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.)

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 Tong 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 Morris 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