Immigration - Introduction
China at the Fair: Identity and Immigration
1. To develop an understanding of how Chinese Exclusion affected Chinese people.
2. To examine the contested nature of Chinese Exclusion.
3. To consider how immigrants formed their identities.
4. To examine attitudes towards Chinese people and culture in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century.
5. To practice constructing historical narratives using primary sources.
World’s fairs were and still are opportunities for nations to come together and present themselves to the world. They are especially important for the host countries who want to make a good impression for their guests. In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago offered the United States to demonstrate its industrial progress to the rest of the world. But many countries also spent lots of money to develop elaborate exhibits to show their own progress and culture. The Japanese government, for example, allocated $630,000 to build the large Ho-o-den Palace on the beautiful Wooded Isle at the fair. The Japanese minister to Washington, D.C. stated that Japan’s exhibit was intended to demonstrate “that Japan is a country worthy of full fellowship in the family of nations.” [See Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair, 48-49].
The case of China, Japan’s neighbor and rival, was different. Although China had participated in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the Chinese government refused to participate officially at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One reason was that the current Chinese rulers of the Qing dynasty wanted to remain isolated and resisted modernizing reforms. Certainly though another important reason that the Chinese government did not participate was the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that was the first legislation to restrict immigration to the United States. This legislation specifically targeted Chinese laborers, who, it was argued, were competing with white laborers for work and driving down wages. Students, merchants, tourists, and diplomats were exempted, but the law prohibited all Chinese people from becoming naturalized citizens. Just before the World’s Fair opened, Congress renewed Chinese Exclusion for another 10 years through the 1892 Geary Act. Here is a section of the law:
The Geary Act required Chinese laborers to apply for and carry a certificate of residence that identified them as legal residents. What would happen to Chinese laborers who failed to comply? What if they lost their certificate? Congress later extended Chinese Exclusion indefinitely. It was repealed in 1943 during World War II, when China was an ally of the U.S. against Japan. During the war, Chinese-Americans began to see attitudes towards them improve, while Japanese-Americans suffered in internment camps.
Without official Chinese participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition, China’s presence at the fair was left to Chinese-American community leaders in Chicago. In 1893, the number of Chinese in Chicago was still small but was growing, from 172 in 1880 to 1,179 in 1900. Three men, Hong Sling, Dr. Gee Woo Chan, and Wong Kee formed the Wah Mee Exposition Company to raise the money ($90,000) to construct a Chinese Village, including a theater with over 200 male actors brought over from China, a Joss House (religious temple), a bazaar, and café that served American food and more Chinese-style dishes. The Wah Mee Company hired a non-Chinese architecture firm, Wilson and Marble, to create the buildings. Unlike the official Japanese exhibit inside the fair ground’s, the Chinese Village was located on the Midway Plaisance, the entertainment and concessions section adjacent to the fair. This meant that the Chinese Village was intended to make a profit and return the initial investments in the Wah Mee Company. If the purpose of the World’s Columbian Exposition was to show the America’s leading role in the “progress of civilization,” then what was the purpose of the Chinese Village on the Midway Plaisance? What was the image of China that it sold to visitors?