In this time when there has been so much focus on immigration, not just in the US and our border with Mexico and Trump’s wall, but in Europe with the migration from the Middle East and now with so many Ukrainian refugees flooding into new lives, our story of Harry Chin and the discriminatory policies of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882* resonates powerfully. We are a nation where most of us came from somewhere else. That fact has been, for several centuries, both our glory and our shame. The experience of people who choose or are forced to migrate to a new land while grieving the loss of their home culture and language and adapt to the new way of life breaks our hearts with empathy.
My heart ached when I first finished reading this poignant story. My excitement to mount this play grew when I gave it to our board member, Betty Nakamoto, to read and learned that her father had immigrated during the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Like our protagonist, so many Chinese immigrants in San Francisco bought identities (paper names) to sidestep the law and come to the United States to pursue their dreams of a better life. In Harry’s case, the humiliation was compounded by a callous immigration official who jokingly mangled the name Hong Gee Chin into Harry Chin. Like the writing on the chalkboard of his life, the most personal element of identity, his name, had been wiped away.
The pressure to assimilate was, for many generations, an intrinsic part of starting a new life in a new land. Whether buying a paper name, adopting an identity not associated with a persecuted culture, or simply tiring of having your name, appearance or culture made fun of, so many lost this most personal sign of who we are. Only in the last few decades have many awakened to what was lost and reclaimed original names from Europe, Asia, Africa, or from the Indigenous People of the Americas reclaiming the beautiful differences of our backgrounds and cultures.
Our story, however, is very specific to Harry Chin, as he comes to terms later in life with Cheung Yu Leong, his original Chinese self. His courage to face his losses, his mistakes, and come to accept what life has dealt him, lifts our hearts. He must, like all of us, go through the pain of self-encounter to become whole. We are with you Harry, every step of the way!
*The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in 1882 by President Chester Arthur. It was not repealed until 1943.
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