Cheryll Leo-Gwin. Marilyn & Mao (detail).
Cheryll Leo-Gwin. Marilyn & Mao (detail).

“China: Lost and Found” is the theme of a new series of artwork created by award-winning Seattle artist Cheryll Leo-Gwin. Funded by a King County grant, Leo-Gwin’s paintings and sculpture explore the impact of the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on women and their families.

Leo-Gwin sees parallels between the historic period of virulent anti-Chinese racism and current debates about immigration in the U.S. Chinese families split up during the Exclusion Act when Chinese men left their families to come California to build the railroads, she explained.

“The Exclusion Act is a very complex topic, and its effects continue to reverberate through today,” she said. Enacted by Congress following years of mounting racial tensions, the Exclusion Act effectively barred Chinese immigration until its repeal in 1943.

A fourth-generation Chinese-American, Leo-Gwin discussed her new project in a recent Examiner interview. She came up with the idea after her first visits to China where she launched her business.

“My own interest in the Exclusion Act broadened from an academic topic to a personal one,” she said. “I grew up in an all-white neighborhood on Beacon Hill and didn’t have a clue what it meant to be Chinese. The trips to China made me realize that I am American.”

Historically, early Chinese communities in the U.S. were bachelor societies comprising men who left China to seek their fortunes during the Gold Rush era in California. Once there, they encountered racial discrimination and stiff opposition from American workers fearing competition from the new immigrants.

According to historian Judy Yung, the overwhelming majority of Chinese women in the U.S. in the nineteenth century were prostitutes. Most had been kidnapped, lured, or purchased from poor parents by procurers in China, smuggled or brought to the U.S. disguised as daughters or wives of Chinese immigrants, and then forced to work as indentured or enslaved prostitutes.

“Even today, women in China are seen as commodities and sell themselves,” Leo-Gwin said. Young urban women are seeking wealth through marriage. It’s like women selling motor oil. Many are getting cosmetic surgery to make themselves more appealing.”

Leo-Gwin’s own family experienced hardship as a result of the Exclusion Act. “My mother couldn’t immigrate to the U.S. from Canada because of the restrictions. My father couldn’t immigrate to Canada to be with his wife because of a simultaneous Canadian Chinese Exclusion Act, so he wasn’t present for my birth or my sister’s because of the twin exclusion acts.”

Leo-Gwin’s grandfather was a former physician and Baptist minister, while her grandmother was the first Chinese baby born in Santa Clara, Calif. Leo-Gwin’s father was born in the U.S. and moved west from Missouri. He eventually became a merchant so that he could bring his wife and daughters from Canada.

Issues of Asian-American identity also spurred Leo-Gwin’s interest in the Exclusion Act. “I was trying to find a connection between myself and China. I wanted to pass something onto my kids. My ancestors were not in China, but in America,” she explained. “Growing up in Seattle, I didn’t know many Chinese people. Going to China made me realize I didn’t fit there either.”

Working in mixed media, Leo-Gwin designed papier-mâché sculptures and acrylic paintings that reflect on the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Commissioned by King County’s 4Culture program, the new exhibit is scheduled to go on public display in June 2010.

The winner of numerous honors, including the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Awards, Leo-Gwin received her master of fine arts from the University of Washington. A former commissioner with the Washington State Arts Commission, she also served as president and board member of the Wing Luke Museum.

Leo-Gwin will talk about her new work at a Nov. 13 Artist Lecture, entitled “Exclusion,” at the Bellevue Art Museum. For more information, contact the museum at [425] 519-0763.

To contact Collin Tong,

e-mail [email protected].

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