The Overlooked History and Current Reality of Chinese-American Oppression

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A young Chinese-American girl in the 1960s helps with her father’s Laundromat in the Bronx, which doubles as their family home. This was before household washers were ubiquitous; business is booming but stodgy. Sometimes she and her three siblings would quietly sleep in the back as their parents worked.

Family trips to Chinatown and dim sum meals bring her joy. Her journey later includes finding a home outside of the Laundromat, witnessing family members become United States citizens, learning of her family history, coming into her Chinese-American identity, and returning to her family’s ancestral town in 2011.

This story, told in graphic novel form, stood out to me at the San Francisco Chinese Society of America’s “Chinese Exclusion/Inclusion Exhibition.” The young Chinese girl, Amy Chin, is now in her mid-fifties, and her family has been in America for three generations. Chin and an older sister were the only ones born here.

Chin, currently a New York Arts Consultant and Special Advisor for Cultural Initiatives at the Chinatown Partnership, also tells the story of her parents, uncles and grandfather in the graphic novel, documenting almost a century of Chins living in the US.

“This is actually America’s story but not a lot of Americans know about it,” Pam Wong, Deputy Director of Chinese Historical Society of America, told me. “For us to tell the story of one minority group, we hope to educate and to improve the lives of other minority groups.”

When it comes to race in America, Asians are often ignored. As a Chinese-American in the Midwest, I’ve gotten everything from, “You’re practically white!” to “Asians are successful and don’t face racism.” I’m here to tell you that notion’s bullshit. And any other Asian-American will back me up.

Hearing kids say, “Me Chinese Me Play Joke” while pulling their eyes into slits, having customer service workers praise my English, being fetishized and stereotyped, being told by strangers to “go back to my country,” hearing people mockingly shout “ni hao” at me these are just a few of the racist incidents I’ve encountered in my lifetime.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m privileged in many ways. My parents immigrated here in the late eighties as part of that second wave of Asians in pursuit of higher education and white-collar jobs. My family is well assimilated, financially stable and generally happy, whatever that means.

But the mentality of Asian-Americans as well-to- do “model minorities” who don’t struggle is problematic on many fronts. To begin with, it minimizes the very real racism that even more “successful” Asians like my family and I face and also puts overwhelming pressure on Asians. Secondly, it is used as leverage to shame other marginalized races.

“We’re still in a white-dominated culture,” says Chin. “Part of playing up Asians as model minorities is a way for the white superstructure to say to other people of color, ‘Hey, these guys can make it? What’s wrong with you?’”

But most importantly, it erases the long and perhaps forgotten history of Asian-American oppression in this country, especially when it comes to the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (CEA) was the first and only piece of legislation to ban an entire race from entering into the country and was only repealed in 1943 when the Japanese were a common enemy of the US and China during World War II. Even then, there was a quota of 105 Chinese a year.

A very informative The New Yorker article, “The Two Asian Americas,” states, “There are now, in a sense, two Asian Americas: one formed by five centuries of systemic racism, and another, more genteel version, constituted in the aftermath of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 [when Chinese immigration was fully allowed].”

With the Trump administration’s erratic and bigoted antics looming, Muslims, African Americans, Latinx/Hispanics and Indigenous people fear for their lives and safety — and rightfully so. These groups need to be protected from the hate crimes, oppressive laws-to-be, potential deportations and the harmful daily rhetoric being spouted.

The Chinese may be overlooked, but they have reason to worry now more than ever. With Trump almost obsessively mentioning “China” in a negative light, at one point claiming global warming was a hoax by the Chinese, saying the Chinese are taking our jobs and having called the president of Taiwan, something that is unprecedented (because China does not recognize Taiwan as a separate nation), US-Chinese relations are becoming tense.

He tweeted: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” among many others.

As we know, a simple tweet from Trump can cause a lot of harm including hate crimes, death threats, rape threats, threats against families and so on.

“The political winds really affect us in daily lives and national policy in terms of how we’re viewed as Chinese-Americans,” Chin told me. “A lot of people in our community say the Chinese are doing really well, but none of that will protect you when political winds shift.”

She expresses concern about the next four years because people don’t make a distinction between the Chinese in China and Chinese-Americans here. While her family has been here for more than a century, people still look at her as a foreigner.

“As history has taught us, when the anti-Chinese rhetoric increases, really violent discrimination against Chinese-Americans and all Asian-Americans increase,” she says. “Think about the Japanese internment during WWII. Germans and Italians were not rounded up and put into detention camps, so with the new President and his rhetoric against China, that will have an effect on Chinese-Americans.”

And back in the 19th century, oppressive immigration laws in the US began with the Chinese. The CEA brought the concept of “illegal immigrant” to life for the first time.

“The immigrations laws that we live with today originated with the CEA and all of the statues that were tacked on to it and all of the mechanisms for enforcing these laws,” says Chin. “Just the idea of detention started with the Chinese. It was the very first immigration law.”

The CEA prohibited all Chinese laborers from entering the country and naturalizing as citizens. It did, however, allow diplomats, students and merchants to enter. The Chinese who were already here from the 1848 California Gold Rush and later working tough jobs like building the transcontinental railroad and working mining jobs were heavily discriminated against.

“After the exhibit opened and even until this day, I continue to do research of family history,” Chin told me. “I unearth this piece of my grandfather’s history after the exhibit opened. I found a jail legend of upstate New York that has [his] mug shot from 1903.”

Many of the Chinese who came to the East Coast at the turn of the century were escaping increasing violence and anti-Chinese sentiment in the West Coast. They would land in the western coast of Canada and go east by rail, according to Chin. There were key entry points, all pre-arranged.

“They were arrested for crossing the border as Chinese without papers [and] thrown into jail. There was a lawyer already procured to represent them. When they got to the court, the lawyer would produce a witness who would testify that this man was born in the US and was taken back to China as an infant and is now returning to the US, a system that was organized by labor contractors and smugglers.”

The judge being presented with this witness and no witnesses to the contrary would just decree the person was a U.S. citizen. Chin’s grandpa was forever declared a US-born citizen. He was able to avoid the detention that happened in Angel Island on the West Coast.

“Angel Island was set up as a transit point after 1910 that would screen people to make sure they were in some way affiliated [with US citizens] and would not violate the CEA,” says Dr. Uldis Kruze, Associate Professor of History at the University of San Francisco, who teaches US-China relations. “You could be there for a day or a week or a month or however long, depending on who the customs officials were.”

He says, having spent some time at the camp in Angel Island, the living conditions were cramped. Those incarcerated inscribed and wrote poetry as catharsis. A lot of it was discovered in the 60s and 70s when Angel Island was almost destroyed. “[The poets] were very keen on exposing the hypocrisy of being in the land of freedom and being incarcerated just because they’re Chinese or Asian,” Kruze told me.

But one of the factors that proved helpful to the Chinese was The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake that destroyed a lot of the records of that time. This allowed the Chinese here to essentially create their own history amid the immigration barriers and bring “Paper Sons” and more Chinese to the country.

Chin’s fathers and uncles came to the states when they reached adulthood, being allowed to enter because they were sons of her grandfather. But even in 1951 when her father arrived, he was held at Ellis Island, much like those detained at Angel Island before his time.

“He gets off at an airplane in La Guardia Airport. They put him on a bus to Ellis Island where he’s investigated for three months. At that time, it wasn’t even an immigration station. [It existed to check on the] Chinese and suspected communists,” says Chin.

But her father was able to move on and have a successful Laundromat service in the US and live happily with his family. This wasn’t always possible for Chinese-Americans on the West Coast back a century ago and even up until today. The effects of systemic oppression linger, especially in San Francisco where the first Chinese immigrants came.

“The Chinese-American community — the Old Chinatown with three to four generations— is the poorest sections of the SF area. They’re crowded, they have very little living space, many [residents] are very elderly, they have medical problems and don’t have good access to medical care, many don’t speak Mandarin or English,” says Kruze. “This is the reality of the real Chinatown. It’s a ghetto.”

Kruze says there is worry about the current Old Chinatown in SF. Despite the poverty, it is a very tightknit community with a rich history.

“The people who really want to get their hands on it are of course the Donald Trumps,” he told me. “They want to level the place and maximize the profitability of it [with] Trump Towers. SF is a very tourist-oriented city, so to destroy that would be to destroy one of the magnets that draws people from all over the world.”

For now, he thinks the tourist industry still has the upper hand over the “Trump Boys.” If not, and gentrification eventually occurs, the Chinese there would be displaced and even homeless. The reality is, there are Chinese in SF and all over the country who are impoverished, suffer hate crimes and face discrimination.

To improve this situation, Chin emphasizes the importance of building coalitions with other marginalized communities, calling attention to injustices whenever you witness it, and not falling prey to the same kinds of prejudices in any way.

“With freedom comes responsibility,” she says. “Take every opportunity to educate people.”

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