Graphic by Jim Dong, one the founders of SF's Kearny Street Workshop
Amidst the historic celebrations/protests and dialogue around May Day, Cinco de Mayo and China's Revolutionary May 4th Movement, SF Chronicle reporter Vanessa Hua wrote an excellent piece on the significance also of the 125th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act - May 6, 1882.
SAN FRANCISCO - Anti-Chinese law had effect for generations: Exclusion Act forced many immigrants to lie in order to stay
In 1881, an 11-year-old boy in China named Yung Wah Gok begged for a chance to go to the United States like the thousands of other Chinese workers who had already left to seek their fortune on the railroad, in laundries and working other jobs.
A year later, immigration laws swung the door shut by barring Chinese laborers from entering the United States or naturalizing as citizens if they already were here. If Wah Gok had not persuaded his uncle to take him, he might never have emigrated.
This first attempt at regulating immigration to the United States tore apart families, cut the Chinese population in the United States in half, and forced many Chinese Americans to perpetuate secrets and even lies well into the 20th century.
"It created total exclusion from American life," said Wah Gok's granddaughter Connie Young Yu, 65, a Bay Area native. "If they could never be citizens, how could they participate?"
Today is the 125th anniversary of the signing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco is hosting commemorative events all month.
Growing up, Young Yu heard many stories about how the act affected her family. To find a wife, her grandfather had to return to China because of laws that prevented him from marrying here. And he waited 14 years to bring his wife home; he had to prove he had become a merchant, a loophole that admitted very few.
Other Chinese people managed to squeeze through another exception to the Exclusion Act affording people born in China the right to enter the United States if one of their parents was American-born. Many Chinese Americans brought in people who weren't their children, people who came to be known as "paper sons."
For decades, many Chinese American families had two surnames: their real one, used in the Chinese community, and the name used in the official, white world to conform with their paperwork. In San Francisco, after the 1906 earthquake and fire, when government buildings containing birth and immigration records were destroyed, even more Chinese immigrants began claiming they'd been born here and bringing in paper children.
Congress had debated whether excluding people based on race violated the principles of fair play and Christian behavior, said Anna Naruta, director of collections at the Chinese Historical Society. But Nativists rallied to ensure the act's victory.
Loud support for the act came from California's then-Gov. George Perkins, who called a state holiday to allow workers to demonstrate in favor of it, "conveying to Congress and to our Eastern brethren the deep interest which inspires us to check this evil and stop this curse."
Chinese immigrants immediately challenged the Exclusion Act, saying it violated international law. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the right to determine immigration laws.
By 1892, Chinese laborers had to carry a certificate proving they were here legally or risk deportation. No one else had to carry such proof.
Foreign-born people accounted for 13 percent of the population of the United States in 1880, according to the U.S. Census. That's compared with 10 percent in 2000.
"The law was a codification of racism, a microcosm of what was happening in society," said Eric Mar, a San Francisco school board member who teaches Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. Mar and other Chinese American leaders and educators in the Bay Area see parallels between the targeting of the Chinese and the current sentiment toward illegal immigrants in the United States.
"There's a long history of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. We have made a lot of shameful mistakes over the years about who we decide we should welcome as Americans," said Bill Ong Hing, a professor of law and Asian American studies at UC Davis. "We're treading down the same road today."
Only after volunteering in Chinatown after law school -- and seeing client after client with false identities because they were paper sons or descended from them -- did Hing understand how much the act had affected the Chinese American community and begin to clear up some of the mysteries in his life.
"Then it made sense, with my parents and relatives -- why a lot of them were worried, and why I had uncles that weren't really my uncles," said Hing, 58. "You realize how this affected the community. They had to lie and cheat to get into the country, to do what is natural for many people -- to seek a better life."
Congress repealed the act in 1943, when China and the United States became allies during World War II, but large-scale Chinese immigration wasn't allowed until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.
Each new generation of Chinese Americans rediscovers the Exclusion Act -- and its lessons.
Lisa Chen, 17, a senior at Galileo High School in San Francisco, was shocked to learn about the act in history class. But she didn't connect it to her personal experience as the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the 1980s.
"My family was not involved in and doesn't really think about it," Cheng said on a recent weekday in Chinatown, where she works as a counselor in training in the employment program at Community Educational Services.
But Allen Cheung, 22, who just recently learned that his great-grandfather had worked and died in the United States, now directly connects the act to his immigrant parents, himself and the future. After he visited China in the winter, his mother finally began to reveal the family's history. She thought he was finally old enough to understand, said Cheung, a student at San Francisco State who leads its Asian Student Union.
"Before that, I didn't see how I fit into the grand narrative of 1882, 1906 and paper sons," said Cheung. "Now I've learned a lot more. To know my great-grandfather was here, I start to feel connected to a lot of history. My life, my struggle, is in America."