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Chinatown looks forward on anniversary of Exclusion Act repeal

20 December 2008 No Comment

Special thanks to Chinese Historical Society of America for the exhibition photos. Click HERE to view the exhibition online.

By Guo Shipeng

It was a tranquil afternoon in the heart of the Oakland’s Chinatown on Wednesday, December 17.

Guan Shujuan was watching her four-year-old daughter playing around the “Junk Boat”, a replica of one used by early Chinese immigrants to sail across the Pacific and a popular play structure for kids on the Lincoln Square.

“What act? Anti-Chinese act?” the slightly built woman looked bewildered when asked if she had heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned virtually all Chinese immigration from 1882-1943.

With a Chinese American Secretary of Energy in the incoming Obama administration, the humiliation Chinese went through under the Exclusion Act doesn't register with many people in American Chinatowns like this one, especially for the American-born youth and for the newcomers.

"I've only heard of Chinese exclusion incidents in Indonesia, not in America," said Guan, who arrived in Oakland from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong just a little over a month ago.

The U.S. Congress introduced the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act at a time when the Gold Rush was about to deplete the California mines and when Chinese "coolies" willing to work for low wages stoked resentment among white Americans.

According to some estimates, the bill nearly halved the nation's Chinese American population. It was repealed on December 17 1943, when China was a U.S. ally against Japan during the World War Two.

The 65th anniversary of the Act's repeal on Wednesday went largely unmarked in Oakland's Chinatown and the Chinese community in the Bay Area in general, except an exhibition from December 2-13 at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco's Chinatown.

On Wednesday night, influential politicians and business people of all races threw a big retirement and birthday party for Chinese-born Henry Chang, Oakland's City Council Member since 1994.

As institutional discrimination was gradually dismantled over the last few decades, Chinese Americans have integrated into the mainstream society fairly well and have generated numerous success stories in various fields.

Holding a "green card" as a permanent resident, Guan came to join her husband, who has been working in a Chinatown restaurant as a chef for more than 10 years.

She said the family had decided to settle down in Oakland, despite the disorienting cultural differences and language barriers.

"The Americans here are nice to me. The main problem is I cannot understand a single word of what they say," said Guan, 39.

“I’ll find something to do when she grows bigger and goes to elementary school, ” Guan said of the daughter, a shy girl who sometimes looked intimidated by English-speaking kids around her.

The daughter’s education is expected to land her a white-collar job, as well as full acceptance by and assimilation into the American society. It is a story that has been repeated over and over again by Chinese immigrant families who start from scratches.

While the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act lifted the ban on Chinese immigration, it set an annual quota of 105 for people of Chinese descent arriving on American shores from any country.

When the Chinese community protested, the proposed number was increased to 107. The restriction and widespread discrimination persisted well into the late 1960s, when large-scale Chinese immigration took off thanks to the Immigration Act of 1965.

"In my first years in America, Chinese people couldn’t buy houses in white neighborhoods in East Oakland, even if they had the money,” said Chuck Lee, 77, who came to Oakland in 1950.

“Some landlords were unwilling to rent rooms to Chinese because they thought that would depreciate their property values.”

Chinese immigrants seeking to join family members in the U.S. were still “subject to detention and interrogations, much as their ancestors had endured at the Angel Island" from 1940s to 1960s, said Eddie Wong, Executive Director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

Some 170,000 Chinese immigrants were held in the detention center on Angel Island in the first half of the 20th century, including American-born Chinese returning from trips to China and other countries.

The Immigration Station has been turned into a museum and will reopen to the public in February 2009 after a three-year renovation project.

Wong said commemorating the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was still of significance, even though it was far from satisfactory at the time.

"Today, conditions have improved for Chinese in America, but immigrants of many nationalities have inadequate legal protections and are subject to detention, interrogation, and deportation," said Wong.

"If we have learned anything from the Chinese Exclusion Act and other Asian exclusion laws, a just immigration policy must be a humane policy, not one engendered by racial fears and xenophobia."

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