Rediscovered: An Eloquent Chinese Voice Against Exclusion
Chinese-American voices were rarely heard during the national debate over Chinese exclusion that swept the United States in the 1870s and early 1880s. It was mostly a conversation among white men arrayed on both sides of the issue. But occasionally Chinese did weigh in, and one otherwise unremarkable Boston tea merchant did so particularly persuasively in 1879.
He did it in a letter to the great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. Although ill with kidney disease, the old lion had continued to speak out on civil rights for blacks and for women until his death in that year, and was keenly interested in the national dialogue over continued immigration of Chinese laborers.
I ask you, where is your golden rule, your Christian charity, and the fruits of your Bible teachings when you talk about doing to others as you would have them do to you?Wong Ar Chong, 1879
Prior to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, there were several attempts in Congress to restrict the flow of Chinese into the U.S. One bill, introduced early in 1879, proposed to forbid the entry of any vessel carrying more than 15 Chinese, whether visitors or immigrants. Despite the fact that, if enacted, it would have violated the then-current treaty between China and the United States, the measure passed the House of Representatives in January and seemed destined for Senate approval as well.
Senator James G. Blaine (R-ME), the bill’s most prominent sponsor, was at the time the leading contender for the 1880 Republican presidential nomination. Mindful of the fact that exclusion was popular in California, and with that state’s crucial electoral votes squarely in his sights, he delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor laced with anti-Chinese racism. “The choice must be made between Anglo-Saxon laborers and Mongolian serfs,” he declared, and continued in kind, accusing the Chinese of being “swarming coolies” and “political and social pariahs.”
Garrison, his eloquence undimmed by age and illness, issued a stinging rebuttal that was widely circulated. But a letter written to him by a Chinese shopkeeper a few days later is perhaps more remarkable. The writer, Wong Ar Chong, was an undistinguished, 39 year-old Chinese immigrant who ran a small store on Washington Street in Boston. And although English was his second language, he offered a cogent and persuasive dissection of Blaine’s arguments that was as articulate and on point as anything that survives from a contemporary native speaker.
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Wong’s stirring arguments notwithstanding, the bill passed the Senate, although it was vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who did not wish to abrogate the China treaty unilaterally. Still, three years later it would all be moot; the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would bar Chinese laborers and deny American citizenship to all Chinese, would become the law of the land, and it would remain so for more than 60 years, until it was finally repealed in 1943.