Chinese Exclusion and the 1899 National Export Exposition: Imagining the View from Inside an Ethnographic Showcase

Today’s post comes from Maria Adamson, a history education graduate student at Temple University. Maria interned with the National Archives at Philadelphia virtually this fall as a part of the Cultural Fieldwork Initiative (CFI), a partnership with the Temple University College of Education Social Studies faculty and more than 30 regional cultural institutions. The Research Services department at the National Archives at Philadelphia was delighted to participate in the nation’s only educational fieldwork program based in archives, museums, and libraries, and to learn from our intern’s vast education experience and knowledge. See more information about the Cultural Fieldwork Initiative and NARA’s pivotal role in developing the program here. Maria’s companion lesson plans are available on DocsTeach.

Identification Paper of Lee Tso, 8/19/1899. (National Archives Identifier 183550380)

A young man with dark eyes and a smooth, youthful face stares into the camera. He holds a board with large, cursive numbers on it against his chest: 297. The garment he is wearing seems too large for him; the sleeves swallow his hands so that only the tips of his fingers are visible. His name is Lee Tso, and according to 1899 identification documents produced by the United States Consulate in Hong Kong, he was 15 years old and employed as a waiter. We know these things about Lee Tso because he was one of 450 people brought from China to participate in a Chinese “living exhibit” at the 1899 National Export Exposition in Philadelphia.

The 1899 National Export Exposition was an event organized by the Commercial Museum and the Franklin Institute in order to encourage American manufacturers to participate in international export trade. The exhibition received financial support from both the federal government and the city of Philadelphia.

Prior to the event, the organizers of the exposition traveled around the world and purchased samples of manufactured items to exhibit at the exposition in order to show American producers the kinds of competition they were up against. American manufacturers and inventors were also invited to display their products. Delegates from other countries were invited as well, and trade and business deals were struck over the course of the exposition. 

However, manufactured products were not the only items on display; the “lighter side” of the event included a living exhibit: a replica Chinese village. According to a pamphlet promoting the exposition, “One of the leading attractions of this character will be a Chinese Village, a counterpart of a street in Pekin or Shanghai, populated with 450 men, women and children, brought from China for the purpose.”

Silk Souvenir of the 1899 National Export Exposition. (Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia)

This kind of ethnographic showcase was not unusual at colonial exhibitions and worlds’ fairs of the time. These events focused on creating a narrative of progress and the racist idea of the natural dominance and superiority of Western “civilization” over so-called primitive peoples. The 1899 National Export Exposition aimed to promote American trade interests and economic dominance through the export market; the choice to include a Chinese village as “entertainment” was consistent with those goals.

As I looked at the photograph of Lee Tso, and photographs of the other Chinese participants in the “Chinese Village,” I was awash with questions. What was it like to be part of a “living exhibit,” or what some people might call a “human zoo”? Theoretically, the participants in the village did so of their own volition—did they understand what they were being asked to do? What motivated their participation? What did they do while they were in Philadelphia—did they have time off? If so, where did they go? What did they see? Did they go back to China at the end of the exposition? What did this experience mean to them?

We do not currently have sources in the historical record that would shed light on these particular questions. For now, we can only look at these documents and wonder. But in doing so, we can begin to imagine each of these people pictured in these photographs as people—with stories, motivations, and choices of their own. We can begin to wonder how each of these people lived, and how they faced the challenges that came their way.

Those interested in learning more about the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans faced these challenges, should check out NARA’s digitized Chinese Exclusion Case Files, which luckily hold just as many answers as questions.

Want to know more about the Chinese Exclusion Act and NARA resources? Check out these blog posts:

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website for a wealth of material documenting the Asian and Pacific Islander experience.

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