Chinese American Transnationalism: The Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era

By Sucheng Chan | Go to book overview

1
Defying Exclusion: Chinese Immigrants
and Their Strategies During
the Exclusion Era

ERIKA LEE

The reason we Chinese come to the United States is because of … extremity
at home, we have no other method by which we can keep our bodies and
souls together. Should we be blocked in this … will our calamity not be
inexpressible?1

Chinese Six Companies, May 2, 1910

DURING THE CHINESE EXCLUSION ERA, prospective Chinese immigrants faced a most difficult dilemma. While largely prohibited from immigrating to the United States by the Chinese exclusion laws, they also faced increasing economic, political, and social instability at home.2 As the Chinese Six Companies, the umbrella organization for Chinese immigrant kinship and mutual benefit organizations in America, made clear in 1910, migration to the United States was essential in “keeping body and soul together” and in sustaining families both in the United States and in China. Chinese were thus highly motivated to continue to gain entry into America. Because of the immigrants' determination and ingenuity, the Chinese exclusion acts failed to end Chinese immigration altogether. During the exclusion era (1882–1943), an estimated 300,955 Chinese successfully gained admission into the United States for the first time or as returning residents and U.S.-born citizens. In fact, the number of exclusion-era Chinese admissions was greater than during the pre–exclusion era, from 1849 to 1882, when 258,210 Chinese entered the United States.3 That so many managed to enter despite the exclusion laws is truly significant. It raises questions about the efficacy of restrictive immigration laws and demonstrates the power of immigrant resistance and agency.

Once the original Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, the restrictions on Chinese immigration grew increasingly rigid over the course of the entire exclusion period. New laws were passed and administrative regulations were strengthened to make entry even more difficult for the Chinese who continued to seek admission into the country. By the

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