Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Active Viewing: Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

In this activity, students watch short clips of the PBS/A Bill Moyers Special production of Becoming American: The Chinese Experience (2003). The documentary clips and accompanying materials cover the arrival of Chinese in California, their work on the transcontinental railroad, the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Angel Island immigration facility. At the end of the activity, students complete a short writing task on whether not to immigrate to the United States from the perspective of a young Chinese man.


  • Students will be able to understand why Chinese immigrated to the United States, beginning in the 1850s and their work experiences in the West Coast. 

  • Students will be able to describe racism against the Chinese and the causes and effects of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.


Step 1: Tell students that they are going to watch a film about the first generations of Chinese who came to the United States. Hand out or have students sketch a KWL chart and ask them to complete the first column, “What do you already know?” Ask students to think about facts or images they have about this topic and write them down. (Optional: Divide students into small groups have each group complete the KWL chart together on a piece of chart paper.) 

Step 2: Introduce Clip 1 (Disc 1, 17:09-24:24) by providing background information, which can include: 

  • First wave of Chinese come seeking “Gold Mountain”, the California Gold Rush

  • Part of a “sojourning” tradition in China, where young men leave their villages to travel to Chinese cities, or other countries, to seek their fortunes and return 

  • Virtually all Chinese immigrants in this first wave are from Guangdong Province 

  • First group of Chinese immigrants are successful at the Gold Rush, by taking over claims abandoned by other miners and methodically finding gold dust in the silt 

  • 1850 Chinese population in US totals about 4,000 (total population of US is 23.2 million) (.02%) 

Ask students to jot down new information and questions in the appropriate columns as they watch the film. Play Clip 1 (Disc 1, 17:09-24:24). 

Step 3: After the clip, students should share what they learned and what questions they have with other students at their table. Then, ask each table to combine the information and questions on a piece of chart paper.

After all the students (or groups) have filled in a KWL chart paper, look around the room and synthesize patterns and key points, including: 

  • The Chinese were initially welcomed into the U.S. and then quickly became targets of racial discrimination.

  • There was a special tax levied against Chinese that limited what kinds of work they could do.

  • There was a court ruling saying that Chinese could not testify in courts.  

Step 4: Introduce and play Clip 2 (Disc 1, 40:00-52:00). Explain that this clip is about the role of Chinese workers in building the transcontinental railroad: “They’re a long way from Gold Mountain, now they’re tunneling through mountains.”  Divide students into two groups. Ask the first group to pay attention to what kind of work the Chinese do and how that changes.  Ask the second group to listen for how Chinese immigrants are treated and how the Chinese try to change it. 

(Optional: Share out responses after viewing clips.)

Step 5: Hand out Lee Chew document. Ask students to think about the focus questions: Why did Lee Chew enter the laundry business? and What does his account tell you about Chinese workers in America? After students read independently or as a class, share out responses. 

Step 6: Introduce and play Clip 3 (1:11:18-1:17:48). This clip is about the way that politicians in California and nationally helped to whip up a furor over Chinese immigration. Additionally, you can explain:

  • It’s the 1870s: think about what else is happening in the US-Reconstruction is happening and rapid industrialization is changing the nature of work in the US; Panic of 1873 plunges US into a severe economic crisis that lasts until 1877. 

  • For context, by 1880 the Chinese population of U.S. is 105,465 out of a total of 50.1 million (.2%).

Ask students to listen for what language do anti-Chinese immigration groups use to make their arguments. Depending on the level of the students, you may also ask them to listen for "How did a local political issue/problem become a national political issue/problem?"

Step 7: (Optional) Review the history of Chinese exclusion with your students. Explain that after some debate about how to handle Chinese immigration, restriction is a big winner politically. But the laws come in stages: 

1875 Page Law  

  • Bars entry of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes, felons, and contract laborers (also known as “coolies”) 

1882 Chinese Exclusion Act 
  • Merchants, teachers, diplomats, students, and travelers are exempt  

  • Laborers who were already here were allowed to leave and re-enter, but they had to get a “Certificate of Registration” when they left so that they could get back in  

  • That meant that immigration inspectors inspected all Chinese entering and leaving the US • Prevents Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens 

1888 Scott Act 

  • Revokes all reentry certificates, stranding anyone who left intending to return 

1892 Geary Act 

  • Renews 1882 Exclusion Act 

  • Requires that all Chinese in the U.S. register with the federal government 

1924 Johnson-Reed Act  

  • Stipulates that aliens ineligible for U.S. citizenship were not permitted to enter the United States 

1943  Congress finally repeals exclusion laws, grants Chinese the right to become citizens 

In summary, Chinese exclusion is the origin of the federal gatekeeping policy and enforcement apparatus for immigration. Before it, immigrants came and went freely. Chinese exclusion ushered in border controls and immigration inspections and the earliest version of the green card. As you’ll see in the final clip, restriction worked . . . for a while.  

  • In 1890 Chinese population of U.S. is 107,488 out of a total of 62.9 million (.002%) 

Step 8: Introduce and play Clip 4 (Disc 2 c. 41:39-52:37). Explain that this clip is Angel Island and Paper Sons, which reflects both the ways that Chinese restriction was carried out by the U.S. government, and the lengths to which many Chinese went to resist and evade the restriction laws. 

Step 9: Pass out the concluding writing prompt to students: Imagine you are a Chinese immigrant in 1890. Write a letter to your best friend from home who wants to know if he should try to evade exclusion laws and come to the United States. What would make a person want to come, and what would encourage him? Students may use examples from the documentary or the documents. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Active Viewing: Becoming American: The Chinese Experience,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 29, 2023,

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