Segments in this Video

Painful Past (04:22)


Bill Moyers introduces the program with excerpts from conversations with young people and a brief look at the history of the Chinese in America. In the mid-19th century, Barnum & Bailey displayed a Chinese family in its side show.

Chinese Arrive in America (02:32)

In the 1830s and ‘40s, the Chinese disembarked from trading ships and joined the crowded saloons and tenements of New York. Yung Wu was trained as a missionary. The law was unclear on whether or not he and others like him could become citizens.

Obligation to Family and Village (04:28)

After civil war and floods drove them from their homes in Toishan County, Guangdong to seaports, young Chinese men traveled through the South China Sea and the Pacific in hopes of being able to send money back home and eventually return.

Gold Mountain Dreams (03:27)

A hundred and fifty years ago villages in Southern China got news that would test ancient bonds of home and clan. A letter written by Chum Ming reported the gold found near Sutter's Mill in California.

Chinese Welcome in San Fransisco (03:25)

The gold mines of California were not yet part of America. In the confusion of languages and skin colors on the frontier, the first Chinese managed to stay out of harm’s way. Many brought farming and land skills that were applicable to mining.

Chinese Culture Arrives in America (02:37)

Chinese formed groups that reflected their home districts, villages, and clans. "Huigans" organized immigrant life. In 1852 they went from being welcomed by Mayor Geary to a "horde" of Chinese coming to invade California.

Chinese Six Companies (03:32)

In the 1850s California passed its first anti-Chinese laws. Chief Justice Murray gave a speech linking Chinese with Native Americans and blacks as legal outcasts unable to testify against whites. Leland Stanford launched his political career.

John Chinaman (03:06)

California mines had become treacherous places for the Chinese. They were learning that to compete with whites was to risk one’s life. This pushed them into other occupations like farming, food service and domestic work.

Subliminal Assimilation and Stereotyping (02:43)

In the women-poor West, there was one sure supply of jobs, domestic help. It was work white men wouldn’t take so there were openings for new arrivals like Huie Kin. Many Chinese worked as nannies and servants, living with their employers.

Lalu Nathoy (03:47)

In Idaho the Chinese found their own frontier where the odds were not so heavily against them. Polly arrived in America as a slave like so many other women who had been unknowingly sold into prostitution by their desperate families.

Shanghai Gulch, Idaho (02:16)

In the 1860s Chinese miners moved into the Boise basin, pooling their money to buy claims that whites thought had run dry. Frontier justice, Chinese-style, included late-night arson, or a delivery of gunpowder-stuffed firewood to an enemy.

Racial Animosity and Coexistance (01:55)

In Idaho's Chinese community, all non-Chinese were referred to as “barbarians.” When housing was short whites and Chinese would bunk in the same rooms. If free food or music were involved, they showed up at each other’s parades.

Mrs. Polly Bemis (02:25)

Lalu Nathoy escaped slavery and moved in with saloon owner Charlie Bemis. When she married him the gold was gone from Idaho and the Chinese miners had moved on. Their women were gone too, many dead of disease and abuse.

Anti-Chinese Cause (03:02)

The building of the transcontinental railroad was probably the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century and it shook the way whites viewed the Chinese. Governor Leland Stanford quit to build the rail’s western leg.

Science of Measuring Heads (02:45)

Men left China expecting to find gold, but instead tunneled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to build thetranscontinental railroad. Stanford praised the Chinese in a letter to President Johnson, but could they also be used for skilled labor?

Demand for Equal Pay (03:34)

Inequality meant Chinese were paying for their food and white men weren't. They went on strike, but guns and the threat of starvation got the Chinese work-gangs back to work on the transcontinental railroad.

Guests of the Gold Mountain (02:37)

By the time Leland Stanford helped hammer the last spike at a ceremony at Promontory, Utah in 1869, he and his partners, flush with new wealth, were again singing the praises of the Chinese who were given credit for building the transcontinental railroad.

Settling in America (02:43)

Congress granted the Chinese civil rights in 1870, but didn't make them citizens. Some were Civil War veterans. Yung Wing was a businessman and an emissary for the Chinese government. He married Mary Kellogg and adopted American values.

Strike Breakers (02:17)

After several strikes in the railroad’s first yea,r a businessman named Calvin Sampson got fed up with the union and came up with a bold scheme. He hired 75 Chinese immigrants to replace factory workers for a dollar a piece.

"The Yellow Threat" (02:23)

The Chinese in the East -- barely two hundred in all -- triggered economic and racial hysteria. Labor union leaders discover that they Chinese could be used to mobilize the white working class, and to organize themselves into a powerful political force.

Attacks on Leland Stanford (04:26)

San Francisco’s Denis Kearney found a following in the vacant lots on the city’s west side. His long list of enemies included capitalist bosses, political swindlers and railroad trusts. He was resolved to expel Chinese labor from California.

Anti-Chinese Violence (02:40)

In 1877, in the mining town of Chico, armed white men stormed a cabin and set Chinese workers on fire. The same gangs torched the Chinese laundries of San Francisco in the worst riots in the city’s history.

Exchange and Assimilation (04:15)

Denis Kearney mobilized his own political party and he took his campaign nation-wide in 1878. Yung Wing, representing the Chinese government, spoke out against Kearney. The main targets of Anti-Chinese movements were laborers.

Denis Kearney's Political Party (02:08)

In 1878 Denis Kearney was closely watched by the most ambitious politicians in Washington. Hayes barely won the 1876 election. The anti-Chinese movement was a perfect tool to try and grab the working class vote without having to do anything.

Changing Views on Chinese Immigration (02:16)

One of the most charismatic and skillful politicians of the day was James Blaine, a Republican Senator from Maine. The man once in favor of civil rights embraced the anti-Chinese movement to win the election.

Calls for Chinese Exclusion (01:58)

In 1881 no less than eleven different bills were submitted calling for Chinese exclusion. Senator George Frisbee Hoar talked about the evils of racism and lead the argument in defense of Chinese immigration.

Chinese Exclusion Act (02:28)

Yung Wing was under assault by the nation he'd held as a shining example and his bosses in China. The final blow came when Yung Wing tried to get his students into Annapolis and West Point and the U.S., in violation of treaty, turned him down flat.

Anti-Immigrant Acts (01:48)

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marks the first time that the U.S. banned any group based on race or nationality. Neither Denis Kearney nor James Blaine saw political success. Yung Wing snuck back into the country. Stanford became a senator.

Credits: Gold Mountain Dreams (03:50)

Credits: Gold Mountain Dreams

Snake River Massacre (04:28)

In 1882, the U.S. passed the Exclusion Act to stop Chinese laborers from entering the country and deprive those here of citizenship. That law ushered in the most violent decade in Chinese-American history.

Headquarters of Chinese America (02:34)

In 1895 a German photographer named Arnold Genthe wandered into San Francisco’s Chinatown. He created a visual record of what was the center of the Chinese world in America at the turn of the century.

Chinese Exclusion Act (02:55)

The law barred Chinese laborers, the first time the U.S. excluded immigrants based on nationality or race. Stores were makeshift homes. Letter-writers helped the illiterate write home. Family and tradition pushed the men back to China.

Story of Typical Immigrant Family (05:39)

The Exclusion Act made it impossible for Chinese to have a normal family life inside the U.S. It applied to laborers, but exempted merchants, travelers, and students.

Chinese American (02:13)

Over the years, the Exclusion laws would tighten the grip on those in the U.S. and those who wanted to come. The Scott Act came in 1888. Identity papers had to be carried by the Chinese at all times or they would be subject to deportation.

Chinese American (03:04)

Wong Chin Foo wanted respect in addition to equal rights and new immigration laws. He challenged racial stereotypes and began printing his own newspaper. In 1883 he challenged Dennis Kearney to a duel.

Challenging Anti-Chinese Law (02:13)

Wong Chin Foo vanished after he agitated for the right to vote. The Chinese realized American prides itself on being a country run by law. Court was an open venue because the 14th amendment applied to persons, not just citizens.

Cubic Air Ordinance (03:38)

When arrests were made over a health law only enforced in Chinatown, Chinese men used logic to turn the law on the city by overcrowding the jails. When San Francisco officials sought revenge, Justice Field ruled on the side of the Constitution.

Chinese Activism (02:21)

The Chinese challenged citizenship laws using the 14th amendment which gives citizenship to all born in the country. The Supreme Court ruled that Chinese born in the U.S. were naturalized citizens.

Patriarchal Society (02:50)

The public campaigns that Chinatown waged for freedoms were not intended to include women. Tradition held that a virtuous wife should stay in her Chinese village. The few who broke custom were expected to serve their husbands.

Indentured Servants (02:02)

In the 1880s almost half the women in Chinatown were prostitutes. Gangsters roamed the Chinese countryside looking for parents who were so poor they were willing to sell their daughters. Many did not outlive the terms of their contracts.

Donaldina Cameron's "Mission Girls" (03:42)

Chinese women couldn't turn to the police for help or to law-abiding citizens who were terrorized by the "Tongmen". Their refuge was the Protestant Church and one iron willed missionary assisted by former indentured servant Wu Tien Fu.

Declining Chinese Population (03:57)

The Exclusion Act was renewed every ten years as other immigrant groups came through Ellis Island. Labor leader Samuel Gompers made it a mission to keep the Chinese out of America. In 1902 Congress expanded Exclusion to Hawaii and the Philippines.

Paper Son Citizenship (04:23)

Because the Chinese were excluded from the U.S. they began to sneak into the country dressed as Mexicans or Cubans. When Chinatown burned after the Great San Francisco Earthquake, immigration records disappeared.

Ellis Island of the West (06:39)

Angel Island was a symbol of detention, of interrogation, and of trauma. Chinese arriving in San Francisco were subjected to terrifying interrogations because of paper son immigration. Detainees were kept for months before deportation.

Trapped by Racism and Custom (02:50)

America's progressive period in the 1920s did not affect the Chinese community. The Chinese who made their way into the country were waiters, domestics, and laundrymen who could only communicate with their wives through letters.

Suspended Between Two Countries (02:57)

Almost 50 years into Exclusion many Chinese did not know where to call home. Anna May Wong became a movie star but was cast into stereotypes and limited by racism.

Woman of 1,000 Deaths (02:48)

When movie star Anna May Wong traveled to work and escape racial codes of the U.S., her citizenship status had to be supported by two white witnesses. She had to embrace being a foreigner to be successful in America.

World's Most Visible Chinese American (03:58)

When Anna May Wong could not get the starring role in "The Good Earth" she traveled to China. The roles she had been trapped in as a movie star in America followed her to China. Officials made speeches berating her and she left months later.

New Generation of Chinese Americans (02:49)

For Chinatown, the Great Depression brought more indignity. When college graduates could not get jobs, their parents urged them to go to China. The young would rail against the codes of white society and those of their parents.

Old Generation of Chinese Americans (02:25)

Ark Chin escaped from his family business through education. He was determined to become an engineer, but his family did not believe he would be able to achieve that dream in America where his future was sealed.

Refuting Chinese Culture (02:51)

Jade Snow Wong worked her way through college after her father told her his obligation was to his sons. She remembers taking a sociology class that introduced her to the idea that children in America had rights.

The "Good Asians" (03:36)

After Pearl Harbor, China became an ally of the U.S. Military uniforms brought Chinese Americans the respect they had been waiting for. The labor shortage gave Chinese men and women the opportunity to work alongside white Americans.

Chinese Americans in WWII (02:01)

A bill repealing Exclusion sailed through congress with FDR’s support. This event barely earned a headline. Ark Chin was one of thousands of young replacements thrown into the European front in the winter of ‘44.

A New Era (03:09)

Veterans came home with new rights. Laws were written to allow Chinese citizenship, which meant they could bring in wives. For the first time since the Exclusion Act, the Chinese could have normal family lives and the bachelor culture began to die.

Credits: Between Two Worlds (04:06)

Credits: Between Two Worlds

No Turning Back (02:56)

Of the many Chinese American success stories, one stands out. A contest was held to design the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. When a young college woman won, racism reared its ugly head, but her monument was built.

Legacy of the Exclusion Law (02:22)

Charlie Chin grew up in Queens, New York. He recalls getting much attention on the streets for being one of the only children in Chinatown. The Chinese had been barred from bringing families over. He was one of four Asians in his high school.

Lost Generation of China (03:36)

In the early 1950s Chinese began to slip away from Chinatowns. Helen Zia and her family were among the first to move to Levittown, New Jersey. Her father had a degree from St. John’s University in Shanghai, but had to take odd jobs in the U.S.

Chinese American Shame (02:19)

While Helen Zia was growing up her father ran what he called a "baby novelty" business. She and her siblings were the labor. She remembers his voice would change when he sold his products. He earned enough to raise his large family.

Searching for Communist Sympathizers (02:45)

In the 1950s, China was the enemy. Mao’s troops were fighting in North Korea, killing American GI’s, and Chinese-Americans felt the chill. Helen Zia and Charlie Chin recall visits from the FBI. Zia's father had written“ The U.S. got Red China All Wrong.”

Trying to Fit In (03:59)

During the McCarthy years Chinese were moving toward the mainstream with a cloud of suspicion hanging over them. This is illustrated with the story of Shawn Wong and his family. He and Helen Zia recall being taunted by other kids.

Communist China (04:07)

Like most immigrants in American history, Benny Pan's dream grew out of the sheer misery of life in his homeland. He attended St. John’s University before Mao took over. Immigration to the U.S. nearly dropped to zero as the borders were closed.

Lost Decade in China (02:20)

In 1967, as Mao’s Cultural Revolution reached fever pitch, anyone with ties to the West could be denounced, held, and interrogated. Benny Pan's diaries and family pictures were burned. He was separated from his family and sent to menial labor.

Chinese American in 1960 (02:59)

The election of JFK brought a wave of hope to minorities. On the weekends Charlie Chin and his friends would go to Greenwich Village where young people tasted intellectual, political, philosophical and sexual freedoms for the first time.

Asian American Identity (03:21)

Charlie Chin marched on Washington on the side of those fighting injustice in the Civil Rights Movement. Helen Zia recalls being told she must decide whether she was black or white. She fought tradition to go to college.

Discovering Chinese American History (02:57)

Shawn Wong was in college in the Bay Area when students invented the term “Asian- American.” That was 1968, the year of bitter strikes to win courses in black and Asian history. Students visited Angel Island, the old detention center of the Exclusion Era.

New Face of Chinatown (02:12)

When the new, more liberal immigration laws went into effect in 1968 Chinese families began coming to the U.S. from urban areas of China. This was different from those who came straight from post-feudal China. Regional cuisines appeared.

Cultural Revolution (02:38)

The People's Republic of China and its borders were still tightly policed when Nixon went to China in 1972. Like thousands of others, Benny Pan still lived under virtual house arrest. A year after Nixon's visit Pan sent a letter to his sister in the U.S.

Murder of Vincent Chin (03:30)

Helen Zia graduated in Princeton's first class of women. She was accepted to medical school but dropped out. In 1982 Detroit there was resentment toward everything Japanese because of the struggling auto industry.

Asian American Advocacy Group (03:36)

Light sentences given to Vincent Chin's murderers stunned the Asian community. Helen Zia spoke out against the injustice. This led to one of the first federal prosecutions of a civil rights case on behalf of an Asian American.

Changing Chinese American Population (02:55)

Chinese Americans divided. The poor and working class clustered in the old Chinatowns, The more educated went for the mainstream. Jerry Yang is co-founder of Yahoo. He left Taiwan in 1978.

Chinese American Emphasis on Education (03:12)

Jean Tang’s family arrived in America in 1978. She recalls helping her parents write checks and shop. Like many new immigrants they turned to relatives for help. There was pressure to succeed so the children would not have to live like their parents.

Family Tradition of Shame (02:55)

Michelle Ling’s Mother was middle-class, but she instilled in her children that in order to succeed they must become doctors or lawyers. Ling recalls the guilt that came with getting a B on her report card in a home where her parent's authority governed.

Tight Chinese Communities (03:17)

Jean Tang and her parents moved to Arcadia, CA when it was a mostly white suburb because of its outstanding school district. Parents gathered and bragged about their children who learned to be competitive with one another.

Model Minorities (04:02)

Michelle Ling and Jean Tang discuss the obligation of success. Academic stereotypes were rooted in truth. In 1988 Asians were 3% of all Americans, 15% of students at Harvard, 20% at Stanford and M.I.T, and a third of students at Berkeley.

Many Chinese American Worlds (03:01)

In 1990 there were 1.6 million Chinese in America. They included illegal and political immigrants and Chinatown laborers, trapped and exploited by other Chinese. Benny Pan made it to the U.S. where he was reunited with his sister and daughter.

Internet Revolution (03:04)

By the 1990s Chinese American success stories were everywhere. Jerry Yang cofounded Yahoo. Jean Tang talks about her success reflecting on her parents. She believes they should reap the rewards for their investment in her and her brother.

Choosing Cultural Identity (02:52)

Michelle Ling's parents were shocked when she chose to step off the "model minority" track after being groomed for it all her life. She says the American dream means she can decide who she is.

New Image of Asians (02:53)

Charlie Chin calls himself a byproduct of the old Chinatown. Shawn Wong became head of the English Department at the UW in Seattle, where Chinese-Americans in positions of influence became common.

American Dream Realized (03:57)

Benny Pan settled in New York and became an American citizen in 1999. Helen Zia asked her father how he felt about his children; he responded that they were all too American. She traveled back to his hometown.

Credits: No Turning Back (03:29)

Credits: No Turning Back

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Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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What does it mean to become American? What is lost and what is gained in the process? In interviews with historians, descendants, and recent immigrants, this set of powerful Bill Moyers documentaries explores these questions through the dramatic experience of the Chinese in America. Includes Gold Mountain Dreams, Between Two Worlds, and No Turning Back. (254 minutes)

Length: 255 minutes

Item#: BVL36510

ISBN: 978-1-4213-5800-0

Copyright date: ©2003

Closed Captioned

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