‘The Chinese Exclusion Act’ Documentary Explores Roots of Xenophobic Policy

By Sameer Rao May 29, 2018

The Center for Asian-American Media (CAAM) and PBS wrap their Asian Pacific American Heritage Month documentary series tonight (May 29) with a look at early attempts to brand immigrants of color as job-stealing subversives.

"The Chinese Exclusion Act,” which airs on the American Experience program tonight, takes its name from the 1882 legislation that excluded most Chinese immigrants from entry to and citizenship within the United States. The film highlights the passage of this legislation amid widespread fear about Chinese immigrants corrupting White people and stealing their jobs. That same panic inspired murders of Chinese people across the Western United States.

Director Li-Shin Yu told Deadline that the documentary shows how politicians and media outlets scapegoated the Chinese as enemy agents, thus pioneering a formula that successive generations of American leaders used against other immigrants of color. The rhetoric mirrors much of what President Donald Trump and his administration now use against Muslims and Latinxs.

“The visual depiction of Chinese as rat-eating, of needing to build a wall to keep the hordes of Chinese from crossing the Pacific into our nation…it becomes this really powerful messaging,” Yu noted.

“The Chinese Exclusion Act” frames this rhetoric in a history of immigrants having to prove themselves as adequately “American.” CAAM released a clip from the documentary in March that showed how Wong Kim Ark challenged the act in federal court in the late-1800s. The United States Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Wong Kim Ark that the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to everyone born on United States soil. Despite the court’s ruling, which set an ongoing precedent for the citizenship of immigrants’ children, the Chinese Exclusion Act persisted until 1943—during World War II, when the U.S. government needed Chinese Americans as a wedge against Japanese Americans.

“Americans feel no cognitive dissonance about saying we are a nation of immigrants and welcome immigrants,’” noted Yu’s co-director Ric Burns. “‘Everybody wants to come here. They come here because we’re the greatest place in the world, and by the way, let’s build a wall. We gotta keep them out.’ That does not strike many—probably most Americans—as a contradiction of any kind.”

“Look, we have been like this for a very long time,” Yu added. “This is essentially who were are, but is this who we want to be? Be informed, know the facts, know the history.”

Check out the trailer for “The Chinese Exclusion Act” before catching the broadcast premiere on PBS/American Experience at 8 p.m. EDT tonight.