Barriers to Bridges
A new exhibition, Barriers to Bridges, was unveiled at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) on November 21, 2008, when the NMAH itself reopened after an extensive renovation. This artifact case presents glimpses of a rich history of Asian Americans from the 19th century to the present.
November 21, 2008 – August 3, 2009
National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
The immigration process was never easy for Americans of Asian Pacific descent. Asians were initially tolerated, along with other immigrants, but resentment and racial tensions led to a series of exclusionary laws that began in the late 19th century—for the first time in U.S. history, immigrants were barred entry solely on the basis of race. While the Chinese were the first group to be excluded, by the early 20th century, most Asians were prohibited from immigrating and applying for citizenship until 1965.
Visitors will find anti-Asian images but the exhibit also includes stories of Asians who found ways to enter the country. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent great fire destroyed many public records, allowing some Chinese immigrants to assert they had been born in San Francisco. Claiming citizenship for their children living in China, these “slots” were often sold to strangers or given to relatives. Immigration officials carried out extensive interviews attempting to uncover these “paper sons,” The “coaching” book on display helped an immigrant memorize hundreds of detailed questions to “prove” his status as the son of a waiting American-born parent.
Being a picture bride—so named because often the couple knew each other only through the exchange of photos and family information—was another legal immigration path into the United States. In the early 20th century, over 20,000 picture brides from Japan and Korea arrived mostly in California and Hawai‘i to join their husbands. One such picture bride left a beautiful wedding kimono and her wedding photo.
After 1943, Asian exclusion laws were replaced with a very restrictive quota system. While some Asian countries received tiny allotments (105 people per year for China, for example) certain non-quota immigrants were eligible for entry and eventual citizenship. Asian American populations in the U.S. increased after World War II as Asian women (wartime brides), children (adoptees), and refugees entered the U.S.
Asian immigration grew quickly after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 which privileged family reunification. Some immigrants left their homelands because of political turmoil such as in Southeast Asia but most were drawn by economic opportunity and a desire to unite with their families. In the artifact case, visitors may see a Filipino nurse’s cap, Hmong story cloth, entry permits for Vietnamese political refugees, and a doctored Thai passport for an exploited laborer.
Today, about 15,000,000 Asian Pacific Americans make up 5% of the U.S. population and join Latinos as one of our fastest growing ethnic groups.
We plan to have more Asian Pacific American objects and stories included in the American History Museum and throughout the Smithsonian so come visit us soon!