Resilience & Resistance on the 140th anniversary of the CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT
by Eddie Wong. Posted May 4, 2022
I’ve been busy over the past few months working with old and new friends in San Francisco Chinatown to develop plans to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT, which was signed by President Chester Arthur on May 6, 1882. All of the people in the Commemoration Committee are extremely busy with their work in art and culture organizations, civil rights groups, and other community work, but we all set aside time to work on memorializing this date because of a deep love for our ancestors whose hard work, sacrifice and devotion to the future generations enabled us to be here today. To us, history is not just a set of facts in dusty tomes. It’s a living and breathing entity because we are tied to it by blood. Their sacrifices will not be in vain. The legacy of hate from the CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT should not be swept aside or forgotten. Foremost in my mind was the desire to lift up themes of resilience and resistance.
May 3 Commemoration Committee press conference. L-R: Felicia Lowe, Mabel Teng, Stephan Xie, Ed Tepporn, Jenny Leung, Summer Mei Ling Lee, Esther Leong, and Sandra Lew Fewer. Photo by Eddie Wong.
Resilience is used often these days because we have had to employ it just to survive four years of Trump and a devastating pandemic. Willing ourselves to “bounce back” from the depths of anxiety and fear has been a touchstone for humankind. And for our Chinese American ancestors in the U.S., it certainly took resilience to regroup after the “driving out” from towns, rural communities, and grub-stake mines. We suffered, but we survived. We are suffering today as anti-Asian hate continues unabated. Being resilient means that we refuse to live in fear and must confront the deep-seated causes of racial hate and xenophobia in our society.
Resistance is not recognized sufficiently in popular accounts of Chinese American history. At every step of the way, Chinese communities took legal action to assert their rights to work and form communities. They didn’t always win, but they fought back through the courts. And often times, they armed themselves just like everyone else did in the wild, Wild West. Today, resistance takes the form of standing together with all people who recognize that dismantling structural inequality is key to understanding racism.
As our coalition met via zoom to discuss appropriate ways to commemorate the lives of our ancestors, a wealth of creative ideas bubbled up and coalesced around several activities. There was a clear intent to pay homage to those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand today. Thus, on Friday, May 6, there will be a candle lighting ceremony at the Angel Island Immigration Station barracks. There will also be a wreath laying at the Chinese Immigrant Monument that overlooks China Cove.
In the following short video clips from our May 3 press conference, you will hear directly from the passionate and visionary organizers of our commemorative events.
We also felt the need to bring our stories out to the public and outside of Chinatown. Thus, Felicia Lowe, a renown filmmaker and activist, approached the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture to collaborate on large-scale video projections on the surface of Building B on May 6 from 8 pm to 10 pm. Throughout the month of May rear-projected videos and images will be featured on the windows on the Guard House that sits at the entrance of the Fort Mason parking lot.
Holding a community event in the heart of SF Chinatown to bring together young and old, foreign-born and American-born, and people of all nationalities was another priority. On Saturday, May 7 from 11 am to 1 pm, several community and youth speakers will address the meaning of the Chinese Exclusion Act today. After the speakers, we will screen two short films by Felicia Lowe “What’s Your Real Name?” and a 20-min Chinese subtitled version of her classic “Carved in Silence.”
The day culminates with a communal ritual created by artists Summer Mei Ling Lee and Stephan Xie entitled “In Honor of Our Belonging.” Priests from the Lotus Taoist Institute will perform a blessing ceremony as we gather on the pedestrian bridge that connects the Chinese Culture Center with Portsmouth Square fondly known as Chinatown’s living room. Angel Island descendants, youth, and community leaders will read aloud 140 names of people whose lives were impacted by the CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT. After the reading, we will walk across the bridge holding incense, photographs of ancestors, and flowers which will be placed at a temporary community altar in Portsmouth Square. I will proudly carry my father’s Certificate of Identity from 1929 and remember his strength and anger, things I didn’t understand as a child.
Musician Francis Wong will perform as the priests conclude with a brief ceremony at the altar. An open mic session will be available for people who wish to speak about their family stories.
This ends the May activities, but our commemoration continues on June 18 with “The Conversation from Vincent Chin to George Floyd,” a youth conference that continues the discourse on racism, xenophobia and white supremacy in our society. In July, the youth conference will continue with artwork and creative expression.
This ambitious set of activities challenges us as a community to step up and speak out. These are first steps in an ongoing journey to build alliances to achieve common goals of social justice. At a time when the extreme right tries to erase a critical evaluation of our nation’s abysmal treatment of women, people of color, and marginalized and persecuted groups, we are standing strong for inclusion and our right to be heard.