The first part of the exhibit explores the early interactions between the United States and China as the two nations considered questions about trade policies, mutual rights, and migration. With the development of a thriving China trade, Chinese migrants soon began arriving in the United States, first coming as sailors aboard trading ships. From the 1850s to the 1870s, approximately 35,000 Chinese migrants mined for gold and silver, shrimped and fished, labored on railroads, drained agricultural fields, and worked in manufacturing.
Although relations between Chinese and Americans began with some promise, they soon deteriorated in the social strife of the 1870s and 1880s. White workers anxious to protect their status in an industrializing economy identified Chinese migrants as a threat to their livelihoods. Anti-Chinese activists branded Chinese as racially inferior and unfit to be part of American society. Chinese and others who supported their presence fought back against such perceptions. However, fear and envy of the Chinese grew to become a national issue—the “Chinese Question.”
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, preventing Chinese laborers from immigrating while exempting merchants, students, teachers, and diplomats in order to permit trade. This was the first time the United States restricted immigration based on race and class. The act also banned all Chinese immigrants from naturalizing as American citizens. In the decades that followed, Exclusion was hardened and restrictive immigration policies expanded to include others.
Commerce, Diplomacy, and Religion
In the early days of interaction between China and the United States, traders, missionaries, and diplomats facilitated the exchange of goods and ideas. The stories of individuals, like Anson Burlingame, an American who became China’s first ambassador to the United States, and Houqua, China’s wealthiest trader, are part of a larger story about international relations. The display, featuring trade goods, ship models, ephemera, and artwork, examines this range of interactions.
After gold was found in California in 1848, Chinese laborers began immigrating to North America in large numbers. They found jobs and settled in the rapidly developing cities and towns of the West, finding employment on railroads, and in factories, agriculture, restaurants, and as owners of small businesses. An interactive installation featuring the iconic lithograph American Progress characterizes the expansionist ideas of the times. It is augmented by Chinese American artist Jake Lee’s carefully researched watercolors of Chinese laborers, painted in the 1950s at the request of restaurateur Johnny Kan.
As the Chinese became society’s scapegoats, slogans such as “The Chinese Must Go!” emerged. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which barred Chinese laborers from immigrating and naturalizing. A series of dioramas depict the growth of the anti-Chinese movement, the passage and strengthening of the Exclusion Act of 1882, and the attempts of the Chinese to fight back against discrimination.
Pursuit of Learning
In 1872, Yale graduate Yung Wing brought 120 young Chinese boys to be educated in New England schools.The exhibit tells the story of this Chinese Educational Mission and other educational and cross-cultural exchanges—some of them continuing throughout the years of Exclusion, showing what might have been possible had policies of equal relations been pursued. The display includes Yung Wing, the first Chinese to graduate from an American university and Hu Shih, a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship recipient during the early twentieth century.