The Chinese Exclusion Act in South Dakota

Last Updated by Katy Beem on
Women detainees at Angel Island.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Chester Arthur. The act, extended in 1892 as the Geary Act, illegalized Chinese immigration for Chinese laborers. It was not repealed until 1943. Liping Zhu, history professor at Eastern Washington University co-authored, with Rose Estep Fosha, 2004’s Ethnic Oasis: The Chinese in the Black Hills (SD Historical Society Press).

CEA_Zhu_16x9.jpegLiping Zhu. According to Zhu, a familiarity with the U.S. government’s historical treatment of Asian immigrants provides insight into today’s immigration debates. “This is a country of immigrants, right?” says Zhu. “Throughout history, we’ve had all kinds of immigrants. But most of the immigration laws in America were intended for Asian immigrants, until just recently. From Chinese Exclusion, to the Page Act for undesirables. To understand the history of the U.S., it’s very important to know about Chinese exclusion.”

CEA_Notice_16x9.jpegPoster announcing the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Of the Chinese mining and railroad labor population prominent in the American West circa 1880, some 221 were in the Black Hills, according to Zhu. By the 1890s, the number had dropped to 155, both as labor jobs dwindled and Chinese people were required to register and carry identification papers. Zhu says Chinese people initially organized and boycotted federal registration laws, but eventually capitulated under the threat of deportation and turned to the court system. “They knew how to use the American judicial system and political systems very effectively,” says Zhu. “They hired white lawyers and challenged discriminatory practices.” 

CEA_WongFamily_16x9.jpegFee Lee Wong and family at the Locke & Co. studio in Deadwood, SD in 1894.

Edith Wong, great-granddaughter of Fee Lee Wong, a prominent and pioneering merchant in Deadwood, relates how her grandfather was detained for three months at the Port Townsend, Washington Customs House when reentering from a trip to China in 1903. “Even though he filled out the paperwork, the affidavits, and got permission to return, they sent out an immigration investigator to Deadwood, who then had to interview prominent business people [including Lawrence County Clerk of Courts Sol Star] to testify that Fee Lee was a merchant and not a laborer before he could be released.” Edith’s grandfather, Som Quong Wong, who was born in Deadwood, was also detained after returning from China to San Francisco instead of Seattle, as his paperwork indicated. Evidently, Quong disembarked in California due to a hotel room shortage in Seattle. 

Edith Wong and her mother, Beatrice, took up Edith’s father’s genealogical research after her father, Kam Leung Wong, passed in 2002. Ironically, the files compiled on the Wong family in compliance with the Chinese Exclusion Act have served to strengthen their ties to the Black Hills. “It’s fully improper to ask your elders about their history,” says Wong. “The only way to glean anything is if they initiate it. One of the things that spurred on my father’s passion for genealogy was the Chinese Exclusion Acts. The documents in the National Archives have helped us research. And now it’s not just a personal goal – it’s an education for future generations.” 

CEA_EdithPresentFamily_16x9.jpegEdith Wong, mother Beatrice Wong, son Robert Leung Mullikin, and Aunt Anna Woo at Mt. Rushmore in 2016.

Dismantling cultural misunderstanding and myths is so important to Edith and Beatrice Wong that they have established a scholarship competition memorializing their father and husband for Lead-Deadwood High School students. “We ask applicants to read and write about Ethnic Oasis,and personally reflect on the false history they’ve heard about the Chinese in Deadwood. We’re hoping to demonstrate how the history is very in-depth.”

American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act premieres Tuesday, May 29, at 9pm (8 CT) on SDPB1.

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