Asian Americans

The success story of the 80s has been the catchphrase used in the media to describe certain groups of Asian Americans--especially the American-born children of emigrants from China, Japan, and Korea. While the media focus was usually on the outstanding success in school or business of these Asian Americans, their remarkable achievements were often matched by young Asian immigrants for whom English was a second language. Part of the success story has been the old-world ethics of their parents, who often left their Asian homes without any material possessions and who had to work hard to achieve their goals.

Beyond their common struggles for success in an alien world, the various Asian American ethnic groups should not be lumped together as if they were homogeneous. Their cultures are distinct, and each of these ethnic groups came to the United States under widely varying circumstances.

Asian Americans vary as much as Norwegians differ from Spaniards or the English from the French and Italians, though all are Europeans. The term is broad enough to include people from all of what was Soviet Central Asia (including Russia east of the Ural Mountains, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), as well as citizens of the Indian subcontinent (including India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), Thailand, China, Japan, Korea, Indochina, the Philippines, Indonesia, and some Pacific islands (mainly the Hawaiian islands, Samoa, and Guam).

The real success story of Asian Americans is epitomized in their overall pursuit of excellence. The median family income of Asian Americans exceeds that of the general population by several thousand dollars. (An exception is emigrants from Southeast Asia, refugees from the Vietnam War who only began coming to America after the war ended in 1975.)

Asian American children of high school age generally outscore other students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and their overall grades are higher. They make up a disproportionately large segment of student bodies in the most prominent colleges and universities. There were complaints that discriminatory quotas were being applied against these students, however, as a higher percentage of high school graduates sought entrance to the top schools.

Japanese Americans in college today are the second and third generations of their families born in the United States. Chinese Americans in college today range from individuals whose families have lived in the United States for five generations to the children of educated urban Chinese newcomers. These individuals are American by birth, outlook, training, and philosophy, and are influenced only peripherally by ancestral traditions. This is not wholly true of the offspring of recent arrivals in the United States. Many are strongly influenced by the ancient legacy of their parents, whose traditions emphasize family solidarity, discipline, hard work, and schooling.

A traditional emphasis on hard work and the willingness to undertake the most menial jobs to get ahead are perhaps the most obvious characteristics of the more recent immigrants. It is often the case that all adult family members work, while the children go to school. Asian American immigrants usually move into the economy through small business enterprises--for example, newsstands, grocery stores, motels, and restaurants. In New York City, for instance, Korean Americans operate more than half of the small family-owned grocery stores.

Those Asian Americans whose families have been living in the United States for several generations resent being singled out and stereotyped as part of a superminority. They feel that their achievements are only comparable to what other immigrant groups have done in the past. They are also aware that they have often had to work harder to overcome the hurdles of racism and ethnic discrimination. Even after six generations American citizens of Asian descent are still identified as Asian Americans, and they believe that they are not fully accepted as Americans. (Americans of European descent are usually referred to as Americans after a single generation, while Americans with an African background have only recently chosen to be called African Americans.)

Historical Background

There were more than 7 million Asian Americans in the United States in 1990. This represented a sharp increase from the 891,000 who were accounted for in 1960. The statistics published by the Bureau of the Census for 1980 gave a total of 3,726,440 Asians, including Pacific islanders, which represented 1.6 percent of the population.

Emigration from Europe began in the 17th century but from Asia not until the 19th. The total emigration from the Far East consistently remained below the number of European arrivals, with one exception. There was substantial immigration to Hawaii, which was not a state until 1959--mainly to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations. Hawaii thus became a stepping-stone for many Asians to the American mainland. Today, Hawaii is the only state whose population has its roots mainly in Asia. Apart from this exception, the total Asian immigration to the United States never approached the nearly 33 million people who arrived from European nations between 1820 and 1929. One reason for the smaller number of Asians was the discriminatory legislation passed by the United States Congress and several of the states.

According to the Naturalization Act of 1790, only free, white immigrants could gain citizenship through naturalization procedures. Although the provisions of this law were set aside in 1870 in favor of African Americans who were former slaves and their descendants, Asians were still excluded. Several Western states also passed discriminatory legislation against Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants, which severely limited their rights. The phrase aliens ineligible to citizenship was used in what were called antialien land laws to deny Asians the right to own property. These laws, passed in the early 1900s, had the effect of dooming Asian immigrant farmers to lives as farm laborers, sharecroppers, or tenant farmers.

The Immigration Act of 1924, which became known as the Asian Exclusion Act and the National Origins Act, prohibited the entry into the United States for permanent residence of all persons whose national origin sprang from nations within what was called the Asia Pacific Triangle. These countries included Japan, China, the Philippines, Laos, Siam (Thailand), Cambodia, Singapore (then a British colony), Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma (Myanmar), India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Malaysia. The act halted the immigration of all Asians and was deeply resented by the affected countries because it maintained that their people were undesirable because of race. The 1924 law was modified during World War II, after some embarrassment to the United States, to provide immigration quotas for China and the Philippines, which were allies of the United States against Japan.

Under vigorous lobbying by the Japanese American Citizens League, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act), which eliminated race as a consideration in both immigration and naturalization. This was a significant piece of legislation in that it recognized Asians other than Chinese and Filipinos as being worthy of immigrating to the United States. It established only minimal quotas for them, however.

The Immigration Act of 1965 permitted residents of the Asia Pacific Triangle to enter the United States as quota immigrants, which resulted in heavy emigrations from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Indochina. From Southeast Asia came about 130,000 refugees after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, and five years later the number increased to more than 560,000.

Further legislation after the war had created an immigration system that aided family reunification and created preferences for immigrants with good educational backgrounds. The Refugee Act of 1980 brought some order to admission of emigrants coming from Southeast Asia's war zone.

More than half of the Asian Americans were living on the West coast by the late 1980s. California, with 35 percent, had the largest Asian population.

Chinese Americans

The first Chinese immigrant arrived in 1820, according to United States government records. Fewer than 1,000 arrived during the next 27 years. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 drew the first significant number of Chinese. They came to do menial work for the growing population of gold seekers. By 1852 there were about 25,000 Chinese in California. By 1880 the total had climbed to 105,465, and most lived in the Far West. Many thousands more of the Chinese who came to America returned home after a few years.

Nearly all of the early Chinese immigrants were young, poorly educated males from Guangdong (Kwangtung) Province. They came from a war-torn country where job opportunities were few. Many of them planned to work in the United States only until they could return home with a modest nest egg.

When the Chinese first arrived in California, they were regarded as welcome additions to a very small work force. Later, when anti-Chinese agitation was at its height, it was also for economic reasons that they were persecuted. The Chinese performed every type of menial job that was available. They worked in the gold mines, the lumber industry, the fisheries and canneries, and as migrant farm laborers. Some of them opened laundries, and within a few decades there were Chinese laundries in many American cities. The laundry business was a service for which there was a demand and one that required no capital or skills to start. The early immigrants, however, should be remembered for their heroic efforts in the building of the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad employed about 15,000 Chinese.

By the time the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the population of the Far West--especially in California--had increased dramatically. The overwhelmingly white labor force, made up largely of first-generation European immigrants, soon found itself in competition with thousands of unemployed Chinese rail workers. Only a year earlier (on July 28, 1868) Congress had ratified the Burlingame Treaty--a document that allowed the free and unlimited migration of Chinese but excluded them from naturalization. Even before the treaty became law, however, anti-Chinese feeling was being stirred up throughout the West. American citizens regarded the immigrants as serious competition for jobs.

Two other factors prompted an upsurge in anti-Chinese sentiment. The first was the increase in Chinese immigration after 1869. The second was the depression that started in 1873. Adding fuel to an already dangerous situation was the use of Chinese workers as strikebreakers in different parts of the United States and the attempts to replace the freed black slaves with Chinese laborers on Southern plantations. Throughout the West organizations were formed to stop emigration from the Far East. In some cities there were anti-Chinese riots. In San Francisco, an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney started a movement to fight the "Oriental menace."

The demands for an end to Chinese immigration became a major issue in West coast politics. Finally Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It effectively ended the immigration of Chinese laborers. Afterwards the number of Chinese in the United States gradually decreased as many of the immigrants returned home or went to more hospitable places. Very few Chinese women had come to the United States to join the young Chinese men. Since Asians were forbidden by law to marry whites, there was little opportunity to have families and there were few children to replace the aging Chinese population. The Geary Act of 1892 extended the 1882 exclusion policy. And in 1924 the National Origins Act drastically restricted immigration to the United States from all of Asia. By this time the total number of Chinese in the United States had dropped to fewer than 62,000.

The end of this discrimination against Asians began during World War II. With China as a wartime ally in fighting Japan, the 1882 exclusion act became a national embarrassment. In 1943 Congress repealed the law and granted naturalization rights to foreign-born Chinese.

Chinatowns. The Chinese normally settled in communities of their peers, as did most other immigrant groups. They created small Chinatowns in which they opened their own stores and restaurants, built temples, and formed societies. The most useful of the early associations were the Chinese Six Companies--family or clan organizations that helped immigrants to get established. These associations also governed affairs within the Chinese communities, particularly in San Francisco's large Chinatown. The Chinese Six Companies also served American employers as employment bureaus to hire workers.

Somewhat better known beyond the Chinatowns were their tongs. These started out as benevolent protective associations, much like the Chinese Six Companies, but they were rooted in secret Chinese societies in Asia. In California the tongs developed into criminal gangs, each of which staked out its own territory. Feuds between these gangs, popularly called tong wars by outside observers, began during the 1850s and lasted until the 1920s. Some Chinatowns experienced a renewal of urban gang problems in the 1980s. This situation was related less to tongs than to the disillusionment felt by young unemployed immigrants toward the lack of economic opportunity.

Japanese Americans

In 1868 the first group of Japanese laborers arrived in Hawaii. A year later the first Japanese settlement on the American mainland was founded: the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in Gold Hill, Calif. The colony failed as an enterprise within two years. Thereafter there was a small, but steady, immigration of male Japanese, mostly students, to the United States. Significant numbers of workers did not begin arriving until after 1890, when the Chinese Exclusion Act had been in effect for eight years. By that year there were only 2,039 Japanese in the United States according to the census. In the next decade about 22,000 arrived, followed by 58,000 in the decade from 1901 through 1910 (compared to nearly 9 million European immigrants in the same period).

Like the Chinese, the Japanese were welcomed as laborers when they first arrived. They lived in small colonies of their own, especially in San Francisco and in Los Angeles after the San Francisco earthquake. The Japanese also worked in similar industries--the lumber camps, railroads, fisheries and small factories--and in agriculture as farmers or migrant workers. Some started small businesses. Unlike the Chinese, many planned to remain in the United States in spite of the denial of naturalization privileges.

To establish families, many Japanese men sent for picture brides, wives chosen through the exchange of photographs. The picture marriage might be contracted after a man had asked parents, relatives, or friends to act as go-betweens, and the groom was not necessarily present for the ceremony. Usually the immigrant hoped to return to Japan someday, but, when families were formed and roots were established, returning to Japan became difficult.

Hardly had the Japanese established themselves on the West coast when an anti-Japanese movement began. As with the opposition to the Chinese, it was led by California labor leaders, newspapers, and politicians. The Asiatic Exclusion League was founded in San Francisco in 1905. A year later the city's Japanese schoolchildren were segregated from white students by the school board. Protests from Japan, countered by pressures from California, led President Theodore Roosevelt to make a "Gentlemen's Agreement" with Japan in 1907. Under its terms, the government of Japan stopped issuing passports to laborers. Enforcement of the agreement by both nations effectively slowed Japanese immigration; some 70,000 Japanese returned home in the decade that ended in 1920.

The end of immigration in 1924 did not stop discrimination in California and other Western states. To stem the prosperity of the hardworking Japanese, the California legislature passed the first in a series of alien land laws in 1913. The law did not mention the Japanese by name, but it provided that aliens ineligible for citizenship could not own land and limited leases to three years. Other states followed suit, and California soon closed legal loopholes. In 1922 the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ban against naturalization of Japanese immigrants.

Hostility from the majority population forced the Japanese to live in social isolation. They formed their own organizations and built their own churches and Buddhist temples. They also started their own protective associations, such as the Jikei-Kai that was organized after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to provide charity for its victims. By 1939, when about half of the Japanese population was American born, the second generation (called nisei) founded the Japanese American Citizens League. Its goals were to combat racism and to promote Americanism.

Pearl Harbor. "Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." With these words, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened his speech requesting a declaration of war against Japan. The attack on Pearl Harbor proved disastrous for Americans of Japanese descent. Anti-Japanese sentiment, which had been dormant, quickly surfaced, encouraged by political opportunists and the press. It spread throughout the United States but was especially rampant on the West coast, where it was feared that the Japanese navy might launch attack. Japanese American residents were all viewed as potential traitors.

By law, the foreign-born Japanese were denied citizenship, just as the Chinese were. But their American-born children were United States citizens. The two groups of Japanese Americans were classified in Army terminology as aliens and nonaliens, but all were treated as enemy aliens. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, designating military strategic areas on the West coast. On March 18 an order was issued for the relocation of all individuals of Japanese ancestry from the strategic areas. The Japanese naturally lost their jobs, along with their legal and constitutional rights.

Up to 120,000 Japanese Americans were transported to ten concentration camps, called relocation centers. Only 2,000 Japanese voluntarily moved to other parts of the country. Widespread hostility discouraged Japanese Americans from venturing into unfamiliar areas. Strangely, the larger Japanese population of about 150,000 on the Hawaiian Islands was not interned, though theoretically it posed a more serious threat to the United States war effort. The relocation provided an opportunity for non-Japanese on the West coast to despoil the evacuees of their land, homes, and businesses.

After World War II the United States confronted a new enemy--the Soviet Union. Japan became an American ally after the war. And the devastation caused by the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 helped to dispose public opinion in favor of the Japanese Americans. This sentiment was intensified by the outstanding feats of Japanese American fighting units--notably the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Unit--during World War II. (The 442nd Regimental Combat Unit consisted of second-generation Japanese Americans, and it became the most decorated army unit of its size and length of service in American history.) Altogether, about 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the war, including some 6,000 linguists who translated captured documents and intercepted messages, interrogated prisoners, and otherwise provided valuable intelligence.

Although Japanese American internees were allowed to leave the camps on an individual basis, the disgraceful episode was not brought to a close legally until 1989. In 1988 Congress passed a bill apologizing for the internment and offering cash payments of 20,000 tax-free dollars to each victim still living (about 60,000 at the time). The bill acknowledged that an injustice had been committed "without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage." Its sponsors were four Japanese Americans: Representatives Norman Y. Mineta and Robert T. Matsui of California and Senators Daniel K. Inouye and Spark M. Matsunaga of Hawaii. Because Congress failed to appropriate the necessary funds, a second bill had to be passed in 1989 to guarantee the reparations.

Korean Americans

The focus of Korean immigration from 1900 to 1946 was Hawaii. The first 100 Koreans arrived on the islands in 1903 to work on the sugar plantations. Soon the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association was arranging for recruitment of Korean workers.

The reasons for emigration from Korea were more internal than external. The country, from the time of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, was in almost constant turmoil. This war was followed by the Russo- Japanese War and a few years later by the Japanese takeover of Korea itself. About 8,000 Koreans had gone to Hawaii before Japan stopped the emigration in 1905. Japan took this action to keep Koreans from competing with Japanese immigrants to the islands and to the West coast of the United States.

After 1905 only limited numbers of Koreans came to the United States. These were mostly students, a few political refugees, and some picture brides for Korean men. The political refugees formed organizations to promote Korean independence. One of the leading activists was Syngman Rhee, who became president of South Korea in 1948

Even more than the Japanese, the Koreans wanted to remain in their new home--especially since they did not wish to return to a homeland dominated by Japan. The earlier Korean immigrants had been mostly peasants. Later arrivals included many intellectuals. A sizable number were Christians, and their churches became the chief communal organizations.

Because there were so few Koreans in the United States prior to World War II, there was less agitation against them. They were, however, subjected to the San Francisco school segregation rule of 1906, along with the Japanese. And they were not allowed to become naturalized citizens. Arrivals from Korea ceased after the 1924 immigration act was passed.

After World War II, Korea was divided in two. North Korea became a Communist ally of the Soviet Union, while South Korea was allied with the United States. There was no emigration from South Korea, with the exception of a few isolated cases, until 1952. There was no emigration from North Korea because the North Koreans had dropped an iron curtain across the peninsula following the division. After the Korean War (1950-53), North Korea became a closed society.

Before the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, the South Koreans who immigrated to the United States were mainly of three types: brides of American servicemen, college students, and children born to Korean women and American servicemen. Many of these Amerasian children were orphans who were brought to the United States to be adopted.

By 1970 there were a few more than 70,000 Koreans in the United States. As provisions of the 1965 immigration law began to take effect, this number grew dramatically. By 1990 there were more than 798,000 Koreans. A large number of the new immigrants were urban professionals, including physicians. In general, the later immigrants came from a broader spectrum of the population than earlier Koreans.

Asian Indian Americans

There were approximately 815,000 Asian Indians and their descendants in the United States in 1990. More than 354,000 emigrants from India arrived in the two and a half decades from 1961 to 1986. Most members of this group were well educated, and there were many professionals among them. They tended, therefore, to be city dwellers and formed residential and business communities in major urban centers. Mass emigration from the Indian subcontinent became possible only with the passage of the 1965 act. Prior to that date, East Indians were generally excluded by provisions of the 1924 immigration law, along with other Asians. The small Indian population in the United States prior to 1960 consisted mostly of college and university students, in addition to descendants of Asian Indians who had arrived earlier.

The first significant emigration from India occurred in the years 1901-10. Most of the arrivals went to the West coast, either directly from India or from the Canadian province of British Columbia. The number of arrivals was not large: 271 were admitted in 1906; 1,072 in 1907; and 1,710 in 1908. In 1909 the federal government began a policy of restricting admissions, largely as a result of political and social pressures from West coast residents. Many Indians were turned back because of health problems, while others were denied entry because it was feared they would be forced to live off public charity.

When the East Indians began arriving in numbers, it was as a result of active recruitment by West coast industrialists who wanted a continuous supply of cheap labor. Many of the Indians were put to work at menial jobs in lumber camps or on railroads. A sizable number ended up as migrant farm workers in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys in California.

Filipino Americans

The United States acquired the Philippine Islands from Spain in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and established an American colony there. The islands were not granted their independence until 1946. During that period there was some Filipino immigration to the mainland of the United States, but the number of arrivals was never large. Most emigrants from the islands went to Hawaii. They were actively recruited by agents of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association. From 1909 to 1931 about 113,000 Filipinos went to Hawaii. When hard times struck the agriculture industry there, many Filipinos returned home, while nearly 20,000 of them went to the West coast. Some of these Filipinos worked most of the year on California farms but spent the summers working in Alaska salmon canneries.

In 1934 Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie act, which provided for the eventual independence of the Philippines. This legislation limited the emigration from the islands to only 50 each year. This quota was raised to 100 in 1946, and the immigrants were allowed to apply for citizenship. Since the passage of the 1965 immigration law, the Philippines has become one of the major sources of American immigration.

Indo-Chinese War Refugees

Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975 approximately 150,000 Vietnamese refugees have begun their lives in the United States in Westminster, Calif., a community south of Los Angeles in Orange County. This area became the American capital of the Vietnamese immigrant population. The region had a Little Saigon, a Vietnamese chamber of commerce, and about 2,000 Vietnamese-owned businesses.

Similarly, ethnic communities of Laotians and Cambodians sprang up in such states as Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Minnesota, Florida, and Pennsylvania. California had the largest concentration of all Indo-Chinese groups, except for the Indo-Chinese Hmong, formerly a mountain-dwelling people of Vietnam and Laos, whose largest community was in Minnesota. Each group had its own language and culture and preferred to live isolated from the others.

The refugee problem in Southeast Asia had been escalating ever since large-scale bombing attacks were launched on North Vietnam in the mid-1960s. By the end of the conflict thousands were homeless and thousands more sought refuge from the victorious Communists. Many of the Vietnamese (among whom were large numbers of ethnic Chinese) were evacuated by American military forces. As repression and genocide followed the Communist takeover, still more refugees fled. Among them were vast numbers of boat people, who used any sea vessel at their disposal to escape Indochina. Many were first sheltered in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia before reaching the United States.

While these immigrants were allowed into the United States under various refugee laws, the government sought the help of volunteer agencies to find American sponsors and to arrange for jobs and housing. The immigrants were then sent to various parts of the country to begin new lives. The govern- ment's purpose in this program was to scatter them and thus prevent the growth of ethnic colonies such as the one that developed in Westminster. The plan failed quickly. Not long after their original settlement the refugee families, driven by loneliness, began to relocate to ethnic communities. Thus the present settlement of the Indo-Chinese refugees developed from this second migration.

These resettled immigrants found life difficult. While most of the first Indo-Chinese refugees had been well-educated city dwellers, the later arrivals came from rural backgrounds and had limited, if any, schooling. (The Hmong, for example, were subsistence peasants without a written language.) They did not speak English, and their few skills were useless in an urban, industrialized society. Many suffered from physical and psychological traumas that they had experienced before fleeing Indochina. Desperate for money and humiliated by their oppressed situation, a few turned to criminal activities, but most worked hard to become less dependent upon public aid. Members of large families usually helped one another with living expenses and education costs.

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