The New-York Historical Society is presenting Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion through April 19, 2015, an exhibition that interprets the legacy of Chinese in the United States as a key element of American history, spanning the late-18th century to the present and all regions of the country. The exhibition addresses the challenges of immigration, citizenship and belonging that shaped not only the Chinese American experience, but also the development of the United States from the formation of its policies to its national character.
Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion features approximately 200 objects, including historic documents, maps, artworks, artifacts, and ephemera, drawn from New-York Historical’s collection and loaned by leading cultural institutions and private lenders.
Organized in three main sections with an introduction and conclusion, the exhibition begins with United States and China, 1784 to 1905. The British had long trade relationships with China, and the leaders of what was the fledgling America saw commercial independence as an important step in defining itself in the post-colonial period. In 1784, three months after the British left America, the Empress of China trading ship set sail from New York Harbor to Canton, China. At right is a Chinese fan commemorating the arrival of the ship, which launched trade between the United States and China.
This section of the exhibition also explores the experiences and contributions of Chinese migrants in the 19th century, from a New York doctor to a Western gold miner.
Lum Ling Wau (1820–unknown)
Lum Ling Wau opened his New York medical practice in 1870, stocking his fashionable Union Square office with medicinal herbs from China and offering his diagnostic skills free of charge. The NY Herald wrote, “Nowadays the world is wide enough for everybody, and if there be any efficacy in a Chinese blade of grass the sooner the people know it the better.” Caption: A Chinese enterprise: No. 40 East 14th Street, ca. 1870. Reproduction. New-York Historical Society.
Joseph Pierce (1842–1916)
The China trade brought young Joseph Pierce (named after President Franklin Pierce) to a Connecticut sea captain’s home. In 1862, during the Civil War, Pierce served in the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. Surviving the carnage of Antietam and distinguishing himself on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pierce later married and worked as an engraver in the silverware industry. Caption: Joseph Pierce in Union uniform. Reproduction. Michael J. McAfee Collection.
Polly Bemis (1853–1933)
The daughter of a poor northern Chinese family, Polly Bemis was sold to a Chinese businessman in a remote Idaho mining town. Polly’s resourcefulness and pluck endeared her to locals and eventually led her to build a new life with saloon owner Charlie Bemis. They married, and together made a home on the “River of No Return” (Salmon River). Caption: Polly Bemis in wedding dress, 1894. Reproduction. Idaho State Historical Society.
Lue Gim Gong (1860–1925)
Lue Gim Gong [Liu Jin Zuan, 刘锦缵] joined a work crew in 1870 heading east to C.T. Sampson’s shoe factory in Massachusetts. He befriended Fanny Burlingame (distantly related to diplomat Anson Burlingame), who saw his promise and horticultural talent. While tending the Burlingame orchards in DeLand, Florida, Lue famously contributed to the citrus industry by developing a sweet, frost-resistant orange. Caption: Lue Gim Gong. Reproduction. Courtesy Paul W. Marino; Collection of Nancy Parrino.
Choy Awah (1849–1895)
In 1870, Protestant missionaries offered former ship’s cabin boy Choy Awah the chance to attend Howard University in Washington, DC, established in 1867 to educate African Americans, but open to all. Choy was one of Howard’s first Chinese students and one of the first Chinese Americans to gain US citizenship. When he married his Irish bride, the registrar, unsure how to classify Choy, listed him as “White (Mongolian).” Caption: “Choy Awah,” in Howard University, the capstone of Negro education, a history: 1867–1940. Reproduction. General Research & Reference Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
Yung Wah Gok (1879–1951)
Yung Wah Gok journeyed alone to California at age eleven, sent to improve the fortunes of his struggling farming family. Yung worked in the San Jose area as a store helper, houseboy, brickmaker, and farmhand, eventually becoming a community leader and partner in a general store. His activities included raising funds to support Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s movement for a democratic republic in China. Caption: Yung Wah Gok at age 11. Reproduction. Courtesy of Connie Young Yu.
These early migrants became ensnared in an anti-Chinese movement that developed in the West during the unsettled years after the Civil War amid racial and class turmoil. When this movement gained national strength, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act prevented Chinese laborers from entering the country and banned all Chinese from naturalizing as citizens, but in a political compromise to keep the China trade going, exempted merchants, students, diplomats, and tourists. The exhibition includes now-shocking cartoons with racist caricatures from Puck and The Wasp magazines from the 1880s, as well as an 1883 copy of the Chinese American, a newspaper founded in New York by activist-journalist Wong Chin Foo, who also helped found the Chinese Equal Rights League.
The Chinese Educational Mission offered a framework for cooperation and exchange between China and the US. This “study abroad” experiment took shape in the US northeast during the 1870s, even as the anti-Chinese movement gained strength. The program closed on the cusp of Exclusion in 1881, but its demise did not prevent other Chinese students from coming. The revised treaty and 1882 Exclusion Act restricted Chinese laborers from entering the country, but admitted students, teachers, merchants, and diplomats.
Many in the US and China saw advantage in educating individuals who would modernize China. Americans wanted to extend their influence in China and thus viewed relationships with potential future leaders as strategic and welcome. Chinese in China and the diaspora wanted to use Western knowledge—acquired in the US and elsewhere—to arrest the empire’s decline and restore its sovereignty in the face of growing foreign encroachments.
Financial support for US studies came from various sources, including Boxer Indemnity Scholarships. This 1908 initiative drew from indemnity funds demanded of China for losses claimed by Americans during China’s Boxer Rebellion (1900–1901). Liang Cheng—China’s Minister to the US and a former Chinese Educational Mission student—helped negotiate the program. In its first 20 years, over 1,300 students received scholarships, including many prominent scholars, educators, and leaders.
The second section, The Machinery of Exclusion, 1882 to 1943, examines the enforcement and experience of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Until 1882 there was little government regulation of immigration and consequently no category of “illegal immigration.” America’s system of immigration was created during enforcement of Exclusion, and many of the practices and principles developed under its umbrella were later applied to other groups, framing elements of America’s immigration system that remained in place for more than 80 years. The Exclusion Act was followed in 1892 by a law requiring all Chinese in America to register with the government, which no other segment of the population – but criminals – had to do at that time.
Identity certificates are on display, such as that of prominent actress Anna May Wong from 1924, and a recreated immigration station that evokes the experience of the barracks, inspector’s office, and hospital common to immigration stations like Angel Island in San Francisco Bay (1910-40).
Civil disobedience and legal campaigns to oppose exclusion and unequal treatment began at this time, with 80,000 Chinese Americans refusing to register with the government in 1892, uniquely required of the Chinese. Despite being denied the right to naturalize, Chinese in America acted as Americans when they went to court to secure equal treatment. The exhibition includes a new film about Wong Kim Ark, whose challenge to Exclusion resulted in the important Supreme Court ruling that all people born on US soil are US citizens. Resourceful approaches to immigration rules also arose, such as the concept of the “paper son,” who assumed the identity and papers of someone eligible to immigrate, learning the family history and hometown details of his American host in order to pass interrogation. The exhibition features a selection of false “coaching” documents that were hidden inside fruits and nuts and smuggled into Angel Island detention center.
The final section of the show, Journeys in America, 1882 to the present examines the opportunities and challenges of Chinese American life in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 to strengthen the U.S. alliance with China in World War II, but severe immigration restrictions continued until the reforms of the Immigration Act of 1965. Many families that were separated for years created poignant family portraits with pasted-in images of missing family members, some of which will be on view.
A 12 chapter graphic novel-style pictorial display illustrates the story of the Chins of New York, as told by Bronx-born Amy Chin. She starts in 1913, with the arrival of her grandfather Bok Ying, and ends nearly a century later with the family’s expedition to their ancestral village in China.
Even while Ms. Chin reconstructed her tale for the artists to capture, she continued to learn more about her family’s history, parts of which had long stayed secret. Among the ironies of the Chinese American experience is that the detailed records produced by the government during and after Exclusion not only document how the system worked, but also help people like Amy Chin to piece together their family histories.
Chinese American experiences are also shared in the exhibition through brief videos and profiles of notable figures, such as culinary pioneer Joyce Chen, federal appeals court judge Denny Chin, and author and ceramicist Jade Snow Wong.
The exhibition concludes by exploring efforts to reclaim this almost-lost history of the Chinese American experience. One artifact is the majestic head of a ceremonial dragon, purchased from China by the Chinese American community in Marysville, California in the 1880s. The dragon, “Moo Lung,” traveled throughout the U.S. for cultural events, visiting New York City in 1911, and has been restored especially for this exhibition.
Programs and Special Initiatives
Two interchanging multimedia pieces greet visitors to the New-York Historical Society. The Chinese in America: We Are Family is a rotating array of Chinese characters for family names and thousands of individual portrait photographs, including distinguished individuals like architect I.M. Pei or champion figure skater Michelle Kwan. The piece was developed by the Committee of 100 for the USA Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Another large rotating collage of portraits will feature profiles of historical and contemporary individuals, and the public can submit personal images through New-York Historical’s website to be incorporated into the display. To learn more, click here.
A related publication, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion (Scala 2014), features 65 artifacts from the exhibition, serving as a companion guide to the show and a stand-alone chronological overview of the critically important history of the Chinese in America.
Special programming related to the exhibition:
Thursday, April 23, 6:30 pm-Spring Concert: China West, featuring performances by Manuel Barrueco and the Beijing Guitar Duo
WHERE: The New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West (at Richard Gilder Way, West 77th Street)
New York, NY 10024
TICKETS: Ticket prices vary by program. For more information, please call (212) 485-9268 or visit nyhistory.org/programs
Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday – 10am-6pm
Friday – 10am-8pm
Sunday – 11am-5pm
Monday – CLOSED
Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion is curated by Dr. Marci Reaven, Vice President for History Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society, and the chief historian is Dr. John Kuo Wei Tchen, co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America and founding director of New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute.
A distinguished advisory group of scholars in the fields of history and law helped to develop the exhibition, including Thomas Bender, Joshua Brown, Judge Denny Chin, Eric Foner, Sander Gilman, Madeline Hsu, Erika Lee, David Lei, Mary Lui, Cathy Matson, Mae Ngai, Dael Norwood, Kevin Scott Wong, Frank Wu, Renqiu Yu, and Judy Yung. The Museum of Chinese in America, the Chinese Historical Society of America, and many other lenders of artifacts and images provided critical knowledge and support.
The New-York Historical Society recognizes the leadership support of Oscar Tang and Agnes Hsu-Tang – Tang Family Foundation for Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion. Generous funding has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Achelis and Bodman Foundations, and Harold J. and Ruth Newman. Additional support provided, in part, by Lulu C. Wang.
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