Wed, May 16, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Film explores legacy of anti-Chinese immigration law


More than a century before US President Donald Trump began blocking arrivals from the Middle East and Africa, the US immigration debate was already being forged in the crucible of Chinese exclusion.

On May 6, 1882 — the eve of the greatest wave of immigration in US history — then-US president Chester Arthur signed a history-making, yet little-known piece of legislation called the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The law, not repealed until 1943, banned workers from the Middle Kingdom and ended naturalization for Chinese nationals — the first time the US had singled out a particular nationality.

The new regime severely complicated life for more than 100,000 ethnic Chinese already in the US, many recruited to build a transcontinental railroad, but facing racism from white workers.

This obscure, yet resonant aspect of US history is explored in The Chinese Exclusion Act, a timely new Public Broadcasting Service documentary debuting on May 29 from Emmy-winning filmmakers Ric Burns and Yu Li-shin (虞麗幸).

“This is not simply an immigration story, it is the American immigration story,” Burns told the Television Critics Association (TCA) in southern California in January.

The White House’s biggest disagreements with Beijing these days center on trade rather than immigration, although liberals worry that Trump is ushering in a new era of isolationism with his “America first” rhetoric against migrants.

Burns and Yu examine the economic, social, legal, racial and political dimensions of the act, the events that gave rise to it and the effect it continues to have on US culture and identity.

Chinese-Americans could not vote, but the community filed about 10,000 lawsuits, establishing bedrock principles on birthright citizenship, access to education and equal protection under the law.

“In the process of resisting the discriminatory laws, the Chinese community helped define, in the most positive ways, what American citizenship is,” executive producer Stephen Gong (江文韶) said.

The complex relationship between China and the US began with the founding of the republic, when trade with China emerged as crucial to US economic independence.

Through the dramatic westward expansion in the 1840s, supercharged by the Gold Rush, the US became a bona fide global superpower.

Workers spilled into the new territory of California from the Pearl River Delta in southern China, seeking their fortune and fleeing the unrest precipitated by the Opium Wars.

“The Gold Rush for Anglo-America was a kind of shock therapy — and an object lesson in the fact that there were other kinds of people on the planet,” historian Kevin Starr, who died in January last year, says in the film. “California was a laboratory for the larger process of adjustment that began nationally.”

Eventually the gold mines began to dry up and Chinese immigrants became targets for reprisals by white miners whose resentments were inflamed by local politicians.

The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, transported cheap labor east and virulent racism against Chinese spread countrywide, fanned by the economic crash of the 1870s.

Suddenly the “China Question” was front and center in the theater of US political debate.

“We have today to decide whether we shall have on the Pacific coast of the United States the kingdom of Christ or the kingdom of Confucius,” then-US senator James Blaine told fellow lawmakers.

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