When her father died in 2007, Amy Chin, a third generation Chinese American, found an old book in his safety deposit box, written by Chin’s grandfather. In it were very detailed questions and answers, designed to help coach Chinese immigrants coming to the U.S decades ago. Upon arrival, they faced a rigorous interview process that would determine whether they would be allowed to stay. Among the questions that the coaching book told would-be immigrants to memorize: “Which direction is your family’s house facing?”
That book, many decades old, captured the interest of Amy Chin’s friend, Louise Mirrer, who is president of the New York Historical Society. The result is Chinese American: Exclusion and Inclusion, an exhibit that opened at the society recently on the Chinese experience in the U.S.
The first Chinese immigrants arrived here in the mid-18th century, said Cynthia Lee, assistant curator for the exhibit. But despite over 200 years of history in the U.S., the story of Chinese immigrants “is little or entirely unknown,” said Lee.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted in 1882, is one reason why that history has not been fully explored. The act for the first time restricted immigration of a particular ethnic group of workers. It also led to discrimination against Chinese who were already here, who became targets of prejudice and anti-Chinese depictions.
This history is traced in the exhibit, which explores the centuries-long trade and immigration between China and the United States and raises a central question: “What does it mean to be a Chinese American?”
Exhibit visitor Xiaolan Zhang, who immigrated to the U.S. and married an American in 1989 when she was 25, said that’s a question she often asks herself. Though she has lived here for decades, she feels awkward that she can’t join in chatting and joking with Americans – but she also does not feel purely Chinese anymore.
“Living in America is like an educational journey,” she said.
Some of the exhibits are presented as graphic art representations of Amy Chin’s family. Mary Wilshire, who did the graphics, said she was deeply moved by the stories she encountered – like the account of how a pregnant woman was measured and interrogated in the detainment area when she arrived in California in the 19th century.
“You can’t believe how people were treated like this,” said Wilshire. “It’s horrifying,”
Other exhibits at the Historical Society in recent years have also reflected on what it means to be American, and curator Lee said that is how this exhibit should be viewed.
“It’s not really a Chinese exhibit. It’s an American story,” she said. “You can’t really talk about the citizenship and equality without bringing in Chinese American history,” she added.
Brynja Magnussan, 21 and from Illinois, said she could connect with the exhibit even though she is not Chinese American. ”Everyone is human,” said Magnussan. “Everyone has a heart, everyone has a father and mother. I can connect to their stories.”
The exhibit will run until May 2015 before moving to other cities, including Portland, Oregon and San Francisco.