Today marks the 140th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed and signed into law on May 6, 1882.
The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, a play by Jessica Huang, which first premiered in Minneapolis in 2017, made its San Francisco debut on May 4. Presented by the SF Playhouse, the heart-wrenching production revisits the fallout of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its legacy.
Though it continues to haunt the Chinese American community to this day, The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin also illuminates the ways in which those who were directly impacted by this act of government-sanctioned discrimination found ways to persevere through adversity.
Here are the five key takeaways from the show:
Spotlight on the Exclusion Era
Signed into law 140 years ago today by President Chester A. Arthur, and repealed on December 17, 1943—in the midst of the United States’ internment of Japanese Americans—the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first major federal law in U.S. history to restrict free immigration based on ethnicity.
However, even as official U.S. law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for over half a century, many still found a way to enter America. One way immigrant laborers skirted the law was by posing as children of Chinese Americans born in the United States or established citizenship through other means. These individuals were known as “Paper Sons”—a reference to their forged immigration documents.
The Great 1906 earthquake and fire, which resulted in the destruction of City Hall and most of San Francisco’s birth records, aided many of these Paper Sons.
In 2015, when Huang first learned about Harry Chin and his Paper Son identity, she felt a calling to elevate his story. “I was really interested in writing about the era of Chinese exclusion,” Huang, a New York-based writer from Minnesota, told The Standard in a phone interview. Chin’s life, she continued, was her way in.
A Real-Life Immigrant Story
In 1939, a Chinese man named Cheng Yu Liang entered the United States under the name “Harry Chin” and settled in Minnesota. He spent years wrestling with his bifurcated identity.
He was at once Chin and Liang, American and Chinese, the “son” of a United States citizen and an undocumented immigrant. It is through this juggling act—which further complicated Chin’s fraught relationship with his daughter—that Huang explores what it means to be an immigrant in a foreign land and a Chinese national living in a sinophobic society.
Though Huang didn’t learn of Chin’s story until after his death, she was able to cobble together a script with the help of his daughter, Sheila Chin.
Jeffrey Lo, the director of the SF Playhouse production, emphasized the fact that the play is grounded in a real-life immigration story which makes it all the more impactful.
“At the end of the day, we can talk about wars. We can talk about policies, but what is being affected are real-life human beings,” Lo said.
Different cultures and values, even the language barriers may overshadow the mutual understanding between two generations in an immigrant family.
Many Asian American films and shows—like Everything Everywhere All at Once and Kim’s Convenience—have focused on the intergenerational dialogue between immigrant parents and their American-born children. The Paper Sons of Harry Chin also explores this dynamic.
As the play begins, we are given to understand that Chin (played by Jomar Tagatac) rarely discusses his past with Sheila (played by Kina Kantor). When he finally admits to her that his real name is Liang, Sheila is shocked, distraught and frustrated.
“But your name is my name,” she tells her father.
Uplifting Asian Americans’ Visibility
As a Bay Area native of Filipino and Chinese descent, Lo said Huang’s vision for uplifting Chin’s story really resonated with him.
“I didn't get the opportunity to see or reflect upon my identity as an Asian-American person in the books that I read, the TV that I watched, or the media that I consumed,” Lo said. He has directed several other Asian American-themed stories, including The Great Leap and Vietgone—both of which aims to amplify the voice of the Asian American community and to uncover the community’s history.
“We can't lose these stories,” Lo said. “We can't lose the challenges of the trauma and the heroism of what these prior generations have done to get us where we're at.”
Lo, and the play, take a definitively pro-immigrant stance.
“In this time, when there has been so much focus on immigration—and now with so many Ukrainian refugees flooding into new lives—our story about Harry Chin is achingly universal,” Bill English, the Artistic Director of SF Playhouse, said in a statement.
The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin made its world premiere in 2017—in the wake of President Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” which had a deep impact on Huang.
“It felt very relevant,” Huang said. “We were starting to repeat history.”
San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. Floor 2
Through June 18, Various Times | $30+
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]