Questioning Chinese Exclusion: The “Chinese Village” at the 1899 National Export Exposition

Photograph of Lee Tso
Photograph of Lee Tso from his identification papers

We have two new teaching activities that focus on identification papers of several Chinese people who were “on exhibit” in an ethnographic display in Philadelphia in 1899.

You can use The Chinese Village Exhibit at the 1899 Export Exposition for high school, or Contextualizing a Photograph: On Exhibit at the “Chinese Village” for middle school, while teaching about immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act, imperialism, or while teaching the history of anthropology, “otherness,” and living ethnological displays.

Today’s post comes from former National Archives intern Maria Adamson, who created the activities. Maria interned with the National Archives at Philadelphia virtually this past 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. Learn more about CFI and the National Archives’ pivotal role in developing the program here.


Even in the year 2021, I find that many of my high school students’ expectations for history class align pretty closely with the school scenes in the Charlie Brown cartoons. Like the unnamed, faceless instructor who drones on in unintelligible “wah won waaaahs,” they assume my role as their teacher is to deliver a set of facts about the past, the “answers” of history, which they will repeat back to me at exam time.

Of course there are facts to be learned, but I primarily focus on teaching my students the skills that historians use to understand the past. It is vital that students learn how to ask meaningful questions, interpret primary evidence, and construct their own arguments about the significance of past events. However, this can be a big adjustment in expectations for students who are used to classes built around memorization and multiple-choice tests.

In this post, I will share how the “Question Formulation Technique” can be used as a tool in the social studies classroom, to scaffold student inquiry related to primary sources, and to center the humanity of groups that have been marginalized in history, and in the historical record itself.

The Question Formulation Technique, developed by the Right Question Institute, is fairly simple to implement in the classroom. I’ll provide an overview of the QFT here, but anyone who wants to dive deeper into the technique should consult their website, which has detailed tips, templates and resources for educators.

First, the teacher develops the QFocus: the stimulus for jumpstarting questions. It could be a quote, phrase, photograph – anything that will provoke questions. After introducing the QFocus, students write down as many questions as they can think of — this can be done individually, or in small groups. Then, students refine their questions by identifying whether they are close-ended or open-ended, and changing the questions from one type to the other. After this step, students prioritize their questions, for example, “choose two questions that are most important” or “choose three questions that you could pursue with further research.” Teachers can direct students towards next steps that align with their curricular goals, including sharing out the questions, discussion and reflection, or other activities.

Often, I find that students are intimidated by working with primary source documents; using QFT as a tool of primary source inquiry moves the focus away from students’ interpreting the document the “right way” or coming away with the “right answers,” and instead rewards curiosity, risk-taking, and personal engagement with the material. I’ve employed the QFT with primary documents or photographs in a variety of ways: at the beginning of a new unit to spark student interest and assess their prior knowledge of a topic, to dive deep into a particular issue, and to teach students how to develop their own research questions.

I find QFT to be a great fit for use with primary source documents, because it makes room for different interpretations, as well as the “messiness” of historical inquiry. Instead of neat and tidy answers delivered through a textbook, or a teacher’s lecture, students drive the direction of the lesson through the questions that they generate.

Finally, QFT is a useful tool to explore historical topics for which there are gaps, omissions or erasures in the historical record. For primary sources related to the history and perspectives of oppressed groups, often all we have are fragments, or sources that are solely through the lens of the powerful or elite. The Question Formulation Technique doesn’t do anything to amend the record itself, but the technique can help spark student curiosity and thinking about what is not said, shared, or visible in a source.

Photograph of Ah Chue, attached to her identification form
Identification Paper of Ah Chue, 1899. From the Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service

This is what I had in mind when I recently developed a lesson around the identification documents of the participants of the “Chinese Village,” an ethnographic display during 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 travelled around the world, and purchased samples of manufactured items to exhibit at the exposition, 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.”

This kind of ethnographic showcase was not unusual in this time period at colonial exhibitions and worlds’ fairs. These events were 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 inhumane choice to include a Chinese Village as “entertainment” was consistent with those goals.

Due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the participants in the Village had to get special, Federal level permission to enter the United States; it is for this reason the identification documents were produced. Each document includes basic biographical details, identifying information and a small photograph.

As I looked at the photographs of the participants in the “Chinese Village,” I was awash with questions about their lives and experiences. How did they cope with being 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?

Because of the lack of sources that could be used to answer these questions, I initially struggled to imagine how to incorporate the identification documents into a lesson. I also didn’t want to create a lesson that further dehumanized or decentered the experiences of the participants in the Chinese Village.

Upon further reflection, I realized that these documents provided an opportunity for students to struggle with the gaps in the historical record, the same way that I was. I can’t provide students neat and tidy answers about the Chinese Village. The racism and discrimination underlying the exhibit is an ugly truth that students need to know, and unfortunately there is no record to support further investigation into the experiences of the participants, from their points of view. However, it is my hope that the activity I developed around identification documents using the Question Formulation Technique draws students in to the messiness of history, and gives them practice asking critically minded questions of the sources that they encounter.

While we can’t always easily find the answers, we can start by asking questions that center the humanity, agency and stories of those people whose humanity has been historically denied.

Whether or not this specific activity is a good fit for your classroom, I hope this exploration of the usefulness of the Question Formulation Technique in conjunction with primary sources helps you bring primary source documents, and student driven inquiry, into your classroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *