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America’s shameful Chinese Exclusion Act now largely forgottenChinese Exclusion Act passed by US Congress in 1882 stayed on the books until 1943, while Australia and Canada had similar lawsAssociated Press in Pittsburgh30 November 2014Most Americans know about the United States’ history of slavery and the later internment of Japanese-Americans in special camps during the Second World War.But what is less well known is that for more than 60 years, the US officially excluded an entire ethnic group - Chinese immigrants, who were seen as a threat to native workers.The Chinese Exclusion Act, as it came to be known, was passed by Congress in 1882 and was not lifted until 1943, when politicians acted partly out of embarrassment over the fact that China was a US ally in the Second World War.While the law kept many Chinese out of the United States, certain immigrants could get in, especially if they had money to start a business.One of those early arrivals was Hoy Fung, who set up what may have been the first Chinese restaurant in the Pittsburgh region, the Bellevue Tea Garden in Bellevue, Pennsylvania, which operated from 1926 to 1997, said his daughter, Karen Yee.The legacy of official discrimination against the Chinese is one reason that Yee became involved in the 1970s with the Organisation of Chinese Americans, now known simply as OCA.Another OCA activist is Ted Gong, a retired State Department employee who helped set up the 1882 Foundation to educate people about the exclusion act.In an interview this year in Washington, Gong said the exclusion act was preceded by many discriminatory local laws in California and other west coast states where most Chinese immigrants first settled.“In California, for instance, if you carried your laundry and delivered it on poles, you would be taxed more than for wagon deliveries, which was clearly aimed at Chinese laundries,” he said.Many Chinese men went to the United States to help build the western part of the transcontinental railroad.After that was completed in 1869, the nation fell into a recession, and there were suddenly 10,000 unemployed railroad workers on the west coast, said Roger Daniels, an emeritus professor at the University of Cincinnati who wrote the 2004 book Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882.Because of earlier anti-prostitution laws that were largely aimed at Chinese women, the Chinese immigrants were mostly male, said Gong, and they were seen as a threat to the locals.While the exclusion act barred “skilled and unskilled labourers and Chinese employed in mining” from entering the US, the treaty provisions that allowed merchants and some others into the country meant the law was in essence fraudulent, Daniels said, because it “really just ended immigration of Chinese labourers”.In the 1920s, Yee said, it was common for Chinese families to send one son abroad to earn money to send back to China, and her father took on that role.Discriminatory laws against the Chinese were not just a US phenomenon, Gong said. Australia had one of the most severe anti-Chinese laws. It included a literacy test, and allowed an immigration officer to test the applicant in any language he chose.Canada, before it passed an exclusion law, charged a head tax on all Chinese immigrants. The tax reached C$500 in 1903 - the equivalent of nearly C$13,000 (HK$88,500) today.In 2012, Gong and others got the US Congress to approve a resolution apologising for the American exclusion act.
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