Exclusion–Chinese in 19th Century America

 Chinese labourers working on a trestle bridge on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Chinese labourers working on a trestle bridge on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

This lesson for middle and high school students on Chinese in 19th century America begins with the assignment to students, “Visualize a pioneer in the 1800s. What do you see?” They are then asked to draw the path of pioneers on a U.S. map.

Most students show people coming from Europe to the East Coast, then traveling West. That is because the textbooks and mainstream media have generally ignored the fact that there were also large numbers of immigrants from Asia to the United States during the 1800s, just as there was large immigration from Europe.

As Ronald Takaki explains in Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans,

9780316831307“By 1870, there were 63,000 Chinese in the United States. Most of them—77%—were in California, but they were also elsewhere in the West as well as in the Southwest, New England and the South. The Chinese constituted a sizable proportion of the population in certain areas: 29% in Idaho, 10% in Montana, and 9% in California. Virtually all adult males, they had a greater economic significance than their numbers would indicate: in California, the Chinese represented 25% of the entire work force.”

This website provides an invaluable collection of primary documents on Chinese American history.

This website provides an invaluable collection of primary documents on Chinese American history.

Curriculum specialist and activist in the Asian American community Debbie Wei designed this lesson to help fill the gap using primary sources, critical literacy, and poetry. The objectives are that students will:

  • Know about the lives and contributions of Chinese immigrants in the United States in the nineteenth century.
  • Analyze the roots of anti-immigrant sentiment which led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts.

BOOK_beyond herosTeaching for Change is offering the lesson “Exclusion–Chinese in 19th Century America” for use by classroom teachers at no charge. This lesson was originally published in the book Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Multicultural, Anti-Racist Education and Staff Development. Download the lesson for free here.

For permission to reprint the lesson (other than teachers copying it for their own classroom), write to Teaching for Change.

october-15Students can connect the history of the Exclusion Act to contemporary issues in another lesson by Debbie Wei called “Philadelphia Chinatown’s Fight for Survival: A Study of Movements for Social Justice.” The lesson is available for free from the History Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). The HSP offers the following description of the lesson: “As students investigate Chinatown’s history, they can discover the role of tradition and legacy in shaping a community’s response to struggle. They will also come to understand the role of community organizing in social change and how social change happens. Social change is a dynamic process, with disparate groups who lack power seeking unity in order to gain the strength to affect change. The materials used in this primary-source activity record the experiences of people whose lives, just for a moment in time, are altered as they pursue justice for their community. They present the complexities involved in collective action and help to humanize history for students. The efforts to save Chinatown offer a view into one way democracy works to shape our cities and our nation—a view from the ground up.”

DebbieWeiDebbie Wei is a curriculum specialist and activist in the Asian American community.

Wei is the elementary school principal at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. She was the founding principal of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) in Chinatown. She worked for the School District of Philadelphia as an ESL instructor and as a curriculum specialist in Asian Pacific American Studies. Wei also taught for 2 years in Hong Kong. She is co-editor of In My Heart, I Am A Dancer, Walking on Solid Ground, and Resistance in Paradise: Rethinking 100 Years of US Involvement in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

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