Monday, June 25, 2007
Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares in the White Supremacist Cauldron.
by Xicano Power.
What happen back then in 1849-1910 and What have been happen on these past years.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”— Emma Lazarus,
"The New Colossus" (carved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty)
Chinese Americans never forget the fact that the Statue of Liberty faces out across the Atlantic Ocean, towards Europe. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses of dream-hungry immigrants coming across the Pacific — like those coming across the deserts and rivers along the Southern US border — have never been greeted by a Mother of Exiles. More often than not, they have been greeted by racist policies and laws, xenophobic hatred, and white supremacist violence.
Instead of a lamp-lifting Lady Liberty beside the golden door, many Chinese folks arriving on the West coast of the United States encountered the dank prison walls of Angel Island.
The US government established the Angel Island Immigration Station in 1910 as a West coast counterpart to Ellis Island; but there were significant differences between the two. Located in San Francisco Bay next to Alcatraz, Angel Island had previously served as a detention center for prisoners of the Spanish-American and Indian wars. US officials believed it to be well-suited to Asian immigrants because it provided a natural quarantine for the communicable diseases which were "prevalent among aliens from oriental countries" (though Native Americans might have a different view of just who was bringing communicable diseases to these shores). Whereas European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were usually processed and released within hours, some 80 percent of the Chinese immigrants at Angel Island were detained for months or even years, pending detailed investigations into their identities. Aside from the agonizing isolation and dirty crowded conditions, the most notorious component of these investigations were the grueling and repeated interrogations, during which inspectors would harp over laboriously detailed questions looking for the slightest inconsistency as an excuse for deportation.In response to this ordeal, many detainees skillfully carved calligraphic poetry into the walls of the detention barracks. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:
"I wish I could travel on a cloud far away, reunite with my wife and son," says a poem composed of Chinese characters and carved into the barracks' wall. "When the moonlight shines on me alone, the night seems even longer."
Now, the state Parks Department and a nonprofit foundation have begun a $50 million project to restore this national historic landmark, including its decaying barracks and hospital. But as much as anything, it will be the poems that provide a window into the station's past.
"Here, we actually have talking walls," said Erika Gee, director of education for the San Francisco-based Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, which is raising private funds for the project.
Some of the poems were written with pencil or brush nearly 100 years ago. Others were carved using a classical Chinese technique, deep into the wooden walls -- most likely by a professional carver. Many of the poems were written in the Tang dynasty style of regulated verse and couplets.
"We think there was a conscious effort of selecting what went up on the wall," Gee said. "We think there was actually a poetry club, and people chose the best examples to put on the wall."
More than 135 of these classically-styled poems by anonymous artists survive today as a testament to what it must have been like (and have been compiled in a book); and indeed a testament to what it must still be like today for detained immigrants.
Instead of remaining a citizen of China, I willingly became an ox.I intended to come to America to earn a living.
The Western styled buildings are lofty; but I have not the luck to live in them.
How was anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?
~ ~ ~
Everyone says traveling to North America is a pleasure.
I suffered misery on the ship and sadness in the wooden building.
After several interrogations, still I am not done.
I sigh because my compatriots are being forcibly detained.~ ~ ~
A flickering lamp keeps this body company.
I am like pear blossoms which have already fallen.
Pity the bare branches during the late spring.
Now of course, Chinese immigrants had been struggling against systemic xenophobia and racism long before Angel Island.
The Chinese began arriving in California in large numbers in 1849 as part of the gold rush. It didn't take long for this to start pissing off white folks who felt that they alone were entitled to America's riches. In 1852, the California legislature's Committee on Mines and Mining declared of the Chinese that "their presence here is a great moral and social evil — a disgusting scab upon the fair face of society — a putrefying sore upon the body politic." As a result, the "commutation tax" and the "foreign miner's tax" were enacted, aimed respectively at obstructing Chinese immigration and hurting Chinese mining enterprises. The money from these taxes went to funding public hospitals which did not admit Chinese patients.In 1853, the San Francisco Daily Alta California editorialized that the Chinese were "morally a far worse race to have among us than the Afro. They are idolatrous in their religion — in their disposition cunning and deceited, and in their habits libidinous and offensive ... They are not of that kin that Americans can ever associate or sympathize with. They are not of our people and never will be, and it is undesirable that they should, for nothing but degradation can result to us from the contact ... It is of no advantage to us to have them here. They can never become like us."In 1854, the landmark case People v. Hall established that no Chinese person could testify in court against a white person. The case began when a grand jury in Nevada County indicted George W. Hall for the murder of a Chinese man named Ling Sing. Three Chinese witnesses testified on behalf of the prosecution; Hall was found guilty and sentenced to death. Hall's lawyers appealed the verdict on the grounds that, under the Criminal Proceeding Act, "no black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be permitted to give evidence in favor of, or against, any white person." The case went to the state supreme court, where the verdict was overturned. Chief Justice Charles Murray explained that the Chinese were, in fact, Indians, because Christopher Columbus, upon reaching the New World, had mistakenly thought that he had reached the China Sea. Bizarrely, Murray further asserted that even if the Chinese were not American Indians, all non-white races could be considered black. People v. Hall offers us a fine example of white supremacist thinking; which is to say, it makes no sense whatsoever, but it gives us a glimpse into the twisted mental processes within the white establishment, which lumps all people of color together as voiceless beasts of burden undeserving of basic human equality. Needless to say, People v. Hall emboldened white folks to openly terrorize Chinese folks without fear of legal consequences, leading to numerous lynchings and massacres and countless smaller crimes and transgressions, which the Chinese had no possibility of redressing. This led to the expression "Chinaman's chance" — meaning, you're screwed.
In the late 1860s, with the end of the Civil War and the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern white plantation-owners experimented with the idea of replacing black slaves with Chinese "coolies" (the Chinese word kuli means "bitter strength"). To this end, the first Chinese Labor Convention assembled in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1869, during which Cornelius Koopmanschap (who had famously supplied the Central Pacific Raildroad with Chinese workers) captured the imaginations of hundreds of delegates and raised one million dollars for the project of bringing thousands of Chinese workers to the South.
By 1870, some 2,000 Chinese were working in the cotton fields of Mississippi and Arkansas, and on plantations and shrimp farms in Louisiana. It took less than a year for serious conflicts to emerge, as the Chinese viewed themselves as employees with rights, while their white employers viewed them as slaves. The Chinese staged strikes to protest whippings and other harsh treatment; they also proved to be shrewd negotiators of labor contracts, and when their contracts were violated, they sued their employers in court — ironically, a right which they did not enjoy in California but which they successfully applied in the post-Civil War South. Within a few years, both sides had become disillusioned with the failed experiment; most Chinese laborers walked off their jobs to seek employment elsewhere or open their own businesses.As the country's economic recession deepened in the 1870s, white hostility toward the Chinese became even more frenetic. The most popular poem of the era was "The Heathen Chinese" which depicted the Chinese as sneaky cheaters. Written by Bret Harte and originally published in Overland Monthly, the poem was picked up by every major newspaper in the country; it was set to music; illustrated pamphlet versions flew off newstand shelves; Mark Twain even collaborated with the poet on a stage version titled Ah Sin. In 1875, the American Medical Association conducted a study into the role of the Chinese in spreading syphilis in the US, building on top of a paper by Dr. Arthur Stout entitled "Chinese Immigration and the Physiological Causes of the Decay of the Nation". The study found no evidence to support its hypotheses, yet the AMA did not back away from its racist contentions. This is what white folks call "data". "A Picture for Employers: Why They can live on 40 cents a day, and They can't".
In San Francisco, city officials also passed the "cubic air law" (requiring lodging houses to have 500 cubic feet of open space for each adult) and the "sidewalk ordinance" (making it a crime to walk through the city carrying a pole over one's shoulder with a basket at each end). To enforce the cubic air law, police often raided Chinese lodging houses in the middle of the night to drag immigrants to jail (the law was not enforced in non-Chinese neighborhoods, nor in the crowded jails themselves). The sidewalk ordinance was aimed at shutting down Chinese laundries; although it failed to do so.Indeed the story of Chinese laundries is a fascinating one. Contrary to popular belief, there is no ancient tradition of laundromats in China, since most families there do their own laundry. However, the Chinese arriving in America discovered that white men regarded doing laundry as "women's work" beneath their dignity. In mining camps, at construction sites, in cities, Chinese immigrants simply took advantage of an exploitable market demand in order to earn some money; and they could start a laundry business with very little up-front investment. However, the turn of events that really blew up Chinese laundries was, ironically, the attempt of a white businessman named James B. Harvey to exploit Chinese labor in his Passaic Steam Laundry company, a large-scale operation based in Belleville, New Jersey. Many East coast capitalists at that time had begun importing Chinese laborers from the West coast in order to break strikes (some industrialists even ended strikes by simply hiring one Chinese man to walk in and out of a factory, leading white strikers to believe that many Chinese were arriving). Harvey's laundry service had previously employed mostly Irish women, whose unionizing had become a hassle; so he fired all of his white workers and replaced them with Chinese workers. Unfortunately for Harvey, the Chinese men turned out to be just as demanding in their negotiations, and went on strike just as often, as their female Irish counterparts. Disgusted with the experiment, Harvey fired all of his Chinese workers in 1885. But these Chinese folks had learned the inner workings of a major laundry operation; they scattered across the East coast and went into business, inviting relatives to join them in upstarts. Within a few years, 2,000 Chinese laundries were running in New York alone. Meanwhile in California, a second state constitution was ratified in 1879 which made it illegal for corporations to hire "any Chinese or Mongolian". As a result, the Chinese were pretty much forced to go into business for themselves; and laundromats, restaurants, and small grocery stores were solid markets. These were all mom-and-pop operations with long hours, tight budgets, and lodging in the back. No matter what racist laws got thrown at them, many Chinese found ways to make it work. In 1881, as anti-Chinese sentiment reached a frenzied peak, California Senator John F. Miller roared on the floor of Congress that he and his colleagues must "preserve American Anglo-Saxon civilization without contamination or adulteration ... from the gangrene of oriental civilization ... Why not discriminate? Why aid in the increase and distribution over our domain of a degraded and inferior race, and the progenitors of an inferior sort of men?" On May 6, 1882, still in the wake of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing democratic rights to people of all races, President Chester Arthur signed into law the first Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese entry (and re-entry) into the US and forbidding all persons of Chinese descent from being naturalized as US citizens. Over the next 25 years, Congress would continue to pass racist legislation aimed at curtailing the rights of Chinese, forcing them to carry special certificates at the risk of deportation, denying them habeus corpus and the right to appeals, outlawing miscegenation and ownership of land, and generally initiating a period of anti-Chinese terror known as "The Driving Out". On multiple occasions, bloody race riots erupted against the Chinese in California, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, requiring federal troops to intervene; though the troops themselves sometimes joined in burning and looting Chinese districts. Between 1880 and 1900, the total number of Chinese in America fell by some 30 percent.In response to the Exclusion laws, Chinese folks across the country pooled money to mount a series of legal challenges to this unconstitutional legislation. Famous cases such as Chae Chan Ping v. United States (1888), Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), and Lem Moon Sing v. United States (1895) went before the Supreme Court. In every case, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Congress to pass legislation which discriminated on the basis of ethnicity. Yet the Chinese continued to take their fight to the courts. In addition to legal struggles, the Chinese community simultaneously fought for their rights outside of the law: by developing means of exploiting whatever legal loopholes could be found. For example, in the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the Supreme Court conceded that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, a person of Chinese descent born on US soil was indeed a US citizen; this meant that an American-born Chinese could claim to have children in China who could come to the US on the principle of jus sanguinis. This gave rise to the famous sytem of "paper sons" in which the paperwork for US immigration slots, based on fictional family ties, was sold in China. And after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 destroyed the city's citizenship records, the "paper sons" industry really got humming. .
Yet another front in the struggle was solidarity from activists back in China. In 1905, an anti-US boycott was organized in Shanghai to protest the treatment of Chinese in America: workers quit American companies; homes and businesses moved out of US-owned buildings; contracts with US merchants were cancelled; newspapers refused to run American advertisements; protesters prevented American ships from unloading their cargo. The boycott spread throughout China. Fundraisers to sustain the boycott were held in US Chinatowns. Many American businesses in China were forced to shut down. The boycott cost the US some $40 million in Chinese trade that year. In response, the US government demanded that the Qing government crush the boycott; they complied, but the point had been made; and while the policies of Exclusion remained in place, President Teddy Roosevelt issued an executive order to immigration officials to end abusive treatment of Chinese merchants; and proposals for a new round of anti-Chinese legislation were scrapped.
Which brings us full circle, to the establishment of the Angel Island Immigration Station in 1910.~ ~ ~
So what does all this history teach us about the ongoing struggle for immigrant rights here in the US?
Obviously, each immigrant group faces unique circumstances and challenges. WIth regard to Mexican immigration, the story is perhaps even more convoluted than most, seeing that the Southwestern US was illegally invaded and annexed in la invasión norteamericana (i.e. The Mexican-American War); which means that in many cases, today's descendants of European invaders are barring Mexicans from the land of their own indigenous ancestors, or at least land where Spanish-American residence pre-dates that of Anglo-Americans.Nevertheless I think there are important areas of commonality between the Chinese and Mexican immigrant experiences; there are common echoes. The economic scapegoating; the media stereotyping; the racist xenophobic policies and laws; the unconstitutional detentions and deportations; the raw hatred and violence. These are experiences we share. I also believe in attempting to cautiously draw lessons from historical struggles in order to inspire and inform today's struggles. I will explore my thoughts on this matter in an upcoming post (for now, I think you've probably heard more than enough from me). So I'll simply wrap up with a question: What potential lessons stand out for you in the Chinese American story with regard to today's struggles? What can we learn that has strategic or tactical relevance to the current fight? What ideas or inspirations will help us carry that fight forward?
It seems like the civil rights movement is starting again, but instead of blacks fighting for their rights and liberties the U.S is being faced with immigrants from latin speaking countries (not just Mexicans) who are struggling to work in this counrty (legally). We have learned through history that the government will not give the oppressed what it's asking for but they must demand it from the government. Immigrants are creating non-violent tension through non-violent campaing to force a government who is not willing to negotiate to confront the issue. People who are being oppressed by working min wage, and helping the country maintain its great economy (compared to other less fortunate countries) cannot remaing oppressed forever. Do you seriously think that immigrants who want to keep working here (legally) will take over the jobs of doctors, lawyers or senators? what they are asking for is to keep working in the farms or maybe even at the local malls as cooks or waiters. What they are asking for is to simply be able to feed their families without having to worry about someone taking that necessity from them. We just happen to be so used to not worrying about such basic need that we can't seem to be human enough to help them out. after all weren't we all immigrants at what point in this country? or were we all native americans?