asian american history

by Alessandro Iaia

The Beginning of Immigration

The first waves of major Asian immigration occurred in Hawaii in the 1830s. Although Hawaii was not formally a part of the Union, Hawaii hosted a large variety of American sponsored ventures, whether missionary endeavors or private companies. The beginning of the Asian influx arose when business people (almost exclusively men) realized the financial bonus of having Asian labour. At the time, Asians were paid nothing in comparison to local labour, meaning it was cheaper to sponsor the arrival of an immigrant, pay for their voyage to the USA, and pay them their base salary (which was significantly cheaper than that of a white man), rather than pay for “local labour.” As the United States continued to grow, the need for more labour grew as well. With the California Gold Rush and the Opium War in the Canton region of China (modern-day Hong Kong and Guangzhou), massive populations of Asians (specifically Chinese) immigrated into the United States between 1848-1882. The main source of labour of these Chinese immigrants was construction, specifically the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which according to various historians, is one of the most important infrastructure projects ever in the United States. Their role in the building of the railroads was not limited to simply nailing the wooden frames to the rails, the Chinese immigrants were essentially seen as “cheap meat” as they were in charge of opening mountains with the usage of explosives. Obviously these explosives were not very accurate and would often require multiple fuses before exploding, which rendered the job even more dangerous.

The Beginning of Racism

Although the treatment of Asians was undoubtedly unjust for the beginning of the 19th century, there was not an official form of oppression, rather a degree of “uncomfortable coexistence.” The white Americans generally would view the Asian immigrants as less and would be more willing to lose them than their white employees. This degree of racial separation grew deeper and deeper. After years of racial fears and oppressing, State and Federal associations began appearing which specifically and exclusively targeted Asian immigrants. The first major nationalistic association against Asian immigrants was the Asiatic Exclusion League. The AEL was responsible for many laws passed in order to limit the success of Asian-Americans. An example of their influence on American law can be found in the campaign they ran against the San Francisco Board of Education which essentially segregated schools from white schools and Asian schools (catering specifically to Korean and Japanese children). In addition, their presence was still felt throughout the early part of the 20th century as seen by President Theodore Roosevelt’s Executive order which banned all immigration from Japan to the United States and Mexico. In addition to the passing of the legislature, the AEL had extensive roles in its participation with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The AEL would enforce the law in California and target anyone of Asian descent.

Federally Approved Racism

The Chinese Exclusion Act is widely seen as the most notable anti-Chinese piece of legislature passed by the American government in the 19th century. The Act in itself carries a magnitude of racially charged wrongdoings that are blatantly obvious with its name, the Chinese Exclusion Act. But the history behind the Act shows a greater history of how uncivilized and racist the United States was at that time. The United States had already fought the expulsion of Chinese immigrants for various decades. Throughout the 1860s, white men grew a strong disdain against the Chinese as they were seen as “stealing the white man’s job.” This anti-immigrant mentality grew rampantly and caused the senate and house to pass various acts/bills aiming at banning immigration. At that time, the president, Rutherford B. Hayes, was pro-business and saw the banning of Asian immigrants as something which could hurt the economy. Once his term ended, the proceeding president, Chester A. Arthur passed the bill (Garfield was assassinated before he could pass the act). The systematic practices of racism were not only limited to the legislative and executive branch, but the judicial branch also oversaw cases which primarily stripped the rights away from Asian Americans. People v. Hall court case saw the Supreme Court deem that Asians, alongside African Americans and American Indians, would not be allowed to testify in court which would limit their possibilities to having a fair trial. These laws were passed in response to racism as Asians were seen as vastly different people because of physical and cultural differences. In the Immigration Act of 1924, the United States government expanded the restrictions against Chinese immigration and implemented a full ban on Asian immigration which was passed by Calvin Coolidge. With attacks on Pearl Harbor, two major legislations relating to Asians were passed: the Magnuson Act and the Executive Order 9066 of 1942. The Magnuson Act essentially ended the Chinese Exclusion Act purely based on economic and personal interest. Because China was at war with Japan, it would be beneficial for the United States to create a closer bond with China. But, because the United State was at war with Japan, Order 9066 was passed which sent all Japanese Americans to internment camps on the west coasts in order to “protect” Americans from the Japanese. Although the Magnuson Act was a massive stride forward in Asian equality in the United States, Order 9066 proved that racism would still run rampant within American law. The executive order was rescinded in 1976, over 30 years after the end of the Second World War by Gerald Ford. It was not until 1988 when the United States Congress recognized the wrongdoings of the United States against Japanese Americans.

Hate Against the People

Unfortunately, throughout American history, many practices of racial profiling and discrimination have tainted the reputation of American freedom. One of the most notorious yet forgotten cases of these forms of brutal division can be attributed to the Los Angeles Chinese Riots of 1871. These riots began with the assassination of a white police officer in Calle de Los Negros. After word got around about the assassination of the police officer, anger grew against the Asian community which led to a mod attacking and pillaging of the Chinese community. The attacks were not only limited to punching, the attacks included the mutilation of fingers and genitals. Eventually, 18 Chinese men

were “convicted” and lynched, in what is considered to be the largest mass lynching in American history. Following the Los Angeles Chinese Riots, The Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 created another dark moment in American history. The massacre began with a fight between a few minors; in the fight, an Asian minor was fatally hurt, and the remaining minors were left behind. After the white minors returned to the “fight”, they were armed and killed 28 Chinese people, and destroyed over 75 houses (Chinese owned).

The Ways Which Covid-19 Affected Asian Americans

2020 has been a year which can essentially be summed up by 11 letters, coronavirus. The spread of the novel virus has had multiple impacts within the modern society of the United States, whether it is testing the hospital capabilities of each individual city, the adaptability of virtual learning, or (most relevant to us) racial division. In the news, we have seen various incidents of racial aggression against Asian Americans purely based on the fact that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese town, Wuhan. These racially charged attacks are a symbol that even after 200 years of racial oppression and division, the United States has not been stripped free from the chains of racial hatred. Examples of these attacks can be found by the handful on the news; a striking example is in California with a teenager who was attacked for “having the virus” purely based on the fact that he was Asian. The attack was so violent that he actually ended up in the emergency room. Racially charged attacks against Asians remind the United States that the war against racism is not over and that even in a moment of tragedy and needed unity, people are still capable of hating others purely because they are different.

Notable Asian Americans - Yung Wing

Yung Wing was the first Asian American man to graduate from University in the United States. It was 1854 when he graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree. He was an important figure in reforming the educational process between Asians and Americans; throughout his career, he brought over Chinese students into the United States in order to study. It was not until 1870 when he lost his American citizenship due to the Naturalization Act of 1870.

Notable Asian Americans - Hiram Fong

Hiram Fong was the first Asian American individual to receive a majority vote in a presidential campaign in 1964. His influence in the United States was not only limited to his presidential candidacies, but also to his career as Hawaii’s senator. He was an American native, but traced his heritage back to Guangdong China, as his father had immigrated to the United States in 1872. After immigrating he began his family, which is where Hiram Fong comes into the picture. Hiram attended a local high school and graduated from the University of Hawaii Manoa, and continued his educational studies at Harvard Law School. His decorated career in politics has made him a strong figure within the Asian community in Hawaii as he represented a side of America which had remained dormant for a century; he represented a nation where the bounds of race would not hold one back but rather be the inspiration of self success and motivation.

Notable Asian Americans - Ellison Shoji Onizuka

Ellison Shoji Onizuka was the first Asian American astronaut; having served in the United States Air Force, Onizuka was a decorated veteran who was highlighted for his aerospace capabilities. As a pilot, he had flown over 1,700 hours of training before becoming a NASA astronaut. His career came to an end in the tragic Challenger disaster, where along with 6 other individuals, he died.


A message from the author:

Alessandro Iaia

Understanding the history behind us is a key tool in growing and further developing as a society as well as an individual. In understanding the long existence of a cultural struggle, one not only understands what is the value of hope, but also the beauty of progression. If individuals never stood up against the status quo, human and historical progression would remain stagnant in a period where division would continue its reign and hate would presides over unity. These short lessons on the history of minority groups in our country allow us to reflect on the mistakes that we as a society have made, as well as establish the barriers to deepen the understanding of the direction of progress and true equality.