This article is an edited chapter on the major historical events and contemporary characteristics of the Chinese American community, excerpted from The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century, edited by Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles in conjunction with AsianWeek Magazine and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
Dreams And Reality Diverge
Chinese Americans are the oldest and largest ethnic group of Asian ancestry in the United States. They have endured a long history of migration and settlement that dates back to the late 1840s, including some 60 years of legal exclusion. In the mid-l9th century, most Chinese immigrants arrived in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland as contract labor, working at first in the plantation economy in Hawaii and in the mining industry on the West Coast and later on the transcontinental railroads west of the Rocky Mountains.
But few realized their gold dreams; many found themselves instead easy targets of discrimination and exclusion. In the 1870s, white workers' frustration with economic distress, labor market uncertainty, and capitalist exploitation turned into anti-Chinese sentiment and racist attacks against the Chinese called them the "yellow peril." In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and later extended to exclude all Asian immigrants until World War II. The number of new immigrants arriving in the United States from China dwindled from 123,000 in the 1870s to 14,800 in the 1890s, and then to a historically low number of 5,000 in the 1930s.
Legal exclusion, augmented by extralegal persecution and anti-Chinese violence, effectively drove the Chinese out of the mines, farms, woolen mills, and factories on the West Coast. As a result, many Chinese laborers already in the United States lost hope of ever fulfilling their dreams and returned permanently to China. Others, who could not afford or were too ashamed to return home, gravitated toward San Francisco's Chinatown for self-protection.
Still others traveled eastward to look for alternative means of livelihood. Chinatowns in the Northeast, particularly New York, and the mid-West grew to absorb those fleeing the extreme persecution in California. The gender imbalance for Chinese was nearly 27 males per single female in 1890. That dropped steadily over time, but males still outnumbered females by more than 2:1 by the 1940s.
Building A Community
In much of the pre-World War II era, the Chinese American community was essentially an isolated bachelors' society consisting of a small merchant class and a vast working class of sojourners (temporary immigrants who intended to return home after making money working in the U.S.). After the 1950s, when hundreds of refugees and their families fled Communist China and arrived in the U.S. and particularly since the enactment of the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act, the ethnic community has experienced unprecedented demographic and social transformation from a bachelors' society to a family community.
Contemporary Chinese immigrants have arrived not only from mainland China, but also from the greater Chinese Diaspora -- Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Americas. They have also come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Some arrived in the United States with little money, minimum education, and few job skills, which forced them to take low-wage jobs and settle in deteriorating urban neighborhoods. Others came with family savings, education and skills far above the levels of average Americans.
Nationwide, levels of educational attainment among Chinese Americans were significantly higher than those of the general U.S. population in both 1980 and 1990, and skill level increased over time. The 1990 Census showed that 41 percent of Chinese Americans (aged 25 to 64) have attained four or more years of college education, compared to 21 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
Immigrants from Taiwan displayed the highest levels of educational attainment with 62 percent having completed at least four years of college, followed by those from Hong Kong (46 percent) and from the mainland (31 percent). Professional occupations were also more common among Chinese Americans than among non- Hispanic whites (36 percent vs. 27 percent). The annual median family income for Chinese Americans was $34,000 in 1989, compared to $30,000 for the national median family.
Chinese Americans continue to concentrate in the West and in urban areas. One state, California, accounts for 40 percent of all Chinese Americans (1.1 million). New York accounts for 16 percent, second only to California, and Hawai'i for 6 percent. However, other states that have historically received fewer Chinese immigrants have witnessed phenomenal growth, such as Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Among cities with populations over 100,000, New York City (365,000), San Francisco (161,000), Los Angeles (74,000), Honolulu (69,000), and San Jose (58,000) have the largest numbers of Chinese Americans. Traditional urban enclaves, such as Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, continue to exist and to receive new immigrants, but they no longer serve as primary centers of initial settlement.
Instead, many new immigrants, especially the affluent and highly skilled, are bypassing inner cities to settle into suburbs immediately after arrival. However, recent residential movements of Chinese Americans into ethnically concentrated suburban communities have tipped the balance of power, raising nativist anxiety of ethnic "invasion" and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Progresss Through Different Paths
Social mobility among Chinese Americans also vary because of tremendous socioeconomic diversity. One pattern of social mobility is the time-honored path of starting at the bottom and moving up through hard work. This route is particularly relevant to those with limited education, few marketable job skills, and little familiarity with the larger labor market. However, in the post-industrial era, the globalized and restructured economy has fewer and fewer middle rungs in the mobility ladder. As a result, low-skilled workers starting at the bottom may well be trapped there with little chance of upward mobility even when they work hard.
The second mode is incorporation into professional occupations in the mainstream economy through educational achievement. It has become evident in recent years that Chinese American youths enroll in colleges and graduate with bachelor and master degrees in disproportionate numbers. While many college graduates may have an easier time gaining labor market entry, however, they often encounter a greater probability of being blocked by a glass ceiling as they move up into managerial and executive positions.
The third mode is ethnic entrepreneurship. Since the 1970s, unprecedented Chinese immigration, accompanied by the tremendous influx of human and financial capital, has set off a new stage of ethnic economic development. From 1977 to 1987, the U.S. Census reported that the number of Chinese-owned firms grew by 286 percent, and from 1987 to 1997, that number again grew at a rate of 180 percent. Chinese-American owned business enterprises made up 9 percent of the total minority-owned business enterprises nation-wide, but 19 percent of the total gross receipts, according to the 1997 Economic Census.
While ethnic entrepreneurship creates numerous employment opportunities for both entrepreneurs and co-ethnic workers, it also leads to problems that leave some workers behind in their pursuit of upward mobility. These problems include labor rights abuses, over concentration of jobs with low wages, few chances for promotion or advancement, poor working conditions and few, if any, fringe benefits.
Taken together, these trends suggest that the community is being transformed from a predominantly immigrant community to a native ethnic community at the dawn of the 21st century. While issues and challenges directly relevant to immigration and immigrant settlement continue to occupy a central place in community affairs, new issues and challenges concerning citizenship, civil rights, interethnic/interracial coalitions, and political incorporation have acquired a high degree of urgency.
Copyright © 2003 by Min Zhou, Eric Lai, Dennis Arguelles, AsianWeek Magazine, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.
Suggested reference: Zhou, Min. 2003. "Chinese Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/chinese.shtml> ().
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