Chinese Americans

image of New York's Chinatown in the 1880s

For 150 years in the United States - years of menial labor and discrimination, as well as service and contributions to American culture - immigrants from China have not been welcomed with open arms. But Chinese Americans have prevailed and made a place for themselves. From exotic Chinatowns in New York to Midwest suburbia to San Franciscan shores, Asian influences can be seen in nearly every region of the country and in American cuisine, clothing, the arts, education, and technology.

In this land of freedom, the Chinese in America learned that freedom was not distributed equally. And in city ghettos and crowded tenements, Chinese Americans endured poverty and hostility. But the lure of jobs, money, and the opportunity for a better life continued to glimmer on the horizon. In America, a new life of hope was possible.

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exhibit section showing artifacts and photographs

The first Chinese to reach America were lured by opportunities for wealth, but legislation soon restricted them to the menial labor market. The Chinese endured extremely hard work, hatred from "European Americans," and prejudicial laws passed exclusively to limit their rights. Yet the United States remained a beacon of hope to the poor.

Chinese sailors and merchants arrived in New York City in the early 1800s, but the first Chinese to stay were lured to "Gum San" (Gold Mountain) after gold was discovered in California. In the 1850s, new California laws banned all Chinese from the gold fields, yet they stayed on to develop coastal fisheries and reclaim swamp land for farming.

During the Civil War in the 1860s, records list many Chinese immigrants who joined the Northern armies. During the war and after, the Chinese were welcomed as inexpensive laborers to finish the transcontinental railroad. Those of European descent grumbled about "cheap labor" but there was plenty of menial work that only the Chinese agreed to do.

Then a nationwide depression in the 1870s made jobs hard to find for all. Special taxes and restrictive laws began to target only the Chinese. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Acts, legally suspending further immigration and denying them the basic rights of citizenship that were granted to other races.

Individual cruelties and mob massacres in "Chinatowns" across the United States illustrated the hatred that had infiltrated "European America." It was not until 1898 that a U.S. Supreme Court decision established the legal right of citizenship by birth for all Americans, regardless of ethnic background. So as the century drew to a close, the children of Chinese immigrants born in the U.S.A. were legally American citizens.



exhibit section showing artifacts and photos

Sale contract
(top right)- for a 9-year-old girl in China, 1926. Translation reveals that a Chinese man sold his own daughter because of poverty.
Shop Banner (lower right)- opposing slavery for Chinese girls, 1922.
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Yale Divinity School Library, New Haven, Connecticut

The U.S. government continued to clamp down on the rights of the Chinese living in America. Angel Island in San Francisco Bay became the main "processing center" for incoming Asians, but it was a Chinese immigrant's worst nightmare. To ferret out illegal entries, Chinese citizens were detained for long periods of time under degrading conditions.

Chinese immigration was declared permanently illegal in 1902, although loopholes were found and family members of Chinese already living in the U.S. were allowed entry. And even though the federal government still denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants, opportunities for employment were abundant and more money could be made here than in China.

Early in the 20th century, the Chinese population in America was made up mostly of men living in "bachelor communities." Illegal smuggling of Chinese women and girls was a booming business. Many had been promised the riches and freedoms of this western world, then swindled on their arrival and forced into houses of prostitution.

A new immigration station opened on Angel Island. In 1910, this scenic island in view of the glimmering San Francisco coastline, became both the point of entry and a nightmare for Chinese immigrants.

Hundreds if not thousands of "paper sons" arrived - non-relatives who had begged, borrowed or purchased their way into a family of Chinese Americans, carrying false papers for proof. Highly suspicious officials had to separate the legal from the illegal entries, and Chinese citizens were detained in prison-like barracks for weeks. Sometimes the weeks turned into months, even years, before final decisions were made. Many "sons" were deported back to China.



exhibit section showing artifacts and photos

Press Release (copy)
- 1943 when President Roosevelt repealed the Chinese Exclusion Laws.
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York

The Chinese Exclusion Acts were repealed during World War II, granting citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Chinese in America. This repeal also introduced thousands of young men to the military draft. Japanese Americans became the enemy, replacing Chinese Americans as the hated peoples of Asian origin.

President Roosevelt repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts that had placed severe restrictions on Chinese immigration and rights to citizenship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Further immigration law changes allowed families to be reunited by allowing wife and family to join the father in the United States. However, a quota system was set in place to allow only 105 new Chinese immigrants per year. Soon after the 1943 repeal, 14,000 Chinese Americans were drafted into the armed forces during World War II.

The Angel Island immigration station had been closed in 1940 after fire destroyed several buildings, so now it was reverted into a processing center for Japanese prisoners of war. Hatred of Japanese Americans replaced the prejudice against Chinese Americans during WWII, although many Americans did not bother to distinguish between any of the peoples of Asian origin.



photo of Betty Ford in Chinatown

Photograph - Betty Ford campaigning in Los Angeles' Chinatown, 1976.
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

The Chinese had faced hostility in America for several generations. For the most part, these immigrants were prisoners of low-paying jobs in Chinatowns across the country. But beginning in the 1950s, educated Chinese nationals were able to break out of the ghettos and make major contributions to the American economy.

During the 1950s, thousands of Chinese citizens from Taiwan came to the United States to study at American universities. Studying in America was one thing, staying here was another. Chinese nationals could stay in America only if they were employed after graduation - if they failed to find work, they had to remain in school. Many Chinese nationals found the resources to become professional students in the States.

Finally in 1965, Chinese immigration was changed to be on an equal basis with all other countries of the world. The American government established an annual quota that enabled 20,000 Chinese to receive U.S. citizenship. Thousands who had been in the U.S. for ten or more years applied for permanent residency. The Chinese who were granted permanent residency applied for nationality.

At first the increase in these Chinese immigrants added to the old unsolved problems of overcrowding, poor health care, and lack of job opportunities in the Chinese communities. But by the 1970s, a new generation of Chinese Americans was able to find employment. Their skills and education, acquired from years of study in the U.S., freed them from the low-paying labor jobs that had imprisoned earlier generations of Chinese immigrants.

The number of Asians in the U.S. increased substantially in the 1970s, in particular the thousands of Vietnamese who escaped the new Communist government. But Chinese immigrants arrived as well, due to the expanded relationship between the U.S. and Red China, plus America's continued protection of Taiwan. By the end of the decade there were over 400,000 Chinese immigrants (both mainland Chinese and Chinese from Taiwan) living in the United States.



NYC's Chinatown

Photograph credit:
Manhattan's Chinatown - photograph by Chien-Chi Chang
--National Geographic, August 1998

Chinese immigrants continue to arrive in America where they often face further struggles to escape poverty. Yet they are willing to work hard so they can fulfill their dreams of a better life. For Chinese Americans born here in the States, America is home where they have filtered into nearly every region of the country, as well as into job markets, schools, the arts, and government. But prejudice is still experienced - from the bias some hold against all minorities to an ethnic superiority from those born in China.

According to a 1990 census, 529,837 Chinese-born people were living in America. Searching for work and a fresh start, a new wave of Chinese immigrants is pouring into the West Coast and especially New York. About 12,000 arrive in Manhattan's Chinatown legally each year. Just as many come in illegally.

Lower Manhattan's crowded tenements have seen many waves of poor immigrants - Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. Each neighborhood has nearly dissolved as successive generations move on. Chinatown, however, has expanded. Many workers are not required to speak English, nor provide proof of legal status. A construction worker earning $10.00 per hour can earn more in a week than the average yearly income of a person in his home village. Although many immigrants are paid far below minimum wage, their strong work ethic sees them through.

In 1997, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was designated a National Historic Landmark. Several of the buildings on the island are being restored and - similar to Ellis Island in New York Harbor - may become the site of a West Coast immigration museum. "The incarceration experience was right in the Bay ... questioning their citizenship, loyalty, allegiance. It's all about exclusionary laws."

China-born residents often refer to American-born Chinese as ABCs or "bananas" - yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Discrimination from Whites or even other minorities can be a common occurrence, even for those who have never spoken Chinese. Yet a cultural pride prevails, rooted in China's 4,000-year-old culture and a shared 150 years here in America.


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