A look at the long history of Asian Americans and its role in
shaping US identity. The essay also looks at the push-pull factors that
have helped define demographic trends in the United States to present
day and also covers some darker periods of American history, including
the Congressional Exclusionary Act restricting immigration based on
race and the Japanese American Internment during WWII.
In response to the challenge of changing demographics more than a century ago, the San Francisco School Board established a segregated Chinese Primary School for Chinese children to attend, including those who were American-born. By the turn-of-the century after Japanese immigrants had settled in the wake of Chinese exclusion, the School Board also applied the Chinese segregation policy to Japanese students. School superintendent, Aaron Altmann, advised the city's principals: "Any child that may apply for enrollment or at present attends your school who may be designated under the head of 'Mongolian' must be excluded, and in furtherance of this please direct them to apply at the Chinese School for enrollment."
Throughout their history, Asian Americans have confronted a long legacy of exclusion and inequity in relation to school policies and practices, particularly during periods of changing demographics, economic recession, or war. In spite of historic, linguistic differences, distinct Asian nationalities have been grouped together and treated similarly in schools and in the larger society. The grouping of Asian Americans together, then, makes sense in light of historic links from the past to the present.
Beginning in the 1850s when young single men were recruited as contract laborers from Southern China, Asian immigrants have played a vital role in the development of this country. Working as miners, railroad builders, farmers, factory workers, and fishermen, the Chinese represented 20% of California's labor force by 1870, even though they constituted only .002% of the entire United States population. With the depression of 1876, amidst cries of "They're taking away our jobs!," anti-Chinese legislation and violence raged throughout the West Coast.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act—the only United States Iaw to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race—which restricted Chinese immigration for the next sixty years. The "Chinese Must Go" movement was so strong that Chinese immigration to the United States declined from 39,500 in 1882 to only 10 in 1887.
By 1885, following Chinese Exclusion Act, large numbers of young Japanese laborers, together with smaller numbers of Koreans and Indians, began arriving on the West Coast where they replaced the Chinese as cheap labor in building railroads, farming, and fishing. Growing anti-Japanese legislation and violence soon followed. In 1907, Japanese immigration was restricted by a "Gentleman's Agreement" between the United States and Japan.
Small numbers of Korean immigrants came to Hawaii and then the mainland United States following the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War and Japan's occupation of Korea. Serving as strike-breakers, railroad builders, and agricultural workers, Korean immigrants faced not only racist exclusion in the United States but Japanese colonization at home. Some Korean patriots also settled in the United States as political exiles and organized for Korean independence.
South Asian Indian immigrants also entered the United States as laborers, following Chinese exclusion. Recruited initially by Canadian-Pacific railroad companies, a few thousand Sikh immigrants from the Punjabi region immigrated to Canada which, like India, was part of the British empire. Later, many migrated into the Pacific Northwest and California, and became farm laborers. Ironically decried as a "Hindu invasion" by exclusionists and white labor, the "tide of the Turbans" was outlawed in 1917 when Congress declared that India was part of the Pacific-Barred Zone of excluded Asian countries.
By 1924, with the exception of Filipino "nationals," all Asian immigrants, including Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians were fully excluded by law, denied citizenship and naturalization, and prevented from marrying Caucasians or owning land.
With all other Asians excluded, thousands of young, single Filipinos began migrating in large numbers to the West Coast during the 1920s to work in farms and canneries, filling the continuing need for cheap labor. Filipinos were not legally excluded by the immigration laws because the Philippines was already annexed by the United States as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Racism and economic competition, intensified by the depression of 1929, however, led to severe anti-Filipino violence and passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1935 which placed an annual quota of fifty on Filipino migration—effectively excluding their entry as well. During the half century from 1882 to 1935, three waves of early Asian immigrants contributed their labor to the building of this country but were eventually denied entry and not granted naturalization rights until 1952. Though coming from different countries and cultures, the pioneering Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, and Filipinos each faced similar conditions of exclusion which forged the beginnings of a common, shared Asian experience in America.