There are a couple of particularly salient reasons why I wish we included the Chinese Exclusion Act a lot more fully in our national narratives. For one thing, we tend to talk about legal and illegal immigration as if they represent stable and longstanding categories, when the reality is that the first immigration laws (and the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, is one of the very first) were created relatively recently and were designed entirely to restrict immigration by certain peoples and ethnicities toward whom prejudice was particularly high. Anti-immigrant nativism was nothing new in the 1880s (just ask the Germans, against whom Ben Franklin railed in the 1750s; or the Irish, in opposition to whom an entire political party, the Know Nothings, was created in the 1850s), but this was the first time that a federal law was created precisely to entrench that prejudice and counter those arrivals of a particular geographical and racial origin (in this case the so-called Yellow Peril). We tend to think of illegal immigrants as different from legal ones because the former have chosen to break our laws, but the Chinese Exclusion Act (and every other immigration law for the next eighty years at least) makes clear how much the differentiation is both created by the laws themselves (much more than individuals’ choices) and connected to racial and national identities from the outset.
But that’s not even the most pernicious, nor the most salient, aspect of the Exclusion Act. Because the law didn’t just stop immigration by its targeted groups—it led directly to the forcible expulsion of numerous immigrants already in the United States, including some who had been here for decades and become as naturalized as they could possibly be, including in a few cases achieving citizenship. No such story is more frustrating and tragic than that of Yung Wing, who had arrived in Connecticut in the late 1840s (one of the first documented Chinese arrivals) as an emissary of the Chinese government and part of a Christian missionary program; Yung went on to graduate from Yale in 1854, to form a program and school for Chinese American young men in the years afterward, to try (unsuccessfully but admirably) to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War, and to marry Mary Kellogg, a local woman with whom he had two sons and built a family and life in Connecticut (earning his citizenship along the way). By the early 1880s, his school had blossomed into a true home and touchpoint for many Chinese Americans finding their way in the United States; the students had for example formed a baseball team, the Celestials, who competed against other local teams (led in part, as apparently all baseball teams must be, by a pitcher nicknamed Lefty). But the rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment, led by a particularly vehement labor activist named Denis Kearney, began to focus its fury on Yung and his school; everything came to a head in 1880, when a number of graduates applied for admission to West Point and Annapolis and, in direct violation of treaties between the US and China, were rejected. Deeply offended, the Chinese government withdrew all support of Yung’s school, and that lack of support combined with the US government’s opposition forced the school to close; at the same time, and much more tragically, Yung and all his students lost their status as residents (Yung’s citizenship was stripped from him) and were forced to return to China.
Yung left directly, leaving behind his wife and sons; he returned to the US in 1902 as, you guessed it, an illegal immigrant, in time to see his younger son graduate from Yale, but apparently ended his life as an impoverished tenant in a Connecticut boarding house (I admit to not knowing whether he was able to be with or even continue to see his wife and children there, but man I hope so). But the students traveled to California to await passage on a ship to China, and while they were there, an Oakland baseball team challenged them to a game; it’s impossible to know for sure what that local team’s motivations were—whether, that is, good or bad sportsmanship was the source of their challenge—, but the overall response makes clear that the Chinese were generally expected to lose and lose big (as one of the students put it, “the Oakland men imagined that they were going to have a walk-over” [cited in a book called The American Game: Baseball and Ethnicity, p.182]). But Lefty was at his best, and the Celestials won their final game. And then home was stolen from them, and they boarded their ship and left behind the country that had become more theirs than it will ever be someone like Kearney’s.
Hard to imagine a more amazing true story than that one, and if and when I ever write my screenplay, this is going to be the basis for it; Stealing Home is my working title. But the story isn’t just a crazy combination of depressing and inspiring, tragic and heroic—it’s also so damn emblematic of how much on the one hand our conversations about immigration have always been driven by fear and xenophobia and racism, and yet, ironically but crucially, how much on the other hand some of the most fully and perfectly American stories and lives have been precisely those of immigrant Americans like Yung and his students. More tomorrow, on another prominent and troubling side of America’s relationship to the world in the late 19th century and the legendary writer who pushed back against it.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The text of the Exclusion Act: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=old&doc=47
2) The transcript for part 1 (of 5) of PBS/Bill Moyer’s series on the Chinese American experience, Becoming American, through which I first learned about this story: http://www.pbs.org/becomingamerican/program1_transcript.pdf
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