Introduction to a Historical Exhibition on Chinese Immigration in the United States

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Chinese immigrants had an extremely difficult time immigrating to the United States. As many Chinese left China in search of a better life in America, they created a culture and lifestyle that we see today in Chinese American communities. The Chinese faced many hardships when immigrating to America including discrimination, low paying jobs and often missing family members who were unable to migrate to the U.S. Legislatively, very little was done to protect the rights of these immigrants. In fact, there was a lot of legislature which took away rights from Chinese immigrants. This museum exhibition will dive into the story of Chinese immigrants’ journeys to the United States and what kind of life they were able to have in America. Focusing on the time period where Chinese were legally excluded from the United States, this exhibition will explore how Chinese immigrants were able to build such strong communities while American legislature was keeping many new Chinese from entering the U.S. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the eventual repeal of the act in 1943, Chinese migrants began to create their own culture and way of living.

Angel Island was the immigration checkpoint which was much like Ellis Island in New York, however it was on the west coast. Almost all the Chinese immigrants that attempted to enter America were subject to checks at Angel Island. Often being mistreated, Chinese and other mostly Asian immigrants quickly found out that the United States might not be able to provide the freedom they were searching for.

In the 1870s, the United States saw a large influx of Chinese immigrants. Many American workers on the west coast attributed their decreased wages to the Chinese immigrants entering the workforce. In order to placate worker demands, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which barred any Chinese from immigrating into the United States. The exclusion of Chinese immigrants over a 60-year time period meant that they had a very different experience than immigrants from other countries. Many Chinese immigrants were forced to immigrate into the United States illegally, some even darkened their skin in order to appear non-Chinese. Chinatowns are in most United States cities today and still hold some of the most authentic parts of Chinese culture that was brought to America originally. The history and culture of these Chinatowns was directly influenced by how Chinese immigrants were treated by the US government and American people. Originally, very few women emigrated from China. Many of these women planned to reunite with their husband in America after he was able to settle. However, after the Chinese exclusion act was passed, these women and families of men who already immigrated to the US had no ability to reunite in America. This gender disparity led to Chinatowns being almost completely all male. Chinatowns became known as “bachelor societies.”

Most of the Chinese that immigrated to the United States came by steamship via the Pacific Ocean. Most of the Chinese immigrants ended up in northern parts of California where the gold mining and railroad industry grew rapidly. Large amounts of Chinese immigrants began to work in these industries. Working conditions were very harsh and many immigrants were discriminated against by their employers. Many Americans on the west coast saw the Chinese as “barbaric” due to the style of writing the Chinese language uses. All the way until World War II, when China and the United States became allies, Chinese immigrants in America were looked down upon and portrayed in films and media as inferior and dirty. After the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act there was a positive change for Chinese immigrants and Asian immigrants in general in terms of treatment from Americans.

Throughout the United States history over the past century, there have been immigrants arriving on the borders of the U.S. from almost every country in the world. However, due to the size and population of China, there was a relatively large number of Chinese immigrants that arrived on the shores of California. The large influx of Chinese immigrants has meant that the culture created by Chinese immigrants has had a significant sphere of influence on American History. For example, the stereotypes associated with Asian people in the United States mainly comes from the racist stereotypes that were created to bash Chinese immigrants and claim the Chinese were unfit to be in the U.S. The large Asian population in California is due to Chinese and Japanese immigration of the 19th century. Even the ideas that shape the American people’s opinion on Chinese food has been altered because of a negative Chinese immigrant agenda. This perception of Chinese immigrants in America has also shaped the way the United Sates has dealt with China from a foreign policy perspective. The way the American people and government treated Chinese immigrants has a direct affect on American history as it relates to American born Chinese people’s lives and US-Chinese relations.