Exclusion Act story still unfolds

Updated: 2016-05-04 10:55

By Hua Shengdun in Washington(China Daily)

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The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 has long since been repealed, but Chinese-American advocates are trying to ensure that the notorious piece of legislation and its legacy are not forgotten over time.

"The Chinese Exclusion Act is not a straightforward story. There is a struggle to make sure that the accurate story is being told," said Jack Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific American Center at New York University, at the fourth annual symposium held by the 1882 Project Foundation in Washington on Monday.

The foundation held the event to discuss the Chinese Exclusion Act to start off Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM).

Documents, photos and documentaries are critical for addressing what happened during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Tchen said.

"The voices that are being heard through all these films, books and documents are unique stories that nobody has ever heard," said Ed Gor, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance.

The exclusion act became a US law in May 1882. It prohibited all immigration by Chinese laborers into the United States for 60 years until its repeal in 1943.

It was the first and only time in American history that a federal law prohibited the immigration of a single group of people based on their race.

Congresswoman Judy Chu, a Democrat from California, stated in a letter addressed to the symposium on Monday: "When I was first elected, one of my goals was passing a congressional apology for one of the most discriminatory bills to ever be passed by Congress -The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882."

"It took 60 years for this law to be repealed," she said. "But the trauma left a permanent scar on Chinese Americans, splitting families apart and disenfranchising many."

Chu's grandfather was denied the process of becoming a naturalized citizen due to the act.

Those who remain outraged by the act have seen some victories in recent years, including the unanimous congressional apology in 2012 pushed through Congress by Chu.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is a PBS documentary to be released in May 2017. The film gives a broad narrative of the law in a historical context, and the legacy it has left among Chinese-Americans today.

Others, such as Finding Cleveland, produced by Chinese-American Baldwin Chiu, tell a more personal story. Chiu's short film documents a Chinese-American man's search for his ancestral roots in Cleveland. Along the way, he discovers the struggles of his father and other Chinese immigrants.

Though Congress unanimously passed a resolution of regret, Tchen said it is not much of an apology if the American public is widely unaware of what the Chinese Exclusion Act is.

"This is in some way only the beginning of the effort to make sure that the Chinese Exclusion Act becomes a part of the story that all Americans know about," he said.

Ted Gong, director of the 1882 Project Foundation, said ideally they would like "a presidential apology".

"It would be fitting for this to happen on May 10, during APAHM and on the day that the famous golden spike was driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, uniting this country," said Gong.

Allan Fong in Washington contributed to this story.