Segments in this Video

Introduction: Chinese Exclusion Act (11:12)


President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882. It made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America and for Chinese nationals that were already here to become citizens. It would be enforced for 60 years.

Chinese Immigration Factors (09:57)

Geographer Aaron Palmer surveyed the West Coast and submitted a report to President James Polk in 1848 recommending the importation of Chinese labor. It was a time of turmoil in China, thanks to the opium trade and the Taiping Rebellion. The discovery of gold in California sparked a wave of immigration.

Chinese Community Grows (07:28)

The first named Chinese immigrant to arrive in California was a merchant named Yuan Sheng who had changed his name to Norman Asing. More than 20,000 Chinese had arrived in San Francisco by 1852. They were tolerated at first but became targets of anti-foreign resentment as white gold claims dried up.

Growing Xenophobia (07:15)

The Chinese were viewed as another race problem in a nation already struggling with slavery. As governor of California, John Bigler promoted the ugly stereotype of Chinese “coolies” and pushed for legislation restricting their rights. In 1857, the Supreme Court handed down its infamous Dred Scott Decision.

Chinese Question (11:57)

Wartime initiatives strengthened ties between China and America and increased the flow of Chinese immigrants. The Pacific Railway Act cleared the way for a transcontinental railroad which formerly unemployed Chinese miners helped build. Anti-Chinese xenophobia went from a regional to national issue.

Violence Erupts (13:33)

Southern Planters considered importing Chinese workers to replace freed slaves at the Memphis Convention of 1869. Chinese were brought in to break strikes in eastern cities, and they were vilified as “servile automatons” in the press. Eighteen Chinese were killed by a lynch mob in Los Angeles.

Anti-Chinese Laws (07:46)

In California, local ordinances were passed to harass the Chinese. By 1875, the political dynamic in America had begun to shift, and the Democrats galvanized their base with the issue of Chinese labor. Congress passed the Page Act of 1875, which targeted Chinese without specifically naming them.

Chinese Denied Citizenship (12:04)

The collapse of Reconstruction paved the way to roll back civil rights gains of the Civil War. Chinese became targets of the Workingmen’s Party and more race riots. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. and becoming citizens.

Tape Family (03:36)

In 1864, a 12-year-old boy from Guangdong arrived in San Francisco, hoping to make a new life for himself. He worked as a house servant, drove a milk wagon, and eventually changed his name to Joseph Tape. His wife, Mary, had been rescued from likely prostitution by missionaries.

Race Riots and Mass Murder (12:29)

The Chinese Exclusion Act ushered in an era of violence and brutality towards Chinese Americans and all people of color that was almost without precedent in American history. White mobs drove Chinese immigrants from Eureka, California, Tacoma, Washington and elsewhere.

Protest and Legal Challenges (12:11)

The Statue of Liberty’s unveiling in 1886 stirred up complex feelings in Chinese-Americans, including Saum Song Bo. Wong Chin Foo started a newspaper and organized the first Chinese-American civil rights organization. Other activists turned to the courts, citing the 14th Amendment.

Further Legal Restrictions (05:37)

Chinese-Americans who visited China had been allowed to come back to the U.S. if they obtained a return certificate prior to leaving. Then Congress passed the Scott Act, rendering those certificates null and void in 1888. Activists organized boycotts around the later Geary Act.

Birthright Citizenship Precedent (07:39)

Wong Kim Ark had visited China multiple times before being denied re-entry into the U.S. in 1894. Ark took his case before the Supreme Court, which cited the 14th Amendment in ruling that he, like anyone else born on U.S. soil, was an American citizen.

Disaster, "Paper Sons," and Detention (11:37)

The tribulations of Chinese-Americans in California were compounded by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which leveled America’s largest and oldest Chinatown. City Hall’s birth records were destroyed, creating a boom in document forgery. A new detention center was built on Angel Island in 1910.

Immigration Severely Restricted (04:05)

In 1917, Congress created an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” a region of banned nationalities that included every Asian nation east of Turkey and west of the islands of Japan. In 1921, the government extended restrictions to southern and eastern Europeans. A 1924 law established an immigration quota system.

Magnuson Act (06:02)

During World War 2, Japanese propaganda cited the Chinese Exclusion Act as justification for other Asian countries to join their fight against the U.S. Congress repealed exclusion laws in 1943, though a mere 105 Chinese immigrants were allowed to immigrate each year.

Chinese-Americans and Cold War (01:55)

The exclusion era would come back to haunt Chinese-Americans in unexpected ways, especially during the rise of Communist China. Chinatowns were put under surveillance following the Chinese Revolution. The Chinese Confession Program was established in 1956, encouraging Chinese-Americans to name names.

Stance on Immigration Softens (04:08)

A sea change in immigration policy began to occur in the 1950s and 1960s. John F. Kennedy published “A Nation of Immigrants,” which advocated reform. The Hart-Cellar Act was passed in 1965, removing national race-based quotas and causing Asian immigration to skyrocket.

Legacy of Xenophobic Laws (05:56)

As the realities of the Chinese Exclusion Act faded from public memory, the country preferred to think of itself as having always welcomed immigrants. House Resolution 683 was passed in 2012, apologizing for the passage of exclusionary laws that harmed Chinese-Americans.

Credits: The Chinese Exclusion Act (03:29)

Credits: The Chinese Exclusion Act

For additional digital leasing and purchase options contact a media consultant at 800-257-5126
(press option 3) or

The Chinese Exclusion Act

3-Year Streaming Price: $509.95



On May 6th, 1882—on the eve of the greatest wave of immigration in American history—President Chester A. Arthur signed into law a unique piece of federal legislation. Called the Chinese Exclusion Act, it singled out as never before a specific race and nationality for exclusion, making it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America, and for Chinese nationals already here ever to become citizens of the United States. It is a deeply American story about immigration and national identity, civil rights and human justice; about how we define who can be an American, and what being an American means. The film examines the economic, cultural, social, legal, racial and political dimensions of the law; the forces and events that gave rise to it; and the effect it had, and continues to have, on American culture and identity. The Chinese Exclusion Act explores in riveting detail this little known, yet deeply resonant and revealing episode in American history—one that sheds enormous light on key aspects of the history of American civil liberties, immigration, and culture—during one of the most formative periods of U.S. history.

Length: 161 minutes

Item#: BVL188566

Copyright date: ©2018

Closed Captioned

Performance Rights

Prices include public performance rights.

Not available to Home Video, Dealer and Publisher customers.