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[Detail] U.S.S. Alert. Photographer - W H Jackson, 1901 or 1902

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Chinese Americans

Chinese immigrants living in the United States in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries often maintained traditional customs and dress while living in distinct neighborhoods known as Chinatowns. These immigrants were also targeted by many strict immigration laws. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. Subsequent bills such as the Anti-Chinese Scott Act of 1888 and the Geary Act of 1892 added new restrictions to the entry and re-entry of Chinese immigrants.

A search on the phrase, Chinese Americans, yields images of adults and children dressed in traditional Chinese garments. With the exception of two photographsm, "Chinese Americans in an Opium Den" and a scene from New York's Chinatown, the subjects in these photographs are anonymous but identifiable because of their distinctive clothing.

  • What types of activities and poses are featured in these photographs?
  • How do these photographs and captions portray Chinese Americans? Do they reflect the status of Chinese Americans in U.S. society at the time?
  • What motives, attitudes, and interests do you think that the photographer might have had? What evidence is there to support your conclusion?
  • Do these photographs voice any opinion about the status of Chinese Americans in the U.S.? Do they seem sympathetic, critical, or objective? What evidence is there for such interpretations?
  • How do you think that audiences were likely to have reacted to these images?
  • Search on the phrase, African Americans. How do the photographs of Chinese immigrants compare to images of African Americans in terms of subject matter, composition, dress, pose, and captions?