At the historic completion of the construction of the Transcontinental Railway in 1869, Promontory, Utah, the Chinese laborers who did the majority of the work in the West were not allowed in the famous Golden Spike photograph, which celebrates the success of the construction and includes white engineers, businessmen, and Irish laborers from the East. “[The Chinese are] somewhere off to the side, they’re out of the frame, they’re there but they’re not…and so, they’re erased from that history,” as historian K. Scott Wong describes in the new PBS documentary, The Chinese Exclusion Act. This is the photo that crystallizes the major theme in the film: that the Chinese existence in America has been marked by a persistent sense of, for a lack of a better word, exclusion. Unwilling to leave this part of American history any more excluded than it is, the filmmakers craft a historically urgent and fiercely critical film that studies the egregious federal policy that denied the Chinese of immigration and citizenship to America, which lasted for 60 years from 1882 to 1943.
Directed by Ric Burns (brother of Ken) and Li-Shin Yu and co-produced by Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), The Chinese Exclusion Act is an even-handed, wide-ranging and meticulously-paced history lesson that features striking primary historical sources, including photographs, newspaper clippings, historical monuments, political cartoons and an especially moving piece of home video footage near the end, narrated by historians and community advocates like Scott, Erika Lee, David Lei and Renqiu Yu. The film provides a compelling textbook account of the key events leading up to and following the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and how its legacy manifests itself in today’s Chinese American identity. This total commitment to its ‘textbook’ aesthetic, which often characterizes educational documentaries by Burns and his brother (the brothers co-produced The Civil War (1990), the acclaimed mini-series on PBS), is also where the film falls flat, denying the more lyrical possibilities that the form offers. Where the film seeks to embellish its dry text, it resorts to overdramatic narration to channel the voices of historical figures, infiltrating its earnestness with camp.
A history lesson that is emphatically told from the Chinese Americans’ point of view, as it should be, the film contextualizes the 1882 Act as ‘forgotten,’ as described by historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, hitting the theme of exclusion on its head. The narrative begins with the backdrop of Chinese immigration to the US in the mid-19th Century, fueled by a number of factors, including President James Polk’s initiative to develop the west, the China trade, which demanded the import of Chinese labor on the west coast, the opium war, which debilitated China’s economy at the time, and finally, the gold rush. The first sense of racial tension after the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in California arose from their competition with European American gold miners, who almost immediately discussed ‘purging’ the Chinese. Seen as another ‘race problem’ (a reminder that Pre-Civil War slavery is full-on operational at this time), the Chinese were considered, and this is a word that comes up multiple times, “unassimilable.”
John Bigler, then governor of California, representing white miners and mining companies, began leading the charge for local policies that discriminated against Chinese miners, by framing them as ‘coolies,’ or slaves (most Chinese miners came to the US on their own account), in an effort to rid California of another ‘race problem.’ Bigler’s antics legitimized anti-Chinese sentiment, which empowered white miners’ attacks on the Chinese.
After the Civil War, as the construction of the Transcontinental Railway commenced, what was a local ‘race problem’ in California quickly became a national issue that instigated discussions in not only race, but also class, labor, civil rights, and gender politics. This is where the educational design of the film shines through, connecting various political considerations to a series of historical events that have implications on today’s society. What resonated most were not discriminatory federal policies, but insidious propaganda and language that dehumanized, a tactic similarly used by the US government today: the famous Meat vs. Rice Senate document (I repeat, Senate document) that provided explanation for why Chinese men were physically inferior to American men, the word ‘Coolie,’ and the outrageous claim that all Chinese women who immigrated were prostitutes.
The film never ceases to remind us of just how much about this part of history is forgotten, including the largest mass lynching in US history, The Chinese Massacre of 1871, which took place in Los Angeles Chinatown. As anti-Chinese sentiments continued to grow within working class white men, who were economically disadvantaged during the time and blamed the Chinese for their situation (sound familiar?), more local policies were passed to deprive the Chinese of citizen rights. When both the Democrats and Republics realized they could galvanize national support over this anti-Chinese economic argument, federal legislation that singled out the Chinese began to pass, starting with The Page Act of 1875, which barred Asian immigrants who were forced labors and women who would engage in prostitution, and would finally result in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denied the Chinese of immigration and citizenship to the United States.
Throughout the film, the narrators’ use of language is unreserved and impassioned, which effectively engages its viewers in connecting this part of history to our current political climate. “Racial-cleansing” sounds like a term that uniquely belongs to the Nazis, but when considered in relation to driving the Chinese away from America, which automatically evokes Trump’s Muslim ban, it becomes so deeply American. What it also brings to mind is the whitewashing and fetishization of Asian stories in Hollywood films, including Aloha (2015), Doctor Strange (2016), Ghost in the Shell (2017), and most recently, Isle of Dogs (2018). A white dominant industry, Hollywood, either replaces Asian characters with whiteness or exoticizes them as the perpetual ‘Other,’ which is just another way, though a more insidious one, to exclude.
Conscious that their historical narrative disproportionately cast Chinese Americans as victims, inevitably, the filmmakers remember to sizzle in a counter-narrative in a few distinct moments in the film that, within the grand textbook narrative, is a chapter titled “The Chinese Fight Back.” It is an important chapter, because leaving out the agency of the Chinese in this story only piles on the very exclusion it critiques. Norman Asing, who published a reply to Bigler’s discriminatory messages to the public in the Daily Alta California, Wong Chin Foo, who started a newspaper called The Chinese American, and Wong Kim Ark, who single-handedly fought and won the case of U.S. birthright citizenship – for all, in the Supreme Court, are three prominent figures that the narrators cite to tell the story from the other side, that the Chinese refused to be excluded and persevered their fight against discrimination.
This counter-narrative, though empowering, appears compensatory on the filmmakers’ part. It seems as though they picked out highlights from the chapter of “The Chinese Fight Back” and filled them in convenient gaps in the grand narrative of oppression. Although, with great success, the filmmakers deliver a bittersweet bookending with the assertion that the Chinese persevered through the injustice thrown in their way in order to protect the founding principles of the United States of America, principles they identified with in the first place.
Many times throughout the viewing of this film, one might suspect that the filmmakers, who began work on the film 6 years ago, are comparing oppressive strategies against the Chinese to those of the Trump administration against other minority groups. Is the prophecy coincidental? Perhaps there is just something so “quintessentially American” about the practice of exclusion, as Burns says of the story, at a screening of the film. As we react to Trump policies and antics such as the Muslim travel ban, calling African nations “shithole countries,” calling Mexicans rapists and linking Central Americans with MS-13 gangs, and most recently, separating young children, including infants, from parents over illegal immigration, this film serves as a glaring reminder that the politics of Exclusion was first employed against the Chinese only 136 years ago. Still, the film’s textbook aesthetic limits its ability to inspire and provoke, which is ultimately what leaves one unsatisfied by the end. The urgency and power of the film ultimately lies in its uncanny relevance to today’s American politics, and perhaps that’s good enough.
The Chinese Exclusion Act can be viewed at PBS.