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The First Asian Americans

Asians have been in the U.S. for a long time. The history of Asians in the U.S. is the history of dreams, hard work, prejudice, discrimination, persistence, and triumph.


Manila Village, USA

As presented in the excellent PBS documentary series Ancestors in the Americas, the first Asians to come to the western hemisphere were Chinese Filipinos who settled in Mexico. Eventually, Filipino sailors were the first to settle in the U.S. around 1750 in what would later be Louisiana. Later around 1840, to make up for the shortage of slaves from Africa, the British and Spanish brought over slaves or "coolies" from China, India, and the Philippines to islands in the Caribbean, Peru, Ecuador, and other countries in South America.

Manila village © PBS

However, the first large-scale immigration of Asians into the U.S. didn't happen until 1848. Around that time and as you may remember from your history classes, gold was discovered in America. Lured by tales and dreams of making it rich on "Gold Mountain" (which became the Chinese nickname for California), The Gold Rush was one of the pull factors that led many Chinese to come to the U.S. to find their fortune and return home rich and wealthy.

Most of these early Chinese workers were from the Guangdong (also called Canton) province in China. However, there were also push factors that drove many to want to leave China. The most important factor was economic hardship due to the growing British dominance over China, after Britain defeated China in the Opium War of 1839-1842.


First the Boom, Then the Bust

In addition to prospecting for gold in California, many Chinese also came as contract laborers to Hawai'i to work in sugarcane plantations. While in California, Chinese miners experienced their first taste of discrimination in the form of the Foreign Miner Tax. This was supposed to be collected from every foreign miner but in reality, it was only collected from the Chinese, despite the multitude of miners from European countries there as well.

When some Chinese miners objected and refused to pay the unfair tax, they were physically attacked and even murdered. Eventually, the Chinese tried to go to court to demand justice and equal treatment but at the time, California's laws prevented Chinese immigrants from testifying against Whites in court. As a result, many murders went unsolved as many murderers went free.

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad © PBS

As portrayed in the excellent PBS documentary Becoming American - The Chinese Experience, the Chinese also worked as small time merchants, gardeners, domestics, laundry workers, farmers, and starting in 1865, as railroad workers on the famous Transcontinental Railroad project. The project pitted the Union Pacific (working westward from Nebraska) and the Central Pacific (working eastward from Sacramento) against each other for each mile of railroad track laid.

At its peak, 9,000 to 12,000 Chinese worked for the Central Pacific in some of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs (different sources have different estimates on exact numbers). Many sources claim that up to 1,000 Chinese died during the project as a result of avalanches and explosive accidents as they carved their way through the Sierra Mountains (other sources claim much lower numbers of casualties).

Even though the Chinese workers performed virtually all of the hardest, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs, they were only paid 60% of what European immigrant workers got paid. The Chinese workers actually went on strike for a few days and demanded that they get paid the same amount as the other ethnic groups. Officials of the Central Pacific were able to end the strike and force the Chinese workers back to work by cutting off their food supply and starving them into submission.

The project was completed on May 10, 1869 and a famous ceremony was staged where the two railroad lines met in Promontory Point, Utah. You might have seen the famous photograph were everybody posed in front of two train engines facing each other. Although a handful of Chinese workers were allowed to participate in the final ceremony and a small group were personally congratulated by Stanford Leland and his partners who financed the project, perhaps not too shocking, the Chinese workers were forbidden from appearing in the famous photograph of the ceremony, even though without their work and their lives, the project may never have been completed. Further, as Helen Zia points out in her excellent book Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People:

The speeches congratulated European immigrant workers for their labor but never mentioned the Chinese. Instead, Chinese men were summarily fired and forced to walk the long distance back to San Francisco -- forbidden to ride on the railroad they built.
San Francisco's Chinatown around 1930 © Corbis

After they returned to California, the Chinese increasingly became the targets of racial attacks and discriminatory legislation because their labor was no longer needed and Whites began seeing them as an economic threat. This anti-Chinese movement, which was accompanied by numerous anti-Chinese riots, lynchings, and murders (including Tacoma, Washington and most famously at Rock Springs, Wyoming), culminated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act barred virtually all immigration from China and prevented all Chinese already in the U.S. from becoming U.S. citizens, even their American-born children. For the first time in U.S. history, a specific ethnic group was singled out and forbidden to enter the U.S.


The First Chinatowns

Because they were forbidden from owning land, intermarrying with Whites, owning homes, working in many occupations, getting an education, and living in certain parts of the city or entire cities, the Chinese basically had no other choice but to retreat into their own isolated communities as a matter of survival. These first Chinatowns at least allowed them to make a living among themselves. This is where the stereotypical image of Chinese restaurants and laundry shops, Japanese gardeners and produce stands, and Korean grocery stores began.

The point is that these did not begin out of any natural or instinctual desire on the part of Asian workers, but as a response to prejudice, exclusion, and institutional discrimination -- a situation that still continues in many respects today. Nonetheless, even in the face of this hostile anti-Chinese climate, Chinese Americans fought for not only their rights, but also for their dignity and self-respect. Although they were forbidden to become citizens and therefore to vote, they consistently challenged their unequal treatment and unjust laws directed at them by filing thousands of lawsuits at the local, state, and federal levels.

Even though much of their efforts would be unsuccessful, the actions demonstrated that above all else, they wanted to become Americans and be treated just like any other American. Rather than accepting the demeaning stereotype of them as perpetual foreigners, Chinese Americans showed that they wanted to assimilate into American society and contribute to its growth, prosperity, and culture.



Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The First Asian Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/first.shtml> ().


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