‘The Chinese Exclusion Act’ Directors On How The Policy Resonates Today

The Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted in 1882, was the first and only piece of American legislation to ban an entire group of people from immigrating to the United States on the basis of ethnic background.

PBS’ documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” which premiered last month, strikes a familiar chord as it discusses the legacy of this unique piece of legislation and its effects. Steeplechase Films directors Ric Burns and Lishin Yu began working on the film six years ago and didn’t expect that a law from the post-Civil War era would resonate with contemporary thoughts and feelings about immigration in America today.

Driven by economic jealousy and leftover anti-Chinese sentiment from the Opium Wars, the policy remained in place for over 60 years. Its effects are long-lasting and far-reaching. The documentary explores the causes and effects of the policy by examining letters, photographs and news articles from the Gold Rush era to the beginnings of World War II and by interviewing important scholars of Asian American history.

“It was hair-raising,” said Burns, about making the documentary in today’s political climate. Despite the gap between the early 2010s and the 1880s, the conversation at the national level about citizenship, job security and national security chime with the historical and contemporary realities of American immigration. “To see that we had wandered into a topic that was the archeology of this aspect of the American experience was really shocking and eye-opening.”

Yu agreed. She said that recognizing the link between their documentary and the current discussion on immigration “also made [them] feel that getting this history right was incredibly important,” and noted that many of the political processes we see taking place on immigration today have a history that go back to the days of Chinese exclusion.

The directors recognized the same kind of exclusionary attitudes and policies being enacted against immigrants today, especially toward Muslim and Mexican immigrants. Many today see these minority groups as unassimilable alien “others” who take jobs away from “true” Americans, Burns said, as they did centuries ago.

PBS' "The Chinese Exclusion Act" (Steeplechase Films)
PBS’ “The Chinese Exclusion Act” (Steeplechase Films)

Burns and Yu hope their documentary will educate and debunk such ideas. “Throughout American history people of color have been used as a way of defining, by contradistinction, what Americanness is, which is white people who live here,” Burns said. “But the record doesn’t support that in any way. We wanted to insert understanding of this story along context so people don’t find themselves confused up against a confounding of reality.”

“One scholar said in the film that in Chinese, the word for ‘crisis’ includes the word for ‘opportunity,’” Yu added. “We hope that in telling this history and giving the factual basis of this history, people can use this as a mirror and a way to reflect and make decisions based on knowledge.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act is not frequently taught in classrooms. Burns hopes that anyone seeing the film will be enlightened and have a better understanding of today’s immigration issues. “[The Chinese Exclusion Act] was the scaffolding, the DNA of all [American] immigration policy to come. This story is not just a red thread, it is a kind of spine,” he said. “For anybody who sees the film, we hope they feel a huge ‘a-ha!’”

(Steeplechase Films)
(Steeplechase Films)

To pull the narrative together, Burns and Yu sought the help of leading Asian Pacific American Studies scholars. Seeing documents from the era of Chinese Exclusion reinforced the reality of the act for the directors. “The power of the truth really comes out through these artifacts and documents,” Yu said. “To see this [history] in front me with all its virulence, it powerfully reflects what was going on through history.”

For the duo, the true heroes of the story are the artifacts. “There’s nothing quite like seeing this stuff,” Burns said. “There’s nothing quite like seeing the walls of Angel Island where a generation of incoming Chinese were made to wait days, weeks, months and one one occasion 780 days, to really get a sense that this is real.”

The resilience of Chinese Americans and their deep-rooted belief in the founding American ideals of freedom, equality and justice remain a recurring theme in the film. “There’s a long history of Chinese voices who resisted the injustice of the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Yu said. “It’s a voice sometimes not heard and at times forgotten but important to keep asserting. That shining spirit is what inspires and gives me hope.”