From Mugshots to Masterpieces: Identities Revealed Through Immigration Portraits of the Chinese Exclusion Era

  • Matthew J. Yee Boston University


The ratification of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 ignited an era of fraught social tension in the United States. With strides in photographic technology occurring alongside ever-increasing restrictions on immigration laws, Chinese immigrants found themselves subjugated under new policies of enforced portraiture. At the time, they were the only immigrant group in the United States required to maintain identifying documents with headshots for verification. In this paper, I present an analysis of the power dynamics behind such photographs using an autoethnographic approach. I argue that Chinese immigrants purposely modified their portraits to reflect American measures of respectability; by doing so, they successfully challenged the authenticity of their enforced documentation.

Author Biography

Matthew J. Yee, Boston University

Matthew Yee is a sophomore from Massachusetts majoring in Biology at Boston University. Outside of academics, he enjoys tracking down rare manuscripts and forgotten records to uncover his family stories. His most recent discovery is a Chinese genealogy book from the early 1800s, which he is currently translating.

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