Semi-hidden history: For 61 years, Americans flatly banned the Chinese


As the commercial networks scramble for summer attention, PBS remains steady: In any season, it includes some compelling documentaries. Here's the story I sent papers, about a terrific film ("Chinese Exclusion Act") airing Tuesday, March 29, on PBS:

By Mike Hughes

For many PBS
viewers, the “Chinese Exclusion Act” film will deliver a jolt.

It had the same
effect on its narrator. “Several times, ... I just stopped,” Hoon
Lee said. “It was difficult to process what was coming out of my
mouth.”

He's a Harvard grad
who thought he knew Asian-American history. But this, he said, was
new: “When I heard that the largest mass-lynching on record in our
country was of Chinese people ...”

That was in 1871 Los
Angeles, when 18 to 20 men were lynched. Later, a different type of
mob action happened in Congress.

The Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882 said flatly that no Chinese people could move
to the U.S. ... and those already here couldn't be citizens. “They
were the only group (specifically) excluded until 1917,” filmmaker
Ric Burns said.

That exclusion
lingered until 1943 ... and is often overlooked by historians. “My
colleagues and I ... didn't know anything about it,” Burns said.

Li-Shin Yu -- the
editor of many Burns documentaries, including the epic “New York”
-- said she knew only some of the basics. Lee -- the Korean-American
actor who has starred on cable (Job in the “Banshee” series) and
Broadway (“The King and I”) -- was “frankly embarrassed that I
knew so little.”

For six-plus years,
co-directors Yu and Burns dug into details. During that time,
immigration issues re-surfaced in a presidential campaign. “1882
.... seems to be like today,” Burns said.

During that era, Lee
said, Chinese-Americans kept fighting back. “They would win battles
through the legal system ... and through government.”

That's a slow
method. It wasn't until 1943 that the act was repealed ... 1965 that
the Hart Celler Act addressed immigration biases ... and 2012 that
Congress passed a formal apology.

-- “American
Experience: Chinese Exclusion Act,” 8-10 p.m. Tuesday (May 29), PBS