Martin Gold, nicknamed Lao Ma or Old Horse in Chinese, used his more than 40 years of rich legal experience to write a thorough 600-page book, Forbidden Citizens (http://forbiddencitizens.com), about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and related laws, filling a huge void in history. It also has strong educational implications.
This is a very good book. It describes vividly and in great detail the debate of then-current conditions and fundamental principles, placing you as if in the middle of the situation. As early as 1868, the U.S. and China signed the Burlingame Treaty to establish friendly relations. Peoples of either nation could travel freely at any time, even reside permanently. China received a commitment that in the U.S. Chinese people would be granted the rights and privileges accorded to citizens from the most favored nation. This was a rare equal treaty for China at that time. However, such a good scene did not endure; change began to occur less than two years after the signing of the treaty. The Old Horse who knows his way, Lao Ma, started his book from 1870 Congressional debates that led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Finally, in 1943, more than 10 Chinese Exclusion statutes were repealed. The book systematically and concisely describes the main characters involved, their motivations, and their inter-connections.
When you read the words of racial hatred from some legislators, you grind your teeth and want to join the debate. When you read how a lonely legislator tried to defend justice and fairness, you wish you could move forward and give him a lift. When you read the dire warnings of some legislators from more than a hundred years ago, you realize how applicable they are today.
During the more than 60 years of Chinese Exclusion laws, U.S. population increased 2.5 times from less than 50 million in 1880 to more than 132 million in 1940. During the same period, Chinese in America dropped 25% from more than 105,000 to less than 78,000.
Lao Ma’s grandfather came from Tsarist Russia to the U.S. in 1908 during the peak period of immigration. He and his grandfather had always been close. He understands his grandfather’s passion for America’s freedom and equality, but also realizes the distinction had his grandfather been Chinese instead of European. Lao Ma’s words and actions are in synchrony. He joined the 1882 Project led by Asian American community organizations and Congresswoman Judy Chu, providing pro bono legal advice and service. Together they successfully pursued the passage of Senate and House resolutions in 2011 and 2012 to express regret towards all Chinese Exclusion laws and their legislation, adding a huge exclamation mark to the bitter history of Chinese Americans. The legal costs exceeded one million dollars, but Lao Ma insists that his action was “labor of love” and did not receive a cent for his services. This book is the crystalized product of his “labor of love.”
The U.S. Constitution requires that Congress must keep and publish a journal of its proceedings except for security matters. With information digitization, all Congressional records since the founding of the Republic may now be viewed and researched at the Library of Congress website and other websites. Video records were added in recent years. Lao Ma was able to make use of these resources and the nation’s transparency policies to write his book. Effective use of “Big Data” to improve transparency and governance is an exemplary practice for other nations.
It is obvious that a monolithic government cannot create freedom, democracy, and equality for a diverse population. Congress has already expressed apologies to the Native Americans, African Americans, Hawaiians, and Japanese Americans for its legislation and behavior in the past. The U.S. government itself will not take initiative to review its mistakes in the past. The success of the recent Chinese American initiative was a combination of the leadership of Congresswoman Judy Chu and fellow politicians, unified planning and actions by Asian American community organizations, and the help and support of true friends such as Lao Ma.
In the long run, we must educate, especially the younger generations, to remember and review the lessons of history in order to understand current affairs. Lao Ma’s book and the web-based timeline application are applicable educational tools for both the U.S. and China.