The legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Based on a talk given by the author at a Los Angeles PSL forum on May 4; it has been lightly edited for publication. 

History is always political – many of us here are familiar with this concept. However, the lessons taught in school leave out the important context, reducing history to just a mere list of dates, people, and isolated events.

As Marx once said “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Understanding the progression of society and the social forces at play situates these seemingly isolated points into synchronization. This is the very tool that connected my experience as a second generation Chinese American to the communist struggle. It is this that taught me that racism against Chinese people from the moment the first Chinese worker stepped foot on this country is a story familiar to all of us today. Analyzing this history is critical as we continue the fight for immigrant and worker rights. I, myself, come from a family of migrant workers: My great-great grandfather was a migrant worker in Australia until he died on the boat on his fourth trip back to China; my great grandfather immigrated to Peru to find work, and my parents immigrated here to the U.S.

May 6, 2018  is the 136th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the seminal law restricting immigration in the U.S..  When California Senator John Miller first introduced this bill to Congress, it called for a 20 year ban. President Arthur actually vetoed the bill despite the rampant racism among his peers and his base. He feared that the Qing government would shut Chinese ports to U.S. trade. However, there was so much backlash by the public, that when the bill was amended to 10 years in 1882, it was approved.

The act was originally meant to restrict immigration from China. Two years later, the act was amended to only allow Chinese laborers to freely travel between the U.S. and China if they arrived at or before November, 1880, the last time a treaty was signed with China. In 1888, this amendment was overturned by the Scott Act. This meant that Chinese laborers had no right to reentry. As a result, 20,000 Chinese were unable to come back to the U.S. despite many having owned property, businesses and families in the U.S, and 600 Chinese en route to the US with government-issued certificates were denied upon entry.

Despite the 10 year ban, this law was later extended by the Geary Act for another 10 years, requiring all Chinese laborers to register with the government within one year. Without such documentation, Chinese workers were subjected to immediate deportation. Chinese immigrants had no guaranteed protection in the courts should they be detained. In 1902 when the Geary Act expired, another act was passed to extend Chinese exclusion indefinitely. It wouldn’t be until after WWII, over half a century since the seminal act came into law, that it was repealed, when the Chinese proved their patriotism to the U.S. during wartime. This later became the common weapon used by the ruling class to enforce restrictions and intimidations for all groups of immigrants.

History of Chinese immigration in the U.S.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. during the 1850s to California. The Gold Rush had begun in 1849 with the discovery of gold and set into motion an enormous influx of prospectors, white settlers from the East. This brought with it the genocidal extermination of many Native tribes in California.

The decline of the Qing government imposed heavy taxes and oppression upon its people; there were food shortages and social unrest. The instability of the Qing government ultimately forced many Chinese to travel far distances for better economic opportunities. Most of the Chinese immigrants are from southern parts of China. During this time, Guangdong Province, a Southern province in China, where my parents are from, faced an unimaginable amount of natural disasters, sharp population increase, and exploitation of peasants and workers by wealthy landlords.

At the same time, China suffered a humiliating defeat in the first Opium War with the United Kingdom between 1839 – 1842. The treaty of Nanking basically allowed the UK, along with other European Nations and the U.S. to control China’s five treaty ports, free from Chinese law. This was when Hong Kong was ceded to the UK until the handover to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

In 1852, 30,000 Chinese immigrants embarked on the journey to Gum San, Cantonese for “Gold Mountain,” which is a broad term for North America, but now more commonly a nickname for San Francisco. Many Chinese went to Hong Kong, and boarded ships to make this journey. By 1890, steamships carried over 200,000 Chinese to the West. Most of these immigrants were poor and lacked education. While most Chinese immigrants went to the West Coast, a handful were sent to the South during the Reconstruction Era. Cheap Chinese labor was used to replace Black labor, conveniently driving a wedge between the two groups.

It was the exploitation of Chinese labor that aided the Westward expansion by building the Central Pacific Railway – the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S.. Chinese workers worked in horrible climates, during the coldest of winters and poor working conditions, resulting in many workers freezing to death. Many bodies wouldn’t be found until all of the snow melted in the springtime. Workers worked 11 hours a day, digging dangerous tunnels. In June of 1867, 5,000 Chinese railroad workers went on strike, demanding better pay, better working conditions and shorter work days. Food and other supplies for the workers were cut off by Central Pacific, starving and ultimately forcing the workers to end the strike. Although unsuccessful, Chinese workers organized one of the largest strikes of that time. It is interesting to note that Central Pacific assumed that its competitor, Union Pacific orchestrated this strike, that Chinese workers would never be able to assert their interests in this way.

Chinese workers also worked in agriculture, fishing, mining, and other industries of work.

Sentiment towards Chinese immigrants

Capitalists jump at any opportunity to reap profits no matter the cost. It is no wonder that the exploitation of cheap, Chinese labor was welcomed, driving down labor costs, pitting workers against workers. Unsurprisingly, racism ensued among white workers who saw the Chinese as taking their jobs.

White mobs across the United States lead unimaginable rampages of violence, torture and massacres against Chinese people. During the late 1800s, over 150 documented cases of anti-Chinese riots took place across the West of the U.S. often, burning down and looting businesses and homes, and beating and killing Chinese people. When President Arthur originally vetoed the first Exclusion Act, the public was so outraged that when the amended version of the bill went through, it passed both houses. Immediately following, anti-Chinese fanatics were only whipped up, charting the “Driving Out” period where all-out genocide was waged against Chinese people by these white mobs.

Chinatowns were prime targets in the major cities of the West. Most of the “Driving Out” period was highly coordinated by prominent politicians and white residents. In 1885 in Tacoma, Washington, 500 Tacoma residents marched through Chinatown and forced its residents by intimidation and violence to pack up their bags and leave the territory. They were herded like cattle to the train station during heavy rainstorms, left to either freeze to death or be lucky enough to make their way to Portland. Chinatown was robbed, looted, and then burned to the ground. The mayor of Tacoma at the time was celebrated as a hero. Coined the “Tacoma Method,” cities would follow suit in this tactic of dragging innocent Chinese people out of their homes, forcing them to pack whatever they could, and herding them to the closest point of exit.

Seattle also saw their fair share of mass anti-Chinese rallies during this period. Riots were so violent, that the Secretary of War sent in troops to “protect” the Chinese. However, instead of protecting them, soldiers collected and seized cash from Chinese residents, or joined the violent mobs. The violence got so bad, that Governor Watson Squire had to find a way to quell the riots. He did so by promising rioters who volunteered to end their activities the legal right to continue the abuse – by swearing them in as policemen to “protect” the Chinese from physical injury. President Cleveland declared martial law and sent Federal troops to Seattle.

In Wyoming, white miners armed themselves with weapons, marched into Chinatown and shot and beat Chinese people to death, again ordering them to pack up and leave. Buildings were, again, looted and burned down. As a result, 28 Chinese lives were killed. Federal troops were once again summoned to “protect” the Chinese, and once again they either aided the riots or did nothing.

Considered one of the worst yet least known massacres, the Snake River Massacre of 1887 took place in Oregon, where 34 Chinese miners in Hell’s Canyon were robbed, killed and mutilated by white ranchers and school boys. To highlight the level in dehumanization of Chinese people at the time, the killers kept body parts of the deceased as souvenirs, disposing of the rest in the river. In all of these cases, none of the murderers and rioters faced any jail time.

In fact, one of the worst mass lynchings in the history of the United States took place here, in Los Angeles in 1871, before the Exclusion Act was passed. A race riot broke out in Chinatown, resulting in 18 Chinese men hanged to death. This is not something we learn about in our history classes.

Immigration, deportation, resistance

In 1883, one year after the Exclusion Act was passed, about 8,000 Chinese immigrants entered the U.S.. In 1885, that number dropped to 22 immigrants. Many of those selected were from privileged backgrounds. Economic instability was so bad in China, that many migrants risked death to be smuggled into the U.S. by way of Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Even though the Exclusion Act was meant to restrict immigration, American Born Chinese (ABC, a common acronym used in Chinese communities today) were not immediately granted citizenship until it was disputed by many legal battles. During a Supreme Court hearing of Wong Kim Ark’s case of 1898, Chief Justice Melville Fuller claimed that no matter where someone was born, anyone of Chinese descent has allegiance to China. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that all children born in the U.S. are citizens. This case, among many cases, would seek to challenge anti-Chinese policies and sentiments to come.

When the Geary Act was passed and extended the Exclusion Act, Chinese workers in major cities in California and New York organized against it, boycotting the registration policy.

In 1899, the U.S. announced the Open Door policy, allowing the U.S. to “develop” China for its own commercial interests. At this time, European and Japanese imperialists had already divided most of the coastal regions in China into de facto colonies. The U.S. had just taken the Philippines, a strategic location for U.S. trade with China. This was necessary, as U.S. capitalists were facing a crisis of overproduction. It needed to open new markets to resolve this crisis.

Interestingly enough, full scale protests in China erupted against the Exclusion act. In fact, a large scale boycott of American goods was launched in 1905, where workers quit working for American companies. Some 90 percent of businesses in Shanghai displayed placards supporting this boycott which gained immense support throughout Asia and was extremely effective. Standard Oils sales plummeted from 90,000 cases of fuels per month to 19,000.

Fearing retaliation by the U.S., the Qing government destroyed the boycott. Relations had already been strained with the U.S. and other foreign powers because of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. This rebellion led by peasants against U.S.  Christian missionaries and Chinese converts centered around calling foreign intervention as the basis for China’s economic ills. The aftermath of the Opium War was devastating, carving up China to be exploited by major imperialist powers. The rebellion was crushed by combined western military force. Even though Chinese Americans had nothing to do with the rebellion and often had zero allegiance to China, this of course contributed to the racism against Chinese people. We see this “guilt by association” again later with the Japanese internment camps in WWII.

The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco provided a loophole for Chinese immigration. The city was destroyed, and to no surprise Chinatown was in ruins. The wealthy Chinese had the means to flee, but a vast majority of the poor stayed behind. Yet they feared white violence, so many did not go to city-run shelters for food or boarding. Similar to the massacres, what belongings and valuables were salvageable were taken by soldiers (who were there to “maintain order”) and looters. Chinese banks and businesses were stripped clean. Many refugee camps were opened up, but these camps were, yet again, met with white protesters who feared permanent Chinese relocation into their neighborhoods.

The fires that broke out from the earthquake destroyed birth and immigration records. This meant that Chinese immigrants who could convince officials they were citizens, were able to claim sons and wives in China to immigrate. This created a black market of sorts to sell citizenship to those who were eager to immigrate. “Paper sons” was the term for recipients of this citizenship.

In 1910, Angel Island in the Bay Area was converted and established as an immigration facility. Conditions were brutal for Chinese emigrants coming through. About 75-80 percent of Chinese immigrants were detained – while detained, there was no privacy at all. Hostile interrogations were regular practice. Those who suffered the most were women who were separated from their children. Oftentimes, women were thrown into solitary confinement, cells without windows for weeks at a time. Many of these women committed suicide.

During this time, hospitals across San Francisco refused to care for Chinese patients. The same was true on Angel Island. A Chinese man who had meningitis was taken away to an isolated tent, where he was kept until he eventually died.

Deportations were equally horrendous. Chinese workers were packed into railroad cars like sardines, and then herded into ships. It was the most brutal during the summers when the ships sailed through the equator. This subjected Chinese immigrants vulnerable to blackmail with threat of deportation by extorting them for every penny they had.

The aftermath

Shame and terror are understatements of the level of trauma Chinese Americans carry with generations to come. Even I, at a very young age, learned to be ashamed of being Chinese, speaking Chinese, eating Chinese food and embracing Chinese culture. This is the reality of many oppressed groups. It was through learning this history and analyzing it from a Marxist point of view could I truly embrace my own background.

After over a century of merciless racism against Chinese people, suddenly this idea emerged of Chinese, and largely Asian immigrants, as the “Model Minority.”  The contemporary Model Minority Myth, which props up Asian immigrants as those who persisted despite hardships, is used as a wedge to point fingers at other groups of immigrants. This is not only insulting to immigrant communities under attack today, but it largely erases an already hidden past of the brutality faced by Asian immigrant groups throughout the inception of immigration into this country. In fact, the image of Asian Americans “making it” in the U.S. severely distorts the truth. In New York City, Asian Americans make up the most impoverished group compared to any other group.

Groups like Chinatown Community for Equitable Development here in Los Angeles continue to highlight the many Chinese immigrants, mostly seniors, facing poverty and displacement in Chinatown due to gentrification.

We were once deemed “fundamentally incapable of assimilating,” and our hard work ethic was once seen as alien, inhuman and strange. We were seen as dangerous to peace and security.

The 1877 Joint Special Committee to investigate Chinese Immigration of the Senate and the House of Representatives wrote in a report:

“The burden of our accusation against them is that they come in conflict with our labor interests; that they can never assimilate with us; that they are a perpetual, unchanging, and unchangeable alien element that can never be homogenous; that their civilization is demoralizing and degrading to our people; that they degrade and dishonor labor; that they can never become citizens and that an alien, degraded labor class, without desire of citizenship, without education and without interest in the country it inhabits, is an element both demoralizing and dangerous to the community within which it exists.”

But of course the rhetoric is flipped at the convenience of the bourgeoisie. When Chinese labor was prime for building the railroads, the president of Central Pacific, Leland Stanford said that Chinese laborers were “Competent and wonderfully effective….tireless and unremitting in their industry.” He later flipped his stance during the years of Chinese exclusion. Yet this rhetoric repeats in a loop with any immigrant group that makes their way to the United States.


This country was built on a foundation of Native genocide and on the backs of enslaved Africans, indentured servants, immigrants, and exploited workers of all nationalities. Oppression by many means is woven into the very fabric of American capitalist society. Just today it was announced that 50,000 Hondurans will lose their temporary protective status and have 20 months to leave the country. Analyzing this history is critical for how we move forward as we face bigoted policies like the Muslim Ban, the attacks on DACA, TPS, unions, and so forth.

This is what concrete solidarity with communities under attack today should be built on: understanding the tactics and tools from this violent history used to divide the workers.
We just celebrated International Workers Day where thousands of working people around the world poured into the streets demanding full rights for immigrants, justice for victims of police brutality, and all other issues that affect everyday working people.

For me, the legacy left behind from the Chinese Exclusion Act needs to be centered in the movement for immigrants rights. Not because I’m Chinese, but because this act unravels all of the bigoted policies against immigrants that follow, up to today. It is also essential, that, as revolutionaries, we actively dispel and challenge the divisive myth of the Model Minority.

Today, many so-called radical spaces attempt to appear most progressive by buying into this distortion. This effectively erases the struggles faced by working class Asians, and attempts to reduce our roles in the movement to mere allies of the most oppressed. As communists, we must actively fight against such attempts to place a hierarchy on oppression. This is yet another tool used to divide our struggles, aiding the bourgeoisie’s rule. We seize power by rejecting these narrow views of the struggle and by amplifying our unity – this is the only way we will defeat imperialism.

The working class in the United States is multinational. It is heterogenous and varied in life experiences. But when we recognize that the common enemy, the ruling elite, exploits our diversity by dividing us and pitting us against each other in order to generate larger sums of profit, it is then that we stand a chance to win. Recognizing the enemy is step one. The second, is to organize and uplift the consciousness of our communities. Organizing with the message of unity among the workers is the only way we can lead the movement towards revolution. This is what May Day is all about – yes, we celebrate the working class  and at the same time we must continue to fight and organize!

I would like to end this talk by mentioning that today is the 99th anniversary of the student led May 4th movement in Beijing, which called for national sovereignty and was anti-imperialist in nature.

History has shown us that organizing ourselves to fight our enemies is in our bones – now let’s take what we’ve learned, organize the workers, and WIN!

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