To understand Asian Americans and the state of California, there is perhaps no documentary more important this month than the Chinese Exclusion Act. On 29 May 2018, PBS American Experience premiered a special presentation “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” fittingly coming at the end of the month designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. The Civil War had ended in 1865. Japan had been forced out of isolation by Commodore Perry. More importantly, Chinese had served in the Civil War on both sides. Asians had been in the Americas for a long time. Filipino sailors had served under the Spanish and touched shore in the 16th Century. An East Indian was listed in Jamestown, Virginia. A Japanese man had become a naturalized citizen in 1858 (Joseph Heco, born Hikozō Hamada).
The man who replaced the assassinated James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, a Whig, was the president who signed the bill into law. It was the first law that prohibited a specific ethnic group from immigrating into the United States and although it was originally meant to suspend Chinese immigration for ten years, the act was extended with the Geary Act. It wasn’t repealed until the Magnuson Act of 17 December 1943. The United States was at war with Japan and China had become an uneasy ally.
The act was only the beginning. It would be followed by other acts of exclusion that would include Japanese and Arabs and limit Southern and Eastern Europeans. The demographics of what should be the West Coast and even the East Coast was altered by these immigration measures.
As the 1996 Ken Burns produced Stephen Ives directed eight-episode documentary, “The West,” indicated lynchings in the American Old West weren’t predominately targeting blacks. Lynchings in the West focused on Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. Let that sink in.
We hear about lynchings and massacres of the Deep South, but what about the Southland and what about the West? The Chinese massacre of 1871 took place in Los Angeles. About 20 Chinese immigrants were murdered. In Wyoming, there hare been the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885. In Oregon in 1887, over thirty Chinese gold miners were murdered in what is variously called the Hells Canyon Massacre or the Snake Creek Massacre. No one was held accountable.
As the documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” notes, the Chinese resisted, particularly when the government attempted to take American citizenship away as in the case of the United States v. Wong Kim Ark. The case decided whether the child born in the US to parents who could not become naturalized citizens can truly claim US citizenship. The was an important interpretation of the 14th Amendment.
Directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu, the documentary is in its full-length two hours and 10 minutes. Burns has directed other American Experience documentaries including “The Pilgrims” (2015) and “Death and the Civil War” (2012) and he produced “The Civil War.” Yu had previously worked as an editor on both “The Pilgrims” and “Death and the Civil War” among other American Experience episodes. This is her first credit as director.
The prejudice that helped passed the Chinese Exclusion Act lingers, even in California and racism in California has long been more than black and white.