The Exclusion of the Chinese Exclusion Laws

In my Women and Literature class, we recently read Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. The novel, published in 1989, centers around four sets of Chinese American mothers and daughters: Suyuan Woo and Jing-mei “June” Woo; An-mei Hsu and Rose Hsu Jordan; Lindo Jong and Waverly Jong; and Ying-ying St. Clair and Lena St. Clair. The story is set in San Francisco in 1949, but Tan gives her readers plenty of flashbacks set in 1930 China. The novel consists of four sections, and each mother and daughter has two chapters told in her perspective.

The plot begins in June’s point-of-view after her mother Suyuan passes away from a brain aneurism. As she attempts to take her mother’s place at the mahjong table, the other women in the Joy Luck Club quickly show June that she much to learn about her mother. Amy Tan continues to focus on the bond between mother and daughter as well as the struggle to reconcile two cultures. Ultimately, Tan examines the difference between the Chinese-born mother and American-born daughters, reveals a multitude of secrets about each woman, and sets her readers on a journey to unravel the truth about the life each woman lives.

Amy Tan’s book has been a major hit, achieving fame for its portrayal of Chinese-American culture as well as its feminist focus. The Joy Luck Club has even been made into a film and play. I fully enjoyed Tan’s book, and yet, I find it extremely intriguing that while the novel centers around Chinese immigrants, it never mentions the actual process. At the same time that I was reading The Joy Luck Club in my Women and Literature class, I was reading Mae M. Ngai’s book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. In Ngai’s book, I learned—for the first time—about Chinese exclusion laws and quotas set by the American government to keep Chinese immigration to a minimum. It was astounding to me that I had never learned, or really heard, about the Chinese exclusion laws that “barred all Chinese from entering the United States save for merchants and their families, students, treaty traders, and diplomats” (Ngai 2004, 204). The laws existed from 1882-1943, and yet the consequences lasted far after 1943.

In fact, American attitudes toward Chinese immigrated fluctuated from the 1930s to 1960s. Yet, even when the American people and government felt sympathetic toward Chinese people, the government held strong to a quota that limited the number of Chinese people. Interestingly, most quotas would limit the number of people from a certain country. However, this precedent did not apply to the Chinese. Instead, it did not matter whether Chinese immigrants were from China or Great Britain; the quota limited all Chinese people and not just people from China. Therefore, because of the Chinese exclusion laws and quota, many Chinese immigrants had to enter the United States using illegal means.

I find it so interesting that most textbooks and books in literature fail to mention this event in American history. Amy Tan’s novel highlights many provocative issues—divorce, abortion, rape, arranged marriages, the choices one must make to survive the second Sino-Japanese war, the culture of Chinatown in America, daughterly duty, and more. Yet, while the novel is set in San Francisco and focuses on Chinese immigrant families, we never once hear about the aftermath of the Chinese exclusion laws. Tan never mentions the words “Paper son,” “the San Francisco Chinese Six Companies,” or “quota.” This lack of reference is not uncommon. Yet, I ask the simple question, why do we not hear more about the Chinese exclusion laws? Do you think books need to emphasize it more? Are there other ways to portray this time in history? I think it is extremely important to explain this time in history, as well as other margalinized events in history, and I think authors such as Amy Tan can help accomplish this task.








3 thoughts on “The Exclusion of the Chinese Exclusion Laws

  1. Wow, Allison! That’s so fascinating and kind of disturbing that this MAJOR thing is just in the background, hanging out without being explicit. I’m kind of shocked that she doesn’t discuss it. Huh. I wonder if anyone has written on her not mentioning that structural set-up? That might be a fun article to write. And I can imagine that reading this book at the same time as Ngai’s might have made your head explode with connections. It’s pretty neat when that happens. But it is often confusing, too.

    And lest you feel bad about not knowing these things (which we should all feel bad about, but how can we when it seems like a…dare I say “conspiracy” to limit our knowledge?!), I didn’t learn anything about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 ( until I was in my early 30s. I grew up in Oklahoma, I took at least a full year of Oklahoma history, and I swear to God no one ever mentioned this in my uber-white town. I rather by happenstance ran across a book about it and was absolutely floored. The Greenwood section of Tulsa was one of the richest black communities in the nation, and it was destroyed/burned down in 1921. And even more bizarre, the newspaper record was edited – literally parts of the newspaper were cut out – almost immediately after the fact.

    That brings us to the question of why you hadn’t heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. What are the pressures that keep things like this out of our curriculum? Why isn’t this something we learn about like, say, the way that Germans learn about the Holocaust? (Something similar could be said for Native American genocide, of course – the Holocaust was not the only genocide, nor was it the first genocide. It was the first genocide that happened in Europe and against those who sort-of-but-not-quite-white. So why is there only ONE holocaust, when in fact there have been millions of peoples basically destroyed?)

    I think there are at least two ways to read these silences. First, it is a vast conspiracy, which implies some of conscious desire to manipulate. I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s actually worse than that. I think it’s that if we actually learn this history, it produces different reactions to what it means to be an American. So I think there’s another reason – I think it’s easier to be ignorant than it is to know; knowing is hard and it breaks your heart. And it’s hard to maintain our moral superiority when we know. Charles Mills calls this the ‘epistemology of ignorance.’ It’s easier for white people to ignorant about these things, and so we don’t learn them/aren’t taught them, and when we do hear them, it’s easier to dismiss them as aberrations than to see in the larger context where ‘white supremacy is the unnamed political system that has shaped the world over the past 500 years.’

    I’m still reeling that Tan doesn’t mention this explicitly. Wow.


  2. Just as our society downplays the systematic killing and removal of American Indians and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, I believe that we do not hear about the Chinese Exclusion Laws because it damages our “exceptionalism.” Obviously these three examples are just a few major blemishes we have on our country’s history.

    It is ironic too that we once excluded Chinese people because prior to and during World War II, newspapers would tell readers how to differentiate Chinese and Japanese people to avoid discrimination against the former.

    I strongly believe that not only do books need to emphasize things like this, but our country’s rhetoric as well. I don’t know how much other people value this, but I find it sad that no U.S. president has apologized for the country’s role in the slave trade and in slavery. I know that several states have, like Maryland in 2007, but I think it goes a long way to admit to historical wrongdoings.

    It’s like how many Americans believe that the Civil War was fought over states rights or issues other than slavery. For example, when Mississippi seceded from the union, they listed the reasons why they were seceding. EVERY SINGLE ONE WAS ABOUT SLAVERY OR IN DIRECT CONNECTION WITH SLAVERY. Many history books in high school would lead you to believe otherwise.

    So yes I do 100% believe that books need to emphasize the Chinese Exclusion Acts as well as many other atrocities in history.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So a question – why don’t textbooks include these things? That is, why don’t Americans demand a flawed history rather than the white-washed history that we learn in high school? What are the impediments to this? Some teachers supplement textbooks with things like Howard Zinn’s _People’s History of the United States_. But you can imagine that if you’re teaching in a small rural school that that won’t go over well. Look at the recent effort in Oklahoma to stop teaching AP history because it teaches people not to love America ( I don’t think Oklahoma is alone here: I think lots of (mostly white?) Americans are offended by any mention of the sordid racial history of the United States. The question, then, is why we have a bias toward ignorance. What is it that makes (mostly) whites not want to know the true(r) story of how they came to be where they are?


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