Chinese Exclusion in the Past and Present: Chinese Immigration and the Process of "Othering"

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Chinese migration memorials in the United States have forever been shaped by the discrimination dealt to Chinese through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As the first piece of legislation restricting immigration to the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act set a restrictive precedent for future immigration policies. Though the Chinese Exclusion Act is long gone, this does not mean that discrimination against Chinese immigrants doesn't still hold true today. I argue that the existence of more physical spaces, including more memorials, for Chinese ethnic communities “others” Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans from the rest of American society. Though the definition of "othering" differs from scholar to scholar, the core definition remains the same: a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities (Powell, et al.). As Chinese immigrants attempt to retain their own cultures and history through the development of memorials and ever more expansive Chinatowns, outsiders have a more concrete way to “other” Chinese immigrants. This phenomenon is an example of the difficult balancing act that immigrant communities have to undertake in the United States: retain one's culture through the construction of more immigrant-specific spaces or assimilate more readily into American society.


A memorial dedicated to Chinese-Americans, with specific focus on how the Chinese Exclusion Act has shaped the experience of Chinese immigrants.

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In 1882, the United States Congress passed the first federal immigration law to bar immigrants of a particular nationality. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a landmark piece of legislation that stemmed from anti-Chinese sentiment. Proponents of the act made such statements as

"If we continue to permit the introduction of this strange people, with their peculiar civilization, until they form a considerable part of our population, what is to be the effect upon the American people and Anglo-Saxon civilization? Can they meet half way, and so merge in a mongrel race, half Chinese and half Caucasian, as to produce a civilization half pagan, half Christian, semi-oriental, altogether mixed and very bad?"

-Senator John Franklin Miller (13 Cong. Rec. 28 Feb. 1882)

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the anti-Chinese sentiment that it supported, fostered an environment of Chinese discrimination. However, it wasn't until over a century later that monuments memorializing this discrimination came into fruition. Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, an exhibit established in 2014 at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, focuses on the Chinese Exclusion Act and its impacts on Chinese immigration and Chinese immigrants already residing within the United States. This trend of memorials commemorating certain discriminatory events long after the fact is not limited to Chinese Americans - one need only to look at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a 2018 memorial dedicated to lynching victims. What has triggered this recent development of the construction of memorials, and how does this relate to othering? The answer has to do with collective memory, a term coined by Maurice Halbwachs. Collective memory is briefly defined as the memory held by a society, often significantly influenced by that society's identity. Recently, society has shifted towards the belief that memorials are important in collective memory, especially the memory of distressing events such as discriminatory or racist practices. However, the memorializing of discriminatory events, while important for the development of collective memory, discreetly "others" specific groups. The memorials themselves focus on how groups have been "othered" by society. The focus of Chinese Americans on detailing how American society has "othered" Chinese immigrants in the past is itself another form of "othering." The construction of memorials provides a geographical basis for the further separation of Chinese Americans from American society, a point that is further elaborated by the expanding development of Chinatowns. 

This large Chinese archway, located in Chinatown, is an example of how the construction of physical spaces meant specifically for Chinese immigrants works to "other" Chinese Americans from American society, even though the monument itself was designed to commemorate the friendship between the United States and China.

The idea that the construction of separate physical spaces increases "othering" is not a new concept. In Chuo Li's analysis of the postwar redevelopment of San Francisco's Chinatown, she argues that the very architecture and planning of a separate physical space meant specifically for the Chinese in a large American city contributed to its social construction as a space of "otherness." 

Conflict and political battles over space in Chinatown generated and reinforced group identity. Chinatown, as an insurgent sociopolitical space, has contained the distinct cultural values and economic purposes of the marginal groups. Ethnicity became a mobilizing force that enabled group politicization and helped the community to retain autonomy within its urban habitat. The act of political mobilization to defend the social needs of Chinese immigrants from the state’s imposition of the growth machine strengthened group identity and empowered the community in its political endeavors. In this way, “minoritized space,” a notion stated by Laguere as a mechanism of the hegemonic power of the dominant group, also empowered the subaltern minority who developed it as an infrastructural basis of resistance and ultimately support (Li).

When Chinatowns are constructed, as spaces built by and for Chinese communities, Chinese people are contributing to their own segregation. ​They "other" themselves with their own communities that are Chinese-friendly and completely foreign to outsiders. Not only are these communities spatially removed from the cities they reside in, but they are almost completely inaccessible to any non-Chinese people. Every sign, every menu, every product is in Chinese, with only a few English words scattered throughout. For the most part, everyone in a Chinatown is Chinese and speaks Chinese. Of course this is the case, since it is a Chinatown, after all. However, to an outsider looking in, their stereotypes and understanding of Chinese Americans is extremely limited to what the Chinatown presents. An outsider is provided with a concrete space dedicated to Chinese people to further "other" them with. The increased development and existence of Chinatowns in the 21st century contributes to collective memory. 

Writers and historians often have a strong abstract awareness of the interconnections of space, time, memory and recollection, but geographers tend to pursue doggedly, and in far greater detail, the precise ways in which memory becomes embedded in the actual, physical landscape, through the daily habits and movements associated with specific buildings, walkways, monuments, and vistas (Mitchell).

The "othering" of Chinese immigrants has changed over time. In the early history of the United States, the federal government "othered" Chinese immigrants by specifically barring their immigration to the United States. Now, Chinese immigrants "other" themselves, though not on purpose, through the development of separate physical spaces to retain their own identity. Even though discrimination against Chinese immigrants is not as severe as it was in the past, the existence of separate physical spaces for Chinese immigrants still leads to some forms of discrimination. In fact, Shimpi argues that discrimination against Chinese immigrants has not changed much over time:

In this manuscript, we examine the single case of Chinese American immigration in the United States over a 150-year period to explore how conversations and debates about immigration and immigrants have changed over time. We find remarkably little change in the valence of these conversations (see also Mullen, 2001) or in the precise content of the depictions of Chinese Americans over time. A detailed analysis of depictions and conversations about Chinese Americans in a variety of contexts reveals that European Americans often describe them as: (1) self-segregating, (2) lacking loyalty to the United States, and (3) hardworking and successful, but simultaneously lacking in “humanity" (Mariana Shimpi).

​My argument focuses mainly on self-segregation, a point that Shimpi stresses as an aspect of Chinese-American culture that is influenced by both Chinese immigrants and Americans:

Accusations of self-segregation often co-occurred with the 19th and early 20th century beliefs, laws, and larger social practices which excluded Chinese from European American social, political, educational, and economic institutions. Chinese were described as “distinct, separate, segregated, in all things alien to the United States as would be the inhabitants of another world” (Whitney, 1988, p. 135). As a result of these attitudes, they were driven to live, work, and attend schools among themselves, rather than being able to spread out and assimilate within the dominant culture (Lee, 2007; Wing, 2007).

How do Chinese Americans want to be remembered in society? Increasingly, the answer seems to lean towards the 'Chinese' part rather than the 'American' part. However, it's important to remember that the self-segregation of Chinese-Americans from the rest of American society was preceded by segregation of Chinese-Americans from the rest of American society by American society itself. Once American society made their discrimination against Chinese-Americans clear, Chinese-Americans began to look inward and separate themselves from American society. The only way to remember their own culture and history was to retreat inward, forge their own histories, and tip the scales towards their 'Chinese' identity rather than their 'American' identity. Memorials and separate physical spaces meant for immigrant communities are important to preserve culture and history, but they also "other" communities. It's an unavoidable aspect of being an immigrant, and a constant balancing act of the identities on either side of the hyphen. 

Works Cited

13 Cong. Rec. 28 Feb. 1882: 1481-85.

Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Translated by Lewis A. Coser, The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Li, Chuo. “Postwar Urban Redevelopment and the Politics of Exclusion: The Case of San Francisco’s Chinatown.” Journal of Planning History, vol. 18, no. 1, December 2018, pp.

27–43. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/1538513218755043.

Library of Congress. "Chinese Exclusion Act." The Library of Congress, 25 Apr. 2017,

Mariana Shimpi, Priya, and Sabrina Zirkel. “One Hundred and Fifty Years of ‘The Chinese Question’: An Intergroup Relations Perspective on Immigration and Globalization.”

Journal of Social Issues, vol. 68, no. 3, September 2012, pp. 534–558. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2012.01762.x.

Mitchell, Katharyne. "Monuments, Memorials, and the Politics of Memory." Urban Geography, vol. 24, no. 5, 2003, pp. 442-459. Taylor & Francis Online, doi:10.2747/0272-3638.24.5.442.

Powell, John A., and Stephen Menendian. "The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging." Othering & Belonging, issue 1, Summer 2016,