The first Asian immigrants to come to the United States in significant numbers were the Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century. For most of U.S. history, Asian immigrants were portrayed as undesirable and a threat to Western civilization. Accordingly, Asian immigrants were ineligible for citizenship based on race and subject to the most severe immigration restrictions. One defining moment in U.S. immigration policy history was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Examine the origins, history, and impact of the 1882 law in this American Experience documentary film, The Chinese Exclusion Act. An accompanying Teacher’s Guide is also included. You can also learn more about the history behind the Chinese Exclusion Act and its legacies in sections below.
EDSITEment’s Closer Readings Commentary on Everything Your Students Need to Know About Immigration History places Asian immigration in the broader context of America’s immigration history. Asian immigration remained at a trickle until the passage of the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Since then, Asian immigration has been on the rise, outpacing Hispanic immigration since 2010.
The First Japanese in America
The first Japanese national to set foot on American soil was a young fisherman named Manjiro who was to become influential in ending Japan’s centuries of isolation. Though Manjiro’s name and legendary life story is celebrated by the children in contemporary Japan, fame has eluded him on this side of the Pacific where he remains a footnote in American maritime history.
On a routine fishing trip near their coastal Japanese village in 1841, Manjiro’s crew was cast adrift in a violent sudden storm. For a week they survived on icicles that clung to their frozen clothes before being washed up on a desert island three hundred miles away. There the crew subsisted on albatross until an American whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, that had stopped at the island to take on sea turtles miraculously rescued them five months later.
Young Manjiro caught the attention of William Whitfield, the captain of the ship, who adopted him as a son and renamed him John Mung. John Mung/Manjiro was invited to continue on the whaling voyage, eventually returning to America to be fostered to adulthood and educated in English and navigation in the Captain’s hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Manjiro’s journey from the shores of Japan to continental United States is just one of the subjects captured on the timeline of Manjiro's life.
Manjiro’s remarkable arrival in America presaged a life of drama and courageous adventures. His life is documented in an online exhibit from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Pacific Encounters: Yankee Whalers, Manjiro and the opening of Japan. After many further exploits on land and sea, Manjiro managed to get back to his beloved homeland a decade later. Although he was charged for leaving the country, Manjiro was redeemed and elevated to the status of samurai. He was also allowed to chose a surname. Manjiro took Nakahama, the name of his birthplace. He went on to serve as a translator/diplomatic consultant during the Commodore Perry standoff (see the EDSITEment-reviewed resource: Black Ships and Samurai). Continuing to act behind the scenes as a political emissary between Japan and the West, Nakahama Manjiro went on to become an esteemed professor of English and navigation.
Manjiro chronicled his own life in an autobiographical account, Hyoson Kiryaku, Drifting toward the Southeast: A Story of Five Castaways, told to the shogunate upon his return to Japan in 1852. Direct students to the materials at the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society site, where they will find further biographical accounts of his life. Note that American presidents have made references to Manjiro.
Chinese Railroad Workers & Chinese Exclusion
Chinese immigrants first arrived in the United States during the 1850s to try their luck at the California gold rush. Civil unrest and poverty in southeastern China encouraged many Chinese to migrate. Despite California placing a high monthly tax on all foreign miners, Chinese miners had no choice but to pay to keep mining.
After the gold rush ended, some Chinese immigrants remained to work as farm laborers, in low-paying industrial jobs, or on railroad construction. The Central Pacific Railroad actively recruited Chinese laborers to do the grueling work of deep cuts and boring tunnels to conquer the granite wall of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The NEH-funded project, Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, seeks to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. This project offers detailed responses to key questions, high school lesson plans, and fully transcribed oral history interviews with 40+ descendants of Chinese who participated in building the Central Pacific Railroad. The Smithsonian Transcontinental Railroad initiative also tells this great story of human grit, danger, opportunity, and the American West. The Smithsonian initiative focuses on how the diversity of workers building the railroad brought new values and traditions to the United States that helped change the nation. EDSITEment’s lesson plan on The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad explores similar themes, asking: How did the Transcontinental Railroad affect immigration, labor, and the environment?
The question of Chinese immigration entering the national political scene in the late 1870s alluded to President Arthur eventually signing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This act suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first immigration law passed in the United States to exclude a group by specific national or ethnic origins. It was renewed in 1892 with the Geary Act and made permanent in 1902.
During the exclusion era Chinese American intellectuals did not remain passive, criticizing the derogatory characterization and treatment of Chinese in America. The NEH-funded New-York Historical Society’s exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion offers classroom materials that give an overview of the life story of the first Chinese-American, Wong Chin Foo, on pages 45-47. Chinese immigrants also used the American legal system to expose loopholes in the U.S. immigration system. To better enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, the United States decided to build the Angel Island Immigration Station.
Angel Island Immigration Station
When thinking about immigrants arriving on America’s shores, the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed at the statue’s base often come to mind: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” (See the EDSITEment lesson plan, The Statue of Liberty: Bringing “The New Colossus” to America, for a discussion on Emma Lazarus’s sonnet and the statue’s symbolic meanings.) Emma Lazarus’ words idealized the immigration experience for European immigrants who entered through Ellis Island Immigration Station on the East Coast. However, on the West Coast, from 1910 to 1940, the majority of immigrants arriving at Angel Island Immigration Station received a much colder reception. The majority of immigrants crossing the Pacific came from Asia, not Europe. Many were from China and Japan, but immigrants from the Philippines, the Punjab, Australia, and Latin America also arrived at Angel Island. The classroom materials accompanying the New-York Historical Society exhibition, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, gives a brief comparison between the treatment of immigrants at Ellis Island and Angel Island on page 50. The location Angel Island was ideal to stem the flow of Chinese immigrants into the American west. Remote from the San Francisco mainland, Chinese immigrants could not communicate easily with family and friends in San Francisco and acquire necessary witnesses for their immigration applications. Therefore, the process could take weeks and even months, so immigrants at Angel Island were detained much longer than immigrants at Ellis Island.
At Angel Island, immigrants were held in sparse barracks, with men separated from the women and children. Many of the detainees looked for ways to stay busy during their time on Angel Island. Photojournalist Lydia Lum documents oral histories to remember the individual experiences of Angel Island detainees and their families. In addition, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s Immigrant Voices Oral History collection has a growing archive of personal stories from detainees. One popular activity at the station was writing poetry. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s lesson on Angel Island Poetry demonstrates how history and culture can be integral to our understanding of poetry. This lesson draws from the book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, which records 135 poems written and carved into the barrack walls on Angel Island. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation also features an article about a lesson on Angel Island developed for a third/fourth grade class: “Teaching about Angel Island through Historical Empathy and Poetry.”
Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were measured by a stricter standard than others. After passing medical exams, they underwent a grueling interrogation by a Board of Special Inquiry. The development of “paper sons” and “paper daughters” fueled the development of such interrogation. In an attempt to circumvent the discriminatory legislation, many Chinese falsely claimed that their parent was an American citizen. They were able to do so because the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire destroyed the city’s municipal records in 1906. Immigration “slots” were given to or bought by would-be entrants who were not really the children of U.S. citizens. Some of these claims were legitimate, but immigration inspectors increasingly became suspicious of the legitimacy of Chinese immigrants’ documentation, resulting in protracted, exhaustive interrogations. They quizzed detainees and their sponsoring relatives in detail on their family history, their homes and their villages. Some questions included: What is your living room floor made of? How many houses are in your village lane? How many steps lead up to your house? Chinese immigrants thus spent months committing to memory minute details, because any discrepancies prolonged the questioning or put the applicant and his family at risk of deportation. Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s curriculum guide, Interrogation of Immigrant, gives students an opportunity to experience what the immigrants went through and felt during their interrogations on Angel Island.
Between 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Between 1910 and 1940, one million immigrants entered the United States through Angel Island. Their migration histories and experiences demonstrate the diversity of American immigration experiences. The documentary Carved in Silence presents an account of the Angel Island experience of Chinese immigrants, highlighting the emotional and mental anguish many Chinese felt. America was both an inclusive nation of immigration and an exclusive gatekeeping nation.
The Chinese Exclusion era and the gatekeeping ideology behind Angel Island demonstrate the idea of the “yellow peril.” A fashionable phrase in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yellow peril refers to Western fears that “barbaric” Asians, in particular the Chinese and Japanese, would invade their lands and destroy Western civilization. Media played a big role in propagating this fear, emphasizing Asians’ “exotic” features and associating them with malevolence and undesirability. The popular fictional villain character Dr. Fu Manchu personified the idea of the yellow peril.
Due to its alliance with China in the Pacific War, the United States ended the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943; yet the idea of the yellow peril remained alive. Angel Island stopped processing immigrants, but was used during World War II as a temporary internment facility for Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent, deemed “enemy aliens.” The yellow peril label would transform into the “model minority” label after the Immigration Act of 1965. This act enabled skilled immigrants and persons seeking political asylum to enter the United States, resulting in an influx of highly educated Asians and Asian refugees. Immigration and Ethnic History Society provides a summary and informative timeline on Asian immigration, as well as a lesson plan on the changing characterization of Asians and Asian Americans from 1886 to 1987.