Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"The Chinese Exclusion Act", PBS

Last night this program, as part of the American Experience series, had its initial showing on PBS.  As a history program about Chinese immigrants in the 19th century and beyond, it was informative and will no doubt be valuable in classrooms for years to come.  It was watched intently here.  Much of the time while watching, it was hard not to think about how much better this program could have been.  For those who were enamored, this may seem like nitpicking but here goes.

The program was incessantly repetitive, in stories and in the photos meant to bring life to the narrative.  The soundtrack was intensely grim and had little nuance while adding huge dose of melodrama that was not needed.  Yes, this was a "grim" subject and one that documented unfair, exploitive, and racist treatment of the Chinese as they arrived on the west coast in small numbers from the 1840's and onward.  The racism was institutionalized by Congress in the Exclusion Act in 1882 at around the same time that the attitude toward freed slaves began to deteriorate.

In telling this story, the Democratic and Republican parties were at odds on issues, but to me it would be difficult for a viewer who was not especially familiar with the era to have any idea what those parties represented at that time, yes a nitpick but a big one it seems.

The idea here is definitely not to relay the history.  Just for that the program is worth watching.  Moving to the 20th century the program reflected some strange biases and here's an example that was aggravating.  In talking about progress for the Chinese in the mid-20th century, the program highlighted some statement by President Kennedy.  There is no memory of or well known record of that at all.  The program was correct to point out the efforts made by President Roosevelt as the Chinese were necessary allies against the Japanese.  However it completely ignored Harry Truman, who actually did something more than talk.

In 1948 when Mao took over in China, there were 5000 Chinese students in the United States on visas for college attendance.  Permanent immigration for Chinese was only minimally allowed at that time.  Under Truman, these students were deemed to be at risk if they returned to the newly Communist country, so they were allowed to stay(Kathy's parents were two of them).

In 1973 Nixon went to China, of course, and some formal relationship began.  In 1979 China began to allow visitors(tourists) for carefully monitored small friendship tours(my parents were on one).  Beginning in 1980,  American citizens of Chinese descent were allowed to begin applying to bring over relatives who were considered to be at risk or had been treated harshly.  Reagan allowed that immigration(Kathy's mother brought over five of her siblings and their families in the following ten years).

The documentary mentioned none of this, just a still fashionable shout out to Kennedy who did nothing.  That was truly annoying.

So mixed reviews here for a well meaning documentary.


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