By William Engel
The PBS broadcast of “The Chinese Exclusion Act”, was a daring, sobering documentary about the titular law that prevented Chinese-Americans from being recognized as citizens for more than half a century.
Through multiple accounts and both primary and secondary sources, the film provides an in-depth look at the history of the Chinese in America, beginning in the early 19th century with the arrival of the earliest Chinese immigrants in California. We see the mounting racial tension between Chinese immigrants and poor whites, fostered by exploitation of the former for cheap labor and the two groups’ competition for gold during the California gold rush. We are then given multiple examples of American lawmakers pandering to anti-Chinese voters, eventually culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. From that point on, the film chronicles the sixty-year struggle of Chinese-Americans trying to make a living in a nation that refuses to recognize their existence.
“The Chinese Exclusion Act” isn’s a purely objective account of the act’s history, however. Throughout the film, the historians interviewed frequently comment on the incongruity between the existence of the act and the fundamental ideals that this nation was founded on. The idea that America is a land of opportunity where anyone can build a successful life for themselves directly contradicts how the Chinese were treated for over a century. The film beckons the viewers to ask themselves what it truly means to be an American, and who we’re willing to accept as one of our own.
About three quarters through the movie, the narrator leaves us with this sobering thought, spoken over a beautiful shot of the American wilderness: “No nation can afford to let go its high ideals. The founders of the American republic asserted the principle that all men are created equal, and made this fair land a refuge for the whole world. Its manifest destiny, therefore, is to be the teacher and leader of nations in liberty. Its supremacy should be maintained by good faith and righteous dealings, and not by the display of selfishness and greed.
“But now, looking at the actions of this generation of Americans, and their treatment of other races, who can get rid of the idea that that nation – which Abraham Lincoln said was conceived in liberty – became great through oppression, and was really dedicated to the proposition that all men are created to prey on one another?”