Review: Forbidden Citizens: Chinese Exclusion and the US Congress: A Legislative History

I was sent an advance review copy of Martin B. Gold‘s Forbidden Citizens: Chinese Exclusion and the US Congress: A Legislative History several months ago but did not have the time to write this review until after the book was published. Gold is a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling in Washington, DC. The firm acted as pro bono counsel for Chinese American groups pressing Congress to apologize for the Chinese Exclusion Act. (The House of Representatives¬†apologized in June.) This book is the result of Gold’s research in building the case.

The book, weighing in at just shy of 500 pages, is not an easy read. In fact, I doubt Gold meant it to be read cover to cover. Using the Congressional Record as his primary source, the author goes into great detail about the debates that happened in both the House and the Senate. Nearly half of the text consists of direct quotations from the Record of the things congressmen said during these debates. Unsurprisingly, many of the things they said were not very nice. For example:

“I deny, therefore, that the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States requires us to admit to naturalization Chinese, or cannibals, or Indians, or anybody, except as in our judgment their admission to political rights may comport with the best interest of the nation.” – Senator George Wiliams (Republican-Oregon), later Attorney General of the United States. 41st Congress, 2nd Session (1870) (p. 1)

I was quite struck by the similarities between the Chinese Exclusion Act and current anti-immigrant legislation in the US, such as Arizona’s draconian SB 1070.

In 1892, the ten-year exclusion policy would expire unless renewed. Congress passed the Geary Act, which extended the policy for ten more years; required Chinese to carry certificates of residence that established their right to be in the United States; rendered Chinese who did not have such papers presumptively deportable; denied Chinese who were arrested for deportation the right to bail in habeas corpus proceedings; and declared that paperless Chinese who attempted to prove eligibility in court would need the corroborating testimony of at least one credible white witness. These unprecedented requirements applied to no one other than Chinese persons. (p. 270, emphasis mine)

Of particular interest to readers of this blog is the chapter on the amendments of 1884, which clarified that Chinese persons originating from Hong Kong, Singapore, and other regions outside of the Qing Empire would also be barred from entry. Barclay Henley (Democrat-California) noted in the debate on May 3, 1884 that the Chinese were a pest all over the world: the British were struggling to keep them out of Canada and Australia, and the Spanish could not get them out of the Philippines.

“In connection with every civilized country on earth, they have always made themselves offensive, and every country in the world where they are now to be found in any considerable numbers is making an effort for their deportation or expulsion.” (p. 213)

What this book lacked in readability, it made up for in juicy quotes like the ones above. I would have liked a more extensive general overview of the Act and of the general historical context of this time period before diving in to the nitty gritty of the debates. I also find some of Gold’s assumptions in the commentary to be rather problematic. For example:

“Freed from the burdens of these unjust laws, Chinese-Americans have prospered in the United States. A people Congress claimed couldn’t assimilate have assimilated so well that it’s hard to find the evidence of past discrimination against Chinese in America.” (p. xix)

The word assimilation, unfortunately, does not have a very well-defined meaning, even in the academic literature. The lay usage in the US would take it to mean the adoption of “mainstream” white American culture and language at the expense of the heritage culture and language. We might want to reconsider whether this cultural shift is indeed as positive and valuable as we assume it to be.

Aside from this academic issue, I find fault with the assumption that Chinese Americans as a whole have prospered in the US (the socioeconomic diversity of the community means very unequal opportunities) and with the assumption that “it’s hard to find the evidence of past discrimination.” Does current discrimination not stem in part from past injustices?

Commentary of this sort is limited and should not detract from the core of the text, which is a thorough summary of Congressional debate on Chinese exclusion. I can see this working well as a starting point for research or as a textbook in a US history or Asian American studies course.

Gold, Martin B. 2012. Forbidden Citizens: Chinese Exclusion and the US Congress: A Legislative History. Alexandria, VA: TheCapitol.Net.

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