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A Chronicle of the Chinese in America

Highlights from Nancy Tong and Sze Wei Ang's presentation at Asia Society Hong Kong on Apr. 13, 2010. (9 min., 6 sec.)
by wpoon
13 April 2010

HONG KONG, April 13, 2010 - 150 years of history of Chinese in America came to life at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in a joint presentation by award-winning filmmaker Nancy
and cultural critic Sze Wei Ang. Tong had recently produced 10 videos on the movers and shakers of Chinese descent for the recently established Museum of Chinese in America in New York, and shared excerpts from those videos along with the creative process behind them, which Ang supplemented with historical background for each of the stories.

"During the 19th century, California was
seen as the link between America
and Asia. In 1848, the US administration began to make plans to bring
Chinese labor to build railroads in California
and to cultivate its land," Ang began. Policy makers at the time
believed that Chinese people were the most adapted for clearing wild lands and
raising agricultural species. The Chinese, however, did not migrate to the US to fulfill desires of policy makers, and
contrary to the popular myth that these immigrants were coolies or were kidnapped
into the US, they left their
homeland for the US
voluntarily, to escape from conflicts of the Opium Wars, to flee peasant
rebellions, high taxes, and natural disasters such as floods.

Accordingly, Tong showed
a video about Ah Quin, who made the journey from China
to San Francisco
in 1863. Writing in English, Ah Quin kept a diary for 25 years, documenting his journey across America,
from first landing at San Francisco, to becoming
a cook in Alaska, to being involved in the
construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in San Diego. Ah Quin retired as the richest, most influential merchant in San Diego, with a
household of 12 children.

By 1851, 2,716 Chinese went to the US; by 1930, 400,000 had made the
journey, and about half remained permanently. However, resentment against
Chinese migrants surfaced from the very beginning. Taxes were enacted for
miners who did not want to become US citizens. While a 1790 Federal law
prohibited any non-white persons from becoming citizens, Chinese migrant miners had
to pay $3 per month until 1870. California
collected about $5 million alone just from Chinese, a staggering 25-50% of all
its state revenue.

As mining profits began to deteriorate, Chinese laborers
moved into building the Transcontinental Railroad, where they saw the same
mistreatment—lower wages and longer work hours than white laborers.
"When Chinese laborers went on strike to demand similar wages and
benefits, the company imprisoned the workers in the camps, and cut off their
food supplies. Starvation thus broke their labor strikes," explained Ang.
With the completion of the Railroad in 1869, Chinese workers settled in San Francisco, employed
in shoemaking, sewing, and retail. Chinese in rural areas farmed through
tenancy, bringing their knowledge of agriculture from the Pearl River Delta to
transform farming in California,
which was predominately wheat, to fruits.

Ang recited a damning litany of official US prohibitions against Chinese immigrants, such as 1882's Chinese Exclusion Act, which was extended indefinitely in 1902 and only came to an end in
1943. Whites and Chinese were not allowed to get married until 1948. Tong's
video Chinese Must Go encapsulated this part of history, focusing in part on Wong Chin Foo, a social activist who in the 1870s published the first
Chinese language newspaper in the US, coined the word "Chinese
American," and stood repeatedly against anti-Chinese nativists.

Tong's subsequent video, Welcome to Chinatown, featured Charlie Toy, the
well-respected restaurateur and entrepreneur who operated the finest Chinese
restaurant in the world in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in early 20th century, before fulfilling, at age 86, his lifelong dream of retiring in China
after decades of commercial success in the US.

Next: Pop culture and "paper tigers"

The evening continued with a detour to Chinese in Hollywood. Among the more popular cinematic images of Chinese on American screens was Fu Manchu, created by the British
adventure story writer Sax Rohmer in 1913, who was typically portrayed by white actors
in "yellowface" with green eyes. A more sympathetic character also
emerged at about the same time—the super-detective Charlie Chan. "The
character was popularized between [the] 1920s and 1950s, as a reflection of America's
goodwill toward China, and the wartime alliance of the two countries against
Japan," added Ang. As real Chinese actors rarely landed significant roles in Hollywood, Charlie Chan was first played by a Japanese actor, then a Swedish
actor, and then an American actor of Scottish descent.

Anna May Wong, the subject of another of Tong's videos, was one of the best-known
Hollywood Chinese actresses. But, prohibited by law from kissing any white actors
on screen (not even one in "yellowface"), Wong's roles were limited to
stereotypical butterflies or dragon ladies, and she never managed to achieve the stardom of her dreams in either America or in China. 

Tong briefly described the various challenges inherent in documenting so much history in a series of short videos. Because of the museum context they were intended for, Tong explained, "the videos should not
dominate [their environment], and should not overwhelm the whole experience. So five minutes—no
longer than five minutes. It was a real challenge, because all of these people had
a full life—50, 60 years. How do you tell a story in 5 minutes?"
To overcome this challenge, Tong's team of prominent
screenwriters (which included Ha Jin and Maxine Hong Kingston) needed four months, not counting the additional time necessary for research on the stories all across the US,
to finalize the narrative text for the 10 videos.

The subsequent two videos
were narrated by the subjects themselves—Sheila Chin
and Helen Zia. Morris narrated her own family story, in
which her father was a "paper son," one who came to America with
papers claiming to be the son of an American Chinese "father" to whom he
was unrelated. Like many other "paper sons," Morris' father left
his Chinese family behind to go to America
with a fictitious identity, only to be revealed when he had a second family formed
in America. 

Post-1965 changes in immigration laws gave preference to
professionally-trained immigrants, which led to a drastic change in the general perception of Chinese Americans. With the transfer to a knowledge economy in the late 20th
century, Asian Americans were seen as desirable—while at the same time their supposed aptitude for economic development was perceived as a potential threat to American workers, Ang explained.

Zia rounded off the evening with a story on Chinese Americans' ongoing struggle to achieve equality and human dignity in contemporary America. "As China emerges as an economic and political power, and as the US economy faces great challenges, Chinese Americans must be both vigilant and outspoken as full participants in American democracy. We must always try to
bring our special understanding and experiences in America to every issue that affects
the society, because all issues are Chinese American issues, too,"
Zia concluded.

Reported by Winsome Tam, Asia Society Hong Kong Center

Related link:
Museum of Chinese in America