Museums

Telling the History of the First “Illegals” in the United States

A Chinese immigrant is interrogated by US immigration inspectors on Angel Island, 1923. National Archives, College Park, MD (90-G-124-479).
A Chinese immigrant is interrogated by US immigration inspectors on Angel Island, 1923. National Archives, College Park, MD (90-G-124-479).

You walk into the New-York Historical Society’s Chinese American: Inclusion/Exclusion and see the sort of exhibition you expect from a stately uptown museum: a gilded frame featuring an upright white man with mutton chops, a miniature ship, fine porcelains. But when you turn the corner, something different greets you: a chain-link cage, simulations of a eugenicist medical examination, harsh customs interrogations. The exhibition asks you to reconsider the grandiosity of those first sections, and how the revered objects of the past take on richer and darker meanings when measured by the lived experiences of the many.

Empress of China fan (ca. 1784) depicts the Empress of China — the first American merchant vessel to trade with China. The ship departed from New York harbor in 1784 and returned the following year, laden with porcelains, silks, and teas. (image courtesy the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection)
Empress of China fan (ca. 1784) depicts the Empress of China — the first American merchant vessel to trade with China. The ship departed from New York harbor in 1784 and returned the following year, laden with porcelains, silks, and teas. (image courtesy the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection)

Chinese American consciously simulates the American immigrant’s journey: hope, dehumanization, mixed blessings; individual narratives that together paint the greater arc of America. The exhibition is part of the NYHS’s effort to be more inclusive, relevant, interactive since its reopening a few years ago. Perhaps the best symbol for this shift is the assemblage by artist Fred Wilson in the renovated lobby, where busts of the founding fathers are juxtaposed with slave shackles: American history is layered, built out of oppression as much as triumph.

China in N.Y. 4th of July Parade, 1911. The large and prosperous community of Chinese residents in Marysville, California acquired this ceremonial dragon from China in the 1880s. The majestic “Moo Lung” appeared in parades and celebrations nationwide, including the July 4th, 1911 “Parade of Nations” in New York City. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-B2-2302-15])
China in N.Y. 4th of July Parade, 1911. The large and prosperous community of Chinese residents in Marysville, California acquired this ceremonial dragon from China in the 1880s. The majestic “Moo Lung” appeared in parades and celebrations nationwide, including the July 4th, 1911 “Parade of Nations” in New York City. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-B2-2302-15])
Chinese American was organized by NYHS’s Marci Reaven with John Kuo Wei Tchen acting as senior historian (disclosure: he co-founded Museum of Chinese in America, where I used to work). The show is an experiment in both the telling of history through exhibitions and the historiography of the Chinese-American experience. The many interactive pieces like drawers to pull out, sliding dioramas, and touch screens offer many points for visitor engagement. This approachability acts as an entry point into the show’s high stakes: to completely reshape the popular understanding of China-America relations, and the way Chinese in America have been both the wedge caught between the nations and the protagonists in that story.

Installation view of Chinese American. Photo by the author for Hyperallergic.
Installation view of Chinese American. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

From the beginning of this country, the titans of American industry derived their wealth and finery and taste from this other country that seemed, and still is cast, as so other. “Chinese tea and goods went into America’s formation identity as a new nation. It was important economically — we needed that trade,” says Cynthia Ai-fen Lee, one of the curators for the exhibition. Dioramas highlight stories of luminaries like newspaper editor Wong Chin Foo, who fought stereotypical representations of Chinese in America with his bombastic writing and speeches.

George Frederick Keller, “What shall we do with our boys?” in The Wasp, March 3, 1882. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
George Frederick Keller, “What shall we do with our boys?” in The Wasp, March 3, 1882. (image courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

The era beginning with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marks a dark turning point for the Chinese American experience, the groundwork for more than a century of racial violence. It is also the most disturbing part of the exhibition, showing the detention and racial othering of Chinese immigrants. We see photographs of young boys in line to be examined at Angel Island detention center near San Francisco, a eugenicist sign reminding us that lesser humans are being born every few seconds. “Racial science was used to patrol our borders,” says Lee. She points out that the very term “illegal immigrant” came into usage during the exclusion era.

During WWII, Chinese Americans and their supporters petitioned Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. Their campaign was successful—the 60-year statute was overturned in 1943. However, Chinese immigration remained subject to severe quotas. “Write Your Congressman,” in Chinese Press, September 10, 1943 (image courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America)
During WWII, Chinese Americans and their supporters petitioned Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. “Write Your Congressman,” in Chinese Press, September 10, 1943 (image courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America)

Artist Larry Hama was commissioned to profile the Chin family in comic panels. Members of the family touch on almost every chapter of Chinese inclusion and exclusion, from ‘illegal’ immigration as ‘paper sons’ to serving in WWII to operating a hand laundry in the Bronx. The comic style abstracts their stories, and allows us to read our own family stories into theirs.

The exhibition ends on as large and sweeping a scope as the introduction. It touches on civil rights and arts movements in the last forty years, a video offers more outstanding individual stories from Chinese America; on display is a newly-restored hundred-year-old ceremonial dragon, “Moo Lung,” which acts a metaphor for the Chinese American resilience. If the ending feels unresolved, perhaps that is necessary. As Lee said: “What is post-exclusion? It takes generations for us to understand what that might look like.”

Chinese American: Inclusion/Exclusion continues at New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through April 19, 2015.

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