Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Somewhere between love and hate

By Nadine Kam

Meeting politically active ABCs (American-born Chinese) when I was a student at the University of Hawaii was an eye opener. There were depths to their anger at the Establishment that I -- comfortable in my middle-class upbringing and values -- could not comprehend.

ABOVE: At the center of the montage featuring images of the Chinese in America, Shawn Wong, now a second generation Chinese-American author and professor of English, recalls that his childhood heroes were Willie Mays, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. Anna May Wong, shown below, is regarded as one of the first Chinese-American stars, having had a career that spanned the silent film era through 1960. However, she could never kiss the leading man because inter-racial kisses were considered taboo.

Growing up in Hawaii, where Asians comprise a majority of society, had a sheltering effect. Maybe I would have been more militant if I, like them, had grown up on the West Coast, exposed to the injustices imposed on thousands of Chinese in America from the late 19th century until well into the 20th century.

Compared to the black experience in America, the story of the Chinese people is not widely known, but it is one that intrigued Bill Moyers when he first started hearing snippets of it 30 years ago. His interest has resulted in "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience," a three-part series which airs at 7:30 p.m. today through Thursday.

Opening with a historian's 1965 quotation, Moyers says: "The Chinese in America have been patronized, welcomed, lynched, despised, excluded, liked, admired, but rarely understood or accepted. ...

"This is a story of Chinese Americans, but it's really about all of us."

Part I opens with the first Chinese immigrants settling in the West in search of Gold Mountain. At first they were welcomed as any of the '49ers, but those who came were largely enterprising farmers who knew how to work the land and move mountains. They became victims of their own success as envy at the riches they reaped gave way to hatred, which led to discrimination and violence.

Among the subjects interviewed for the series were students, historians and writers Maxine Hong-Kingston, Shawn Wong and Helen Zia.

Part II tells the stories of the hostile years after the 1882 Exclusion Act ushered in the most violent decade in Chinese-American history. Arson attacks, assaults and murders of Chinese became everyday occurrences.

Reading from a Chinese-English dictionary of useful phrases from the era, Wong, head of the University of Washington Department of English, discovered sentences such as: "He was murdered by a thief." "He was choked to death with a lasso by a robber." "He tried to assassinate me." And, "He was smothered to death in a room."

The dictionary presents, he said, "A history of the Chinese-Americans' life in America from the Chinese point of view."

While a million European immigrants were allowed into the country, the Exclusion Act worked to a point that the Chinese population, largely male "bachelors" -- half of whom had wives in China they were unable to bring into the country -- dropped to 90,000 from 120,000. It was predicted by some with glee that the Chinese would be gone by 1930.

Driven out of the mines, then banned from other industries such as farming, cigar making, shoemaking, fishing and masonry, many of the men turned to domestic work, serving as nannies for wealthy Caucasians. This gave them a reputation for being servile and obsequious, an image that continues to plague Asian actors viewed by Hollywood as too emasculated to be leading men.

The segment ends with a look at the experiences of actress Anna May Wong (nee Wong Liu Tsong). The daughter of a laundryman, she rose to Hollywood's top ranks, but because mores of the time did not allow interracial kissing, she became typecast as slave or temptress, "the woman who died a thousand deaths" to allow the leading man to end up with the "right" woman.

She was making films from the '20s through 1960, when it was acceptable for Boris Karloff and Katherine Hepburn to portray Chinese. (In 1990 a furor was raised when British actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Eurasian Engineer in the original production of "Miss Saigon.")

The San Francisco public school, Commodore Stockton, was segregated until the 1940s.

ALONG THE WAY, the Chinese, ever more assimilated, learned to use the courts in their defense. When San Francisco established boarding laws requiring 500 square feet of air per person -- knowing that the Chinese bunked together in small spaces -- they refused to pay their fines. Crowding the prisons, they criticized their jailers for breaking the rules they'd created.

They also found protection in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which read that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The key word was "person," because Chinese were still denied citizenship. The amendment also made it clear that all who were born in United States are citizens.

Part III examines Chinese-American history in the 20th century when Chinese Americans were suddenly embraced by the political establishment, thanks to the relationship between America and China as allies in the war against Japan.

Chinese Americans began integrating into society's mainstream as part of a "model minority," and the 1965 Immigration Reform Act took effect. Yet such acceptance seems illusory when incidents of racism against Asians return. The Asian-American community was galvanized by the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit by two Caucasian auto workers who blamed Japanese carmakers for the slumping American industry.

Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were charged with second-degree murder in the case and sentenced to two years' probation with a fine of $3,700 each. The lenient sentences sent the Asian community into an uproar.

More recently, Berkeley, Calif., has drawn criticism from those who contend that Chinese Americans are overrepresented on the campus -- comprising 25 percent of the student population vs. 8 percent of the general population -- while others accuse the school of setting quotas to fix the number of Caucasians enrolled.

Moyers' series is intended to merely present a history unfamiliar to many Americans, but the story of Chinese in America is not over yet. Though left unsaid in the series, it is a timely reminder that prejudices die hard. It's clear that history has thus far repeated itself through a cycle of friendship and backlash for Chinese Americans. This does not bode well for the future, when China starts to wield its muscle as the next superpower.

Recent events involving other minorities suggest that America's leaders have not moved beyond a reactionary search for scapegoats as political currency in times of difficulty.

"Becoming American: The Chinese Experience":
A three-part series by Bill Moyers, airs 7:30 p.m. today
through Thursday on PBS Hawaii

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