by Peter Klang
This essay discusses Asian American bicultural identity, traditional values and customs from root cultures, and how they are still practiced and celebrated by Asian American families and in communities. It also addresses the ways in which ethnic community influence the lives of the people it serves including residents, as well as how individuals of diverse cultural backgrounds can contribute to the lives of those around them.
Within a year of their arrival in 1850, Chinese immigrants in San Francisco established a Chinatown. Others soon followed. Boston’s Chinatown was established by 1875. Chinatown was then, as it still is now, a place of support and security where one could find a bed, job, and social services; a place of cultural familiarity where one could share common food, language, and customs. Excluded from the larger society, Chinatown was home.
Parallel patterns of community development occurred with Japanese immigrants who quickly established Japantown’s and Little Tokyo’s in the 1890’s and with Filipino immigrants who settled in Manilatown’s in the 1920’s up and down the West Coast. Immigrant communities erected villages and family associations which reproduced the social structure of their home villages. Temples and churches were built to preserve traditional religious practices while language schools were founded to maintain the language and cultural integrity of the younger generation. Asian language newspapers and periodicals reported on news in the homeland as well as relevant local affairs in the community.
Early Asian communities were predominantly male because young men had been recruited as laborers. Women could not join them because of U.S. Congressional exclusion acts. Without many women, children, or families, these “bachelor societies” were often lonely. In 1900, for example, Chinese men in the United States numbered about 85,000 while the number of Chinese women was less than 2,000. Social organizations and recreational activities played critical roles in building a sense of support and belonging. Nevertheless, with all new immigrants excluded and no women to produce a second generation, the communities were condemned to extinction.
Through a combination of ingenuity and serendipity, however, Chinese devised an “extra-legal” way to sustain their community’s future. Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which destroyed all birth and immigration records, many Chinese immigrants declared themselves to be U.S. citizens with children, usually sons, who were still in China. Since children of U.S. citizens were, by definition, also U.S. citizens, this process created openings on paper for Chinese children to enter the U.S. legally as citizens in spite of the exclusion acts if they could prove their identities.
For some, a Chinese American’s real son successfully joined him in this way. In a few cases, an immigrant’s wife joined him by pretending to be his daughter. Many others, however, purchased papers and assumed new identities as the only way to come to America. One reason for the harsh interrogations at Angel Island was government suspicion of “paper sons” who accounted for the most Chinese immigration between 1910 and 1940. Although technically “illegal,” the paper-son process was the only way to develop a second generation in the Chinese community during the exclusion years.
Like the Chinese, Japanese in America, and later Koreans, faced the irony of being recruited for labor, then left without the means to develop as community. To strengthen their communities before exclusion in 1924, many Japanese immigrant men wrote letters to their families in Japan to arrange marriages and have their brides come to America. Since the men could not afford the cost of going back to Japan to arrange the marriage directly, they sent pictures of them for their families to show around the village. Sometimes they used an earlier photo from when they were younger and better-looking or even the picture of a handsome friend in order to maximize their chance of being matched with an attractive bride. After a suitable mate was found, her picture was sent to the man in America. The family then held a formal wedding ceremony with the bride in Japan, and filed the marriage documents with both the Japanese and U.S. governments which cleared the way for the woman to join her new husband in America.
When the ships arrived from Japan, the women walked down the plank holding pictures of their husbands while the men waited on the dock holding pictures of their brides. As the picture brides and picture husbands met for the first time, many disappointedly discovered that the photographs did not match with reality! Nevertheless, most marriages lasted as this was the only way to establish Japanese family life and build healthy Japanese communities in America before this practice was outlawed in 1921 by the Ladies’ Agreement and before the Immigration Act of 1924 prevented further Japanese immigration to the United States.