In-depth exhibit details Chinese-American experience

The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco is the new home of a major exhibition telling the Chinese-American story.

“Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” traces the history of Chinese America from the early 1800s, when the first immigrants from China arrived, to the implementation of discriminatory exclusion legislation, from 1882 to 1943, to the challenges of the Cold War and beyond.

Legal successes and civil-rights triumphs also happen on the journey.

“The most comprehensive museum expression about the experience of Chinese in America to date” is how CHSA executive director Sue Lee describes the exhibit, which contains artwork, artifacts, dioramas, interactive displays and theatrical settings. A gift to the CHSA from the New York Historical Society — its original home — the exhibit will grow and change over time, Lee says.

Modestly sized but comprehensive, the show looks at early U.S.-China encounters and at the consequences, legal and social, of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers.

It also highlights efforts to fight racism and achieve a sense of acceptance in what leaders like Frederick Douglass, one of numerous figures referenced in the exhibition, envisioned as the “composite” nation.

Exhibits include 20th-century watercolor paintings by Dong Kingman, known for his urban landscapes, and Jake Lee, an artist championed by the CHSA for his depictions of everyday Chinese-American life.

A significant portion of the exhibition consists of environments representing the immigration station operated on Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. Here, immigrants, the largest percentage of whom were Chinese, were detained and interrogated.

These settings feature barracks, a women’s dorm (female Chinese immigrants had to prove they weren’t prostitutes in order to be able to enter the county), and suitcases filled with belongings. The display includes interrogation and medical-examination areas, poetry written by detainees on walls, and mahjong tiles.

“Coaching” documents were used by immigrants attempting to enter the country under an assumed name, to dodge anti-laborer laws.

Dioramas provide mini history lessons. One scene illustrates the passage by legislators of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Another depicts the largely forgotten massacre that resulted in 28 Chinese deaths and 75 burned-down Chinese homes in 1885 in Rock Springs, Wyo. The tragedy was triggered by rioting white miners who claimed Chinese laborers were taking jobs from “real” Americans.

Displays relating to the Cold War include Ping-Pong paddles (inspired by the slight thaw in the ice created by the U.S.-China table-tennis matches) bearing images of Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong.

A section on activists and rebels spotlights Wong Chin Foo, editor of the Chinese American, a newspaper vehemently opposed to the exclusion act.

Contemporary items include a project by Bronx-born artist Amy Chin, presented as an oversized graphic novel and illustrating the history of her Chinese-American family. It shows her parents’ years-long separation caused by the exclusion law and a license issued to her grandfather for his laundry business. It also reveals how the Chins slowly become an American family with a sense of belonging.

With such material, the exhibition qualifies not only as a Chinese-American attraction but as a reflection of the experiences of immigrants of numerous origins. It also reminds us, in these harsh times for immigrants, that we are a nation built and shaped by immigrants.

IF YOU GO

Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion
Where: Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, 965 Clay St., S.F.
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Tickets: $10 to $15; free for 12 and younger
Contact: (415) 391-1188, www.chsa.org

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