Angel Island exhibit explores disenfranchisement of Chinese immigrants
Angel Island, just a quick ferry ride from downtown Tiburon, boasts many attractions, including hiking, biking, camping and, through Sept. 9, “Chinese Pioneers: Power and Politics in Exclusion Era Photographs,” an exhibit that explores the social, political and judicial disenfranchisement of Chinese Californians in the decades before and after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
The exhibit, at the Angel Island Immigration Station Museum, begins with the Gold Rush in 1849, when Chinese people were among those drawn to California. They came to strike it rich. Many ended up building the transcontinental railroad, especially the tunnels through the mountains.
However, anti-Chinese sentiment emerged, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other policies that sought to keep Asian and Pacific Island immigrants from entering the U.S., or, once they were in the country, from owning property or going to school with white children.
In 1870, San Francisco passed what was known as the Cubic Air Ordinance, which on its face aimed to crack down on unsafe crowded conditions in Chinatown housing tenements. However, the law subjected Chinese people to criminal penalties for living in squalid conditions.
The photographs in the exhibit tell the story of the lives of Chinese immigrants and the discrimination they faced. A reproduction of a photo by the artist Arnold Genthe, a gelatin silver print from 1898, stands next to a photo that was taken without permission, as tourists liked to do, so that a man is seen covering his face. One panel called “Art and Orientalism on the Street” shows people in costume that also pleased the sight-seeing amateur photographers and tourists in Chinatown.