Documentary on Chinese Exclusion Act provides insights into immigration

The keys to understanding current issues on immigration, citizenship, and labor might be found in radical legislation enacted in the United States more than 100 years ago.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act is the only federal legislation to single out and name a specific race and nationality for exclusion from immigration and citizenship. The legislation, which was in place for more than 60 years, exposed Chinese Americans to forced registration, segregation and violence.

Chinese registration photo
“The Chinese Exclusion Act” guides viewers through the hardships and racial animosities that Chinese Americans faced throughout the duration of the law, including educational segregation, forced registration, and lynchings.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison will host two uncut screenings of “The Chinese Exclusion Act.” The first showing will be on Monday, April 24 at 6 p.m. in Union South’s Marquee Cinema and will be followed by a discussion with Co-directors Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu of Steeplechase Films. The second screening will be held on Wednesday, April 26 in Room L150 of the Conrad A. Elvehjem Building. These Madison screenings will precede the May 2017 debut of the film on the PBS series, the American Experience.

The documentary exposes connections between the Chinese Exclusion Act and the history of American civil liberties and immigration. Experts explore how social, political, economic and cultural circumstances paved the way for legislation that continues to impact attitudes on race, culture, and identity in America.

“The issues discussed in the film are relevant to today’s national conversation, and the filmmakers are to be credited for reminding us that history is a great teacher only if we pay attention to its lessons,” said Wisconsin China Initiative (WCI) Director and Professor Jerry C.P. Yin. “The film and discussion on Tuesday should provide us with an opportunity to learn from some of our past mistakes.”

Yin noted the community is also invited to take part in a public conversation on the film on Tuesday, April 25, at 4 p.m. in the Discovery Building. Six-time Emmy Award-winning director Ric Burns and co-director Li-Shin Yu will present “Why This Film Matters.” Following this presentation, award-winning author, journalist, and activist Helen Zia, UW Asian American Studies Senior Lecturer Victor Jew and UW Law Professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes will deliver a panel discussion, “Who is American? The Continuing Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act.”

All events are open to the public. Attendees are encouraged to register through the WCI website. The campus events are presented by the University of Wisconsin-Madison International Division’s Wisconsin China Initiative, with cosponsorship from the Center for East Asian Studies, the WUD Film Committee, and the Asian American Studies Program. Events were made possible by a grant from the College of Letter and Sciences‘ Anonymous Fund. The documentary is a production of Steeplechase Films and the Center for Asian American Media, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.