Skip to main content


Chinese Exclusion: About the Exhibition

This exhibit represents the culmination of a semester-long exploration into the role that immigration laws and policies have played - and continue to play - in shaping the United States as a nation. Focusing on the period of Chinese exclusion that lasted from 1882 to 1943, students conducted original research using files from the National Archives in New York, in order to examine how exclusion affected the Chinese community in New Jersey.

The exhibit, which was on display at Rutgers' Asian American Cultural Center from May to September 2011, sheds light on the history of Chinese immigration to New Jersey under the Exclusion laws, and provides a space to reflect upon and contemplate what the best approaches to the creation of immigration laws and policies are today. As recent debates about immigration policy have revealed both in New Jersey and nationally, the questions of what rights undocumented immigrants should have, how immigration laws can be reformed, and how immigration should be enforced, are provocative and contentious issues. At the heart of these debates and this exhibit is the question: what represents a fair and just approach to immigration?

We are thrilled to now make this exhibit available online, along with a video documentary from its opening event.

From the Classroom to the Public

Focusing on the period of 1850 to the present, students in this course - and the curators of this exhibit along with Professor Urban - examined the creation and development of immigration policy, and the role that immigration law has played in defining the United States as a nation. The idea that the United States is a "nation of immigrants" has been branded into the American public's consciousness, and has been used by politicians, the media, and scholars to explain why as a nation, the United States is exceptional. Yet if the United States is a "nation of immigrants," it is a nation that has also initiated numerous policies and laws in order to govern and police who is allowed to enter the country.

The primary goal of this course was to show how immigration law has been informed by cultural attitudes and ideologies concerning, among other things, race, labor, gender, and sexuality. Today, a complex bureaucracy and quota system determines who is allowed to enter the United States, why they should be given preference over other candidates, and under what conditions they will be granted citizenship. As a class, we dissected how seemingly natural features of American life, such as passports, national borders, and the notion of "legal" versus "illegal" immigrants, have been created over time.

With this exhibit, our goal is to move from the private, closed space of the classroom, where we have been engaged in our own debate about immigration policy in both the past and the present, into the public realm of an exhibition. As you digest the information and interpretations present in this exhibit, we hope that you too will consider how immigration laws and policy functions today, and what lessons from the past may offer as we work through these difficult issues.


In the Chinese language, and in the standard translation of Chinese names into English, the family or surname appears first. In the exhibit text, on subsequent references to an individual with a Chinese name, they are referred to by their family name. If the individual was given or adopted an Anglicized first name, they are referred to by their last name.

A Note on Sources

The research and analysis in this exhibit was informed by a number of important secondary sources. Aristide Zolberg's A Nation By Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Harvard University Press, 2008), served as a type of textbook for this class, and placed the history of Chinese Exclusion within a longer narrative. Erika Lee and Judy Yung's Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (Oxford University Press, 2010), provided insight on the history of Chinese Exclusion and the dynamics of immigrant interrogation and detention at Angel Island - Ellis Island's counterpart in the San Francisco Bay. Lee's At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), has also been informative in examining Chinese immigration during Exclusion.

Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2004), offers a crucial framework for thinking about how illegal immigration has been a key element in the creation of the United States. Finally, Lucy Salyer's Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), helped to contextualize these files in relationship to the legal history of Chinese immigration and naturalization.


Many individuals assisted in creating this exhibit, and without their collective help, advice, and time, its completion would not have been possible. We would like to thank the staff at the National Archives at New York City, especially Angela Tudico, who volunteered her time and visited our class in order to share with students what resources the National Archives has available for research on immigration history and genealogy. At the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, Mary Rizzo initially suggested funding sources for this work, and Rob Apgar was patient and helpful in the process of applying for and administrating the minigrant that this exhibit was awarded. Mary DeMeo and Jim Masschaele, and Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui, in the departments of History and American Studies respectively, provided important departmental support. Kara Donaldson, Associate Dean of Planning and Communications, and Jennifer Boscia-Smith, Director or Alumni Communications, helped to publicize this exhibit. Ji Hyun Lee and Linda Fu at the Asian American Cultural Center have provided an ideal setting for this exhibit, and have generously given their time to help make it possible. Steven Holloway's video documentation of the exhibit and opening panel discussion will assure that it is saved for posterity.

Claire Urban provided thoughtful feedback and comments on the student research reports that informed the exhibit text. We are grateful for the assistance of the members of the Collective for Asian American Studies Scholarship, and the opportunity to workshop this exhibit in its draft stages at the First Annual Undergraduate Symposium on Asian American Studies at Rutgers University. Without the hard work of Professors Allan Isaac and Rick Lee in particular, this would not have been possible. We are grateful to Professors Joanna Dreby, Robyn Rodriguez, and Virginia Yans for participating in a roundtable discussion on how immigration policy issues affect New Jersey today, and for creating a bridge between the historical scholarship represented in this exhibit and the present.

Last but not least, Nicole Heater turned research, text, and images into a thing of beauty. As the designer of the exhibit that was on display at the Asian American Cultural Center, she has artfully and thoughtfully conveyed this complicated history. We are truly grateful for the many hours she has donated to this work, and for making all of this possible.

Andy Urban, Assistant Professor, American Studies and History, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

logo of New Jersey Council for the Humanities

This exhibition was made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.