Chinese perspectives on exclusion
Not surprisingly, many Chinese viewed exclusion and other discriminatory legislation as unfair. Some expressed their frustration in anonymous poems carved into the wooden walls of the detention barracks at Angel Island, the immigration station in San Francisco. Others, including Chinese diplomats, prominent merchants, and students educated in the United States, wrote articles in popular magazines and journals and gave speeches to middle and upper class Americans. They sought to remove cultural barriers between Chinese and Americans and expose the false stereotypes of Chinese that were used to justify exclusion.
“The Chinese Must Stay,” by Yan Phou Lee
During the exclusion fervor, some educated Chinese made impassioned pleas for more equitable treatment of Chinese immigrants. Yan Phou Lee was a Chinese student brought to the United States by the Chinese Educational Mission in Hartford, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale University and became a Christian. In the excerpt from “The Chinese Must Stay,” Yan Phou Lee calls upon Americans to live up to their liberal principles of equality and refutes common arguments made against Chinese to justify their exclusion. By the time he wrote, the stringent Scott Act had been passed and exclusion would remain America’s official policy until 1943. In fact, the exclusion policy would be applied to all Asians by 1924. Appeals such as Yan Phou Lee’s were successful, however, in gaining some middle class American sympathy and support for ameliorating the harshest aspects of the exclusion policy.
[Document Source: North American Review, 148 (April 1889): 476–83.]
“The Chinese Must Stay” by Yan Phou Lee
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 dealing, and not by the display of selfishness and greed. . . .
How far this Republic has departed from its high ideal and reversed its traditionary policy may be seen in the laws passed against the Chinese.
Chinese immigrants never claimed to be any better than farmers, traders, and artisans. If, on the one hand, they are not princes and nobles, on the other hand, they are not coolies and slaves. They all came voluntarily, as their consular papers certified, and their purpose in leaving their home and friends was to get honest work. They were told that they could obtain higher wages in America than elsewhere, and that Americans were friendly to the Chinese and invited them to come. In this they were confirmed by certain provisions of the treaties made between China and the United States, by which rights and privileges were mutually guaranteed to the citizens of either country residing in the other. No one can deny that the United States made all the advances, and that China came forth from her seclusion because she trusted in American honor and good faith.
So long as the Chinese served their purposes and did not come into collision with the hoodlum element afterwards imported to California, the people of that State had nothing to complain of regarding them. Why should they, when, at one time, half the revenue of the State was raised out of the Chinese miners? But the time came when wages fell with the cost of living. The loafers became strong enough to have their votes sought after. Their wants were attended to. Their complaints became the motive power of political activity. So many took up the cry against the Chinese that it was declared that no party could succeed on the Pacific coast which did not adopt the hoodlums’ cause as its own. . . .
It has been urged:
I. That the influx of Chinese is a standing menace to Republican institutions upon the Pacific coast and the existence there of Christian civilization.
That is what I call a severe reflection on Republican institutions and Christian civilization. Republican institutions have withstood the strain of 13,000,000 of the lower classes of Europe, among whom may be found Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Nihilists, political assassins, and cut-throats; but they cannot endure the assaults of a few hundred thousands of the most peaceable and most easily-governed people in the world! . . .
IV. That the Chinese have displaced white laborers by low wages and cheap living, and that their presence discourages and retards white immigration to the Pacific States.
This charge displays so little regard for truth and the principles of political economy that it seems like folly to attempt an answer. But please to remember that it was by the application of Chinese “cheap labor” to the building of railroads, the reclamation of swamp-lands, to mining, fruit-culture, and manufacturing, that an immense vista of employment was opened up for Caucasians, and that millions now are enabled to live in comfort and luxury where formerly adventurers and desperadoes disputed with wild beasts and wilder men for the possession of the land. Even when the Chinaman’s work is menial (and he does it because he must live, and is too honest to steal and too proud to go the almshouse), he is employed because of the scarcity of such laborers. . . . You may as well run down machinery as to sneer at Chinese cheap labor. Machines live on nothing at all; they have displaced millions of laborers; why not do away with machines? . . .
V. That the Chinese do not desire to become citizens of this country.
Why should they? Where is the inducement? [Yan Phou Lee recited the laws discriminating against Chinese to argue they have not been encouraged to become citizens.] . . . Are you sure that the Chinese have no desire for the franchise? Some years ago, a number of those living in California, thinking that the reason why they were persecuted was because it was believed they cared nothing for American citizenship, made application for papers of naturalization. Their persecutors were alarmed and applied to Congress for assistance, and the California Constitution was amended so as to exclude them. . . .
VII. The Chinese neither will have intercourse with Caucasians nor will assimilate with them.
Yes, just think of it! As soon as the ship comes into harbor, a committee of the citizens gets on board to present the Chinaman with the freedom of the city (valued at $5). A big crowd gathers at the wharf to receive him with shouts of joy (and showers of stones). The aristocrats of the place flock to his hotel to pay their respects (and to take away things to remember him by). He is so feted and caressed by Caucasian society that it is a wonder his head is not turned (or twisted off). . . .
Such are the charges made against the Chinese. Such were the reasons for legislating against them;—and they still have their influence, as is shown by the utterances of labor organs; by the unreasoning prejudice against the Chinese which finds lodgment in the minds of the people; and by the periodical outbreaks and outrages perpetuated against them without arousing the public conscience.