In Mayor Jean Quan’s family history, the men would come to California from China when they were about 13 years old, work until they were about 21, return to China for a year or so to get their wives pregnant, and then come back again to California to work.
“That’s the story of my family,” Quan told a group of about 100 people gathered in the city council chambers inside Oakland City Hall on Wednesday evening for a “day of inclusion” celebration that honored the contributions of immigrants to the United States. “My mother only lived with my dad for a couple of years in China.”
For more than 60 years, the Chinese Exclusion Act legally prevented Chinese people from legally immigrating to the United States, the first time the U.S. government passed legislation to legally exclude one ethnic group. The legislation was enacted in 1882, a decade after the first members of Quan’s family moved to the U.S. It was repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, and the celebration Quan hosted Wednesday was meant to commemorate the repeal as well as pay homage to Oakland’s immigrants and long history of tolerance for all cultures.
Quan called Oakland “a place that welcomes immigrants” and “hometown to the world.” Quan was wearing a gold pin of the city’s logo, and as she spoke, a slideshow featuring photos of community members and leaders played on a large screen behind her. “It’s a really important part of who we are,” Quan said. “It’s why we’re progressive.”
California Assemblymember Mike Eng (49th District) and Edward Yu, the vice president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance-Oakland, also spoke to a crowd that included members of community organizations like Catholic Charities, the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and the Unity Council. A group of kids from the Starlite Child Development Center performed a Chinese dance to open the celebration, as visitors dined on spring rolls and burritos.
In 2009, Eng introduced a bill in the assembly that designated December 17 as the state’s official day of inclusion that would recognize, in the words of the bill, “the priceless contributions of all immigrants to the greatness of the United States and California.”
Speaking at the Wednesday event, Eng said he introduced the bill so that Californians will never forget the exclusion act, and the U.S. government will learn from past mistakes. “Many people feel we still have an exclusion act, even to this day,” he said. “The exclusion act is the lack of an immigration policy that would allow for those that are here to legally immigrate. Did you know that if you file a petition for a brother or sister to immigrate, even though you’re a U.S. citizen, it can take up to 25 years? That’s an exclusion act.”
Carl Chan, the president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said he attended the event not to celebrate the demise of the exclusion act, but to celebrate diversity and encourage people of all cultures in Oakland to work together. “Today is not just a celebration for the Chinese,” Chan said as he watched the dancers perform. “Now is the time to call for everyone to work together. [We need] to utilize the talents of different people together to create a great city.”
Quan said her family has lived in Oakland since San Francisco’s Chinatown was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake. San Francisco City Hall had also burned down during the great quake, incinerating the city’s public records, which allowed for many Chinese to claim they were born in the city, and were thus citizens. Some would then claim they had children overseas who were eligible to immigrate, and these children became known as “paper sons.”
When San Francisco City Hall burned down, Quan said, her grandfather claimed his three sons were born in California. “That started the tradition in our family of paper sons,” she said.
Quan said that not only her family’s history, but also her own experiences as a community activist—fighting for ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, for example—has been shaped by the exclusion act. “It all rose out of that original discrimination of the Chinese Exclusion Act,” she said.
She said she hopes the day will be an annual celebration in the city, and that people in this country will come to realize how destructive anti-immigration policies can be. “So much of our history has been touched by that, and it’s a story I think America needs to know about,” she said, “and I’m hoping that if they know about it, they’ll be fairer to other immigrants.”