Julianne Hing writes in CAAM:
“In the last half of the 19th century, as Reconstruction was collapsing and the country slogged through an economic depression in the 1870s, politicians found easy scapegoats in Chinese immigrants. As a statesman, California Governor Bigler “wrangled a working class white rage at the fact that the Gold Rush had not been a stairway to heaven,” Burns says, “and all this transmogrified into hatred of the ‘other.’” Bigler called Chinese immigrants ignorant about and uninterested in joining American society, and described them as inferior, dishonest, and unassimilable in public addresses.
Passionate anti-Chinese sentiment manifested itself in the passage of punitive local ordinances that sought to criminalize or tax everyday Chinese life. San Francisco’s queue ordinances of the 1870s forbade city prisoners from keeping long braids. Pole ordinances prohibited the use of poles to balance vegetables and other wares; the use of a pole to balance heavy loads was a uniquely Chinese practice. Chinese immigrants were even prohibited from testifying in court against whites.
By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act became the law in 1882, Chinese immigrants were firmly established in the popular imagination as villainous culprits responsible for the country’s every economic woe. The law only codified a seething anti-immigrant sentiment that Americans latched on to. The law made it illegal for Chinese immigrants to come to the U.S., it made it illegal for those who left to re-enter the U.S., and it made it illegal for Chinese nationals to become U.S. citizens. The law was overturned only in the 1940s, and it wasn’t functionally dismantled until 1965 during the Civil Rights era — just 50 years ago.
“It was democratic,” explains historian Renqiu Yu in the film. “It was legal. But it was wrong.” That breach between legality and justice is exactly what Burns and Li-shin Yu sought to explore in their film. “Here’s a story that makes you think about how the way that democracy and jurisprudence work is not equal to justice,” Burns says.
The other chapter of the story of the Chinese Exclusion Act is one of resistance. Li-shin Yu says that in the years of making this film, the stories of resistance stood out to her over and over. “The greatest thing to have learned is that across time, the Chinese were standing up every step of the way,” Yu says.”
Sadly, some of this sounds all too familiar. I could just see a racist/white nationalist politician like Rep. Steve King (R-IA) playing the role of Gov. Bigler. It’s important for the rest of us to say “never again.”