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May 6: The Chinese Exclusion Act

May 5, 2016

d7348b276f38bc340409f1705c35c412_1MPresident Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act on this date in 1882. The law shut down for ten years the immigration of Chinese laborers that had begun during the California Gold Rush of 1848 and the building of the transcontinental railroad. The restriction would be extended in ten year chunks until 1902, when it was made permanent. According to Scott D. Seligman in the Forward, “The Jewish press had opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act from the start, and Jews had spoken up during the debate preceding its permanent extension in 1902. Max Kohler, former U.S. assistant district attorney, had called Chinese exclusion ‘the most un-American, inhuman, barbarous, oppressive system of procedure that can be encountered in any civilized land today.’ For Jews, exclusion was not only a moral issue but also a pragmatic one, because what had been done to Chinese could also be done to Jews.” A quartet of Chinese leaders in New York tried to cultivate this solidarity by organizing a relief benefit for the victims of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom with a show at the Chinese Theatre. “The actors, who donated their services,” writes Seligman, “were prevailed upon to give three performances in the 500-seat auditorium to satisfy all comers, and enjoyed a record number of curtain calls. The play, a drama titled ‘The 10 Lost Tribes,’ was not about destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, but rather subjugation of Chinese by the Manchus in the Ch’ing Dynasty. After the benefit, which raised $280 (about $7,100 in 2011 dollars), Singleton threw a banquet at Mon Lay Won — popularly known as the Chinese Delmonico’s — an upscale Chinatown restaurant.”

“Proximity [on the Lower East Side] and shared victimhood notwithstanding, an alliance between the two groups never really developed much beyond these efforts, and the event was forgotten before long. But even if all it amounted to was a single night when one persecuted people reached out to another, it was no less an extraordinary — and unexpected — gesture of solidarity.” —Scott D. Seligman, The Forward