Why do we return to history so often? Is it as simple as what our teachers tell us: “Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it”? Why do we continue to make plays, films, and novels with the tagline “based on a true story”?
The stories that prevail most often are ones told with pride: stories of underdogs and victorious battles are told time and again until they are understood to be fact.
Yet at each level of this storytelling, pieces get taken out. As pointed out by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, a narrative that is truly “complete,”—that said, one that includes a recollection of all events—“would sound as a meaningless cacophony even to the narrator.” It is, in fact, the distillation of history that allows us to find the story that renders it digestible and attractive to the listener.
But who decides what gets taken out, or what becomes the “true” version of events? Whose stories are we being told? Whose stories have we grown up believing? Who has been left out, and from whom are we still waiting to hear?
“I push the deformed into my dreams, which are in Chinese, the language of impossible stories.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act
The Page Act of 1875 was the first of many Chinese Exclusion acts passed by the United States government, marking the end of open borders. The Page Act specifically barred Chinese women from entering the United States. Seven years after that, the Chinese Restriction Act, which is now known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, was signed into law, prohibiting the entry of all Chinese people into the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first and only major United States law that prevented all members of a specific national group from immigrating to the country. First written to last only ten years, the Chinese Exclusion Act was ultimately extended “indefinitely,” and would not be repealed until 1943. Even then, a yearly quota restriction of 105 Chinese immigrants remained in place until 1968.
"The omission and persecution of Chinese people was written into American law for 93 years."
The exclusion of Chinese people from the American experience stretched far beyond the gates of immigration. As a population, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans have been left out of the narrative of United States history since their arrival in this country.
The Transcontinental Railroad
The United States’ first transcontinental railroad is now mostly remembered for its role in uniting both sides of the country, and for strengthening America’s key role in international relations and trade by opening up the market for goods across the country. The railroad is seen as a key point of pride in traditional American history, and is largely heralded as a feat of “American” labor.
What is left out of this story? The transcontinental railroad was, for the most part, built by underpaid Chinese laborers, who had immigrated to the United States during the California Gold Rush. These Chinese workers were even kept out of the photos celebrating the laying of the final railroad spike, even while records indicate it was placed by Chinese men.
Stereotypes in the Entertainment Industry
When not erasing Chinese stories from the historical narrative, some of the most powerful forms of American storytelling—from journalism to film and television—have depicted Chinese people only through offensive stereotyping and expectations. The “Yellow Peril” rhetoric of the late 1800s treated Chinese people as a threat to the Western world, while the early years of Hollywood built on this mindset to represent Chinese people only through traits of exoticism or otherness. For Chinese women in particular, racialized and sexualized stereotypes prevailed, such as the “Dragon Lady” villainess.
While perhaps the offensive depictions seen on screen might not be as blatant as they once were, the lack of Chinese and Asian people in positions of power still leads to upsetting consequences, such as Asian stereotypes still being treated as the punchline of a joke, the “exotic” nature of a Chinese woman being played for sexuality, or even just the lack of Asian material that is produced and the similar lack of Asian talent that gets hired.
“I made a promise to myself when writing this show to give Asian actors a chance to do all of the things they never get to do.”
Kenneth Lin’s Exclusion explores these issues through a brave world of comedy, debate, and artistry. Set in present-day Hollywood, the land of storytelling, Exclusion puts a magnifying glass on the personalities and power structures that create the larger than life worlds we see on small and big screens. Each of Lin’s characters fight for control over which narrative gets told, whether it be on the screen for the world to hear, or in how each of their own stories play out in reality.
Through the act of dramatizing history, audiences and communities are invited into the conversation beyond the role of a silent listener. They are asked to invest in the characters of a story beyond the lines of a textbook, and see them as active participants in the lives they might lead today.
Perhaps when we sit in our history classes, and dates and times are spoken at us—or when we hear certain names so often (and others barely at all)—we develop our own understanding of the past without ever really listening to what these narratives are saying. What happens when the ones who are not invested in the complications of reality are the powerful storytellers?
In the world of Exclusion, the characters of Lin’s Power Play remind us: there is a difference between the story that wants to be told and the truth that needs to be heard.
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