A sweeping narrative history of the Chinese Exclusion Act through an intimate portrayal of one family’s epic journey to lay down roots in America
*One of Elle's Best Memoirs of 2023 (So Far)*
As the only child of a single mother in Queens, Ava Chin found her family’s origins to be shrouded in mystery. She had never met her father, and her grandparents’ stories didn’t match the history she read at school. Mott Street traces Chin’s quest to understand her Chinese American family’s story. Over decades of painstaking research, she finds not only her father but also the building that provided a refuge for them all.
Breaking the silence surrounding her family’s past meant confronting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first federal law to restrict immigration by race and nationality, barring Chinese immigrants from citizenship for six decades. Chin traces the story of the pioneering family members who emigrated from the Pearl River Delta, crossing an ocean to make their way in the American West of the mid-nineteenth century. She tells of their backbreaking work on the transcontinental railroad and of the brutal racism of frontier towns, then follows their paths to New York City.
In New York’s Chinatown she discovers a single building on Mott Street where so many of her ancestors would live, begin families, and craft new identities. She follows the men and women who became merchants, “paper son” refugees, activists, and heads of the Chinese tong, piecing together how they bore and resisted the weight of the Exclusion laws. She soon realizes that exclusion is not simply a political condition but also a personal one.
Gorgeously written, deeply researched, and tremendously resonant, Mott Street uncovers a legacy of exclusion and resilience that speaks to the American experience, past and present.
Ava Chin is the author of Eating Wildly, winner of the Les Dames d’Escoffier International M.F.K. Fisher Book Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and Saveur. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, New York Foundation for the Arts, New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is an associate professor of creative nonfiction at the City University of New York.