By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
As a fourth generation Chinese American who grew up in a then-white Beacon Hill, Cheryll Leo-Gwinn said she “really didn’t know what it meant to be Chinese.” In Leo-Gwinn’s family, this isn’t unique. Her grandmother, who was born in San Rafael, Calif., in the 1850s, didn’t know much Chinese, either. All she wanted to do back then was fit in––and survive.
“It was legal to shoot the Chinese. It was legal to hang them, to kidnap them, to torch them out of their homes,” the full-time artist and Seattle resident said. “And a lot of my ancestors didn’t want to speak Chinese, because they wanted to fit in, so they didn’t know, and didn’t hand down the Chinese culture to their descendents.”
But Leo-Gwinn didn’t even come to discover this, until the early aughts, when she learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a federal law created under President Chester A. Arthur that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. It built on the 1875 Page Act, which banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States. Though the latter was meant to prevent forced labor and forced sex work, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in response to U.S. citizens’ resistance to Chinese immigrants taking part in the gold rush, as gold supplies began to dwindle, as well as Chinese immigrants taking low-paying jobs, which certain labor factions claimed depressed wages for everyone.
The act has since served as a point of departure for much of Leo-Gwinn’s artistic work, and serves as the foundation of the monument she and fellow Chinese American artist Stewart Wong created to stand in front of the courthouse in Albuquerque, N.M. The monument, called “View from Gold Mountain,” will be unveiled in January 2020. Both artists hope the monument can be used to raise awareness of what Chinese immigrants and their ancestors went through, because most people, even those of Chinese descent, don’t even know about the act, Leo-Gwinn said.
For Wong, this project is a “positive entity” that informs and documents in physical form the struggles of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, and has helped him become a more informed individual, when it comes to his own understanding of his heritage.
Wong himself has also faced discrimination and racism, since relocating from Honolulu, Hawai’i, to Seattle in the 1980s. He has been called “Buddha Head,” and was told to go back to his country. He has also been kicked from behind, during a Fourth of July fireworks display at Gasworks Park.
“I recall a situation as a Seattle college student with no traffic citations on record. At my court hearing in Cowlitz County, the judge slapped me with the full fine amount and recommended I get cruise control on the car, although it was a borrowed car,” Wong said in an email. “When I am out shopping with my partner, who is Caucasian, [he] is often acknowledged by the store staff, and he notices I am not acknowledged with equal treatment.”
Though he hasn’t been able to talk with his family about the issue, given that they are scattered throughout the United States and on the Hawaiian islands, Wong said he hopes some of his family members will attend the unveiling in January. He also hopes the background information he sent to them about the monument and the act will prompt them to start asking questions, and dig into their own history.
Because of her artistic use of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Leo-Gwinn has had the opportunity to talk about the act, as well as discrimination and racism with her family. But prior to her work as an artist, Leo-Gwinn said her family just didn’t talk about such things. She remembers being turned down at age 18 for a typist job, because the potential employer “didn’t hire Chinese.”
“And so, just because I was used to it, I said, ‘Okay, thank you very much,’ and I left,” Leo-Gwinn said. “And I never mentioned anything to anybody, because that’s just the way we lived. There was no questioning it. That’s just the way it was. And when we got turned away for housing, that’s just the way it was. So, we didn’t talk about it to each other.”
Over the last several years, though, Leo-Gwinn’s family has started to open up about the issue. Though her parents have passed, she said she has spoken about discrimination with her sister, and persecution with her aunt, who lived in Wyoming in the 1920s.
“She said she remembered the wagons would come into town, pick up all the Chinese men, put them in a wagon, take them out of town, they would hear gunshots, and the wagons would come back empty, and they would be looking for more Chinese men,” Leo-Gwinn said.
Carolyn can be reached at email@example.com.