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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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