds us the importance of respecting the identity and celebrating the history of Chinese Americans. We have reasons to be hopeful that Chinese Americans and other minority groups will gain a stronger presence on the media as well as in historical discourses.
Scarlett Zuo is a junior at Yale University. Contact her at email@example.com.
This article also appears in China Hands.