Laying Some History On You: The Chinese Exclusion Act

Something I often forget, living in the little bubble I live in, is that not many people are aware of the very long history of Chinese people in California, as well as the United States in general. A lot of that history is very, very ugly, and nothing exemplifies that more than the Chinese Exclusion Act, a landmark piece of legislation in US immigration history in that it was the first blatantly racist restriction on immigration into the United States. And this particular piece of legislation is hardly a thing of the distant past. It wasn’t repealed until 1943, and I know Chinese people who were directly affected by it. So, I thought that, for the benefit of readers in general, I’d talk a bit about the Chinese Exclusion Act, and lay the groundwork for future posts on discussions about Chinese people in California, because it’s a topic relevant to my interests, and possibly yours as well.

So, let’s start with why Chinese people started entering the United States in such large numbers during the 1800s. It’s because they were needed and actively wanted as a source of cheap labour (sound familiar?); immigration was heavily promoted in China, and people were often lured to the United States under false pretenses. Many Chinese settlers showed up for the gold rush in California in the 1840s, and some were used as slaves in the gold fields, while others were allowed to work in areas abandoned by white miners and to keep their subsequent gleanings, assuming they managed to avoid theft and racial violence long enough to get to the assayer’s office. Many Chinese immigrants ended up working on the railroads, and most of the railroads in the West were built with primarily Chinese labour. Chinese immigrants also worked in the fields, alongside people from Mexico and poor whites. The flowering of Chinese restaurants and laundries in locations like San Francisco and Seattle occurred only after backlash started setting in against Chinese settlers, forcing them into protected enclaves in the city and leading them to turn to new sources of income.

In the 1870s, increasing anti-Chinese sentiment in California and across the United States led to several aborted attempts at keeping Chinese immigrants out with legislation and limitation of opportunities for Chinese workers. In 1882, things finally built to a head, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all Chinese labourers from entering the United States for the next 10 years, was passed. California rapidly followed suit with a rash of horrifically racist laws, many of which were struck down for being blatantly unconstitutional.

To take just one example, California passed an alien land law in 1913, explicitly barring Chinese and Japanese residents of California from owning land. In 1920, an initiative put to the vote tightened up restrictions on land ownership even further. Despite challenges to its constitutionality, this act stood until 1948. Let me repeat myself here, in case this isn’t clear: Until 1948[1. A banner year for Asian-American rights, evidently, because 1948 also marked the date of the decision to strike down anti-miscegenation laws barring Chinese residents from marrying whites.], many Asian-Americans in California could not legally own land. This law was not formally overturned until 1952.

Under tightened immigration laws, to enter the United States, Chinese citizens had to receive a special certification from the Chinese government. Chinese people already living in the United States could not risk leaving, because if they did, they might not be able to return. Most Asian immigrants entering the United States went through Angel Island in San Francisco, and some people spent years there in a kind of immigration purgatory, waiting for admission or rejection. Some survivors of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco survived only because they were on Angel Island, instead of in the crowded and dangerous conditions of San Francisco’s Chinatown[2. Which, by the way, white residents tried to take over after the earthquake, because it was prime real estate. They tried to shove Chinese residents to less desirable parts of the peninsula, and succeeded, for a time, until substantial lobbying warned City officials that segregating the Chinese population would have very negative impacts on trade relations, not to mention tax revenues.].

Incidentally, most labour organisations in the United States supported the Chinese exclusion act. They argued that a ‘flood’ of cheap labour was ruining US industry, that Chinese immigrants were ‘taking jobs,’ and that the United States needed to protect itself. These arguments all sound awfully familiar, don’t they? Change the nationality of the subjects, add 100 years, and you’re looking at a lot of the current rhetoric surrounding immigration in the United States. How much things haven’t changed.

The Act was extended, and extended, and extended. Other immigrants took the place of Chinese immigrants, perhaps most notably people from Japan, at least until 1924, when the United States went whole hog and excluded all immigrants of Asian origins. The 1924 restrictions on immigration infamously established immigration quotas, with the expressed goal of discouraging ‘undesirable’ immigrants to the United States. This had the effect of isolating many immigrants to the United States, and despite the claims that the government wanted people to ‘assimilate,’ there were numerous barriers to doing just that. The ‘land of opportunity’ was in fact a land of immense restriction for many people.

A lot of conversations about race in the United States elide the history of racism against Asian populations. It is notable, for example, that most of the internment camps used to confine Japanese-Americans during the Second World War were destroyed, or quietly allowed to deteriorate without any attempts at preservation. Covering up history doesn’t make it go away. It just buries the attitudes behind that history under the carpet, and makes it harder to untangle modern racial rhetoric and ideas about race.