Chinese Americans

views updated May 17 2018


by L. Ling-chi Wang


China, or Zhongguo (the Middle Kingdom), the third largest country in the world, occupies a significant portion of southeast Asia. The land mass, 3,657,765 square miles (9,700,000 sq. km.), or as big as all of Europe, is bounded to the north by Russia and Mongolia, to the west by Russia and India, to the southwest by the Himalayas, to the south by Indochina and the South China Sea, and to the east by the Yellow Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Three major rivers flow through China: the Huanghe (Yellow River) in the north; the Yangzi in the heartland; and the Zhujiang (Pearl River) in the south. Eighty-five percent of China's land is nonarable, and the rest is regularly plagued by flood and drought.

Upon this land, China now feeds its 1.3 billion people (1990), one-fifth of humanity. Ninety-four percent are Han Chinese; the remaining six percent are made up of the 55 non-Han minorities, the most prominent of whom are the Zhuang, Hui, Uighur, Yi, Tibetan, Miao, Mongol, Korean, and Yao. These minorities have their own history, religion, language, and culture.

The official language of China is putonghua or Mandarin (guanhua ), spoken by over 70 percent of the Han Chinese. The remaining Chinese, living mostly in southern China, speak the other seven major Chinese dialects: wu, xiang, gan, northern min, southern min, yue (Cantonese), and kejia(Hakka). In spite of their mutual unintelligibility, all eight branches of Chinese share the same writing system, the only fully developed ancient system of writing still used. The earliest examples of this system of Chinese writing appear on thousands of animal bones and tortoise shells from the middle of the second millennium B.C., during the late Shang Dynasty. However, according to recent archeological evidence, some 32 inscribed symbols on painted pottery from an early Yangshao culture site near Xi'an in Shaanxi, suggest the existence of Chinese writing as early as 6,000 years ago.


Chinese historians have estimated that Chinese civilization began about 5,000 years ago in the Huanghe (Yellow) River basin and the middle Yangzi region. The voluminous history, Shi Ji ("Historical Records"), by Sima Qian (b. 145 B.C.) and recent archeological finds support the validity of the assumption. For example, the neolithic sites of the Yangshao culture along the midsection of the Yellow River confirm the traditional view that the river basin was the cradle of the Chinese civilization.

Legends have it that Huangdi ("the Yellow Emperor") defeated his rival tribes, established the first Chinese kingdom, made himself tienzi, or "The Son of Heaven," and invented many things for the benefit of his people, including clothing, boats, carts, medicine, the compass, and writing. Following Huangdi, historians believe that the Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 B.C.) was the first dynasty of China and marked the beginning of Chinese history. Xia, weakened by corruption in its final decades, was eventually conquered by a Shang king to the east who established the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 B.C.). The Shang achievements can be readily seen from the remnants of its spectacular palaces, well-crafted giant bronze cauldrons, refined jade carvings, and massive written records. During the Zhou Dynasty (1100771 B.C.), the Chinese idea of the emperor, being the "Son of Heaven" who derived his mandate from heaven, was firmly established. In the highly organized feudal society, the Zhou royal family ruled over hundreds of feudal states.

Beginning in 770 B.C., Chinese history entered two periods of turmoil and war: the Spring/Autumn (770-476 B.C.) and the Warring States (475-221 B.C.). During these 550 years, the former feudal states engaged in perpetual wars and brutal conquests. During the same time, China witnessed unprecedented progress in agriculture, science, and technology and reached the golden age of Chinese philosophy and literature. Confucius (551-479 B.C.), founder of Confucianism; Laozi (sixth century), the founder of Daoism; the egalitarian Mozi (480-420 B.C.); and Han-fei (280-233 B.C.), founder of legalism, defined the character of Chinese civilization and made profound and enduring contributions to the intellectual history of the world.

Qin Shi Huangdi of the Qin state finally crushed all the rival states and emerged as the sole ruler of the Chinese empire in 221 B.C. Qin extended the borders of China; imposed harsh laws; completed the Great Wall; built a transportation network; and standardized weights, measures, currency, and, most importantly, the Chinese writing system. The brutality of his rule soon led to widespread rebellion, and the Qin rule was eventually replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). The Han emperor firmly established the Chinese state under Confucianism and created an educational and civil service system that remained in use until 1911. During this period, China came into contact with the Roman Empire and with India.

During the Sui-Tang era, China traded extensively by land and by sea with the known world, and Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity were brought into China. But Tang began to decline toward the end of the eighth century, causing rebellions of warlords from within and invasions from without. After Tang, China was again divided. In 1211 Genghis Khan, a Mongolian leader, began the invasion into China from the north, but the conquest was not completed until 1279 under Kublai Khan, his grandson, who established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) in China. During Mongolian rule, China traded extensively with Europe, and Marco Polo brought China's achievements to European attention.

The decline of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) led to the conquest of China for the second time by a foreign power, the Manchu, from the northeast. The Manchu established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and again expanded China's borders. Like the Mongols, however, the Manchu conquerors were also conquered and absorbed by the Chinese. Failed reform within the Quing administration, internal pressure through various organized rebellions, external pressure from the major Western powers, and the military defeat by Japan in 1895 all led China to become increasingly isolated and weak.


The isolation was finally broken when the British defeated China in the Opium War (1839-1842), forcing China to open its ports to international trade and exposing China in the next 100 years to Western domination. Under the yoke of imperialism and mounting political corruption and internal unrest, especially the Taiping Uprising, the Qing Dynasty collapsed in a revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1911.

The new Republic of China, under the leadership of Sun, his dictatorial successor Chiang Kaishek, and the Nationalist party (Guomindang or Kuomintang), proved both weak and corrupt. From the invasion by Japan, which began in 1931, to a strong insurgent movement led by Communist Mao Tse-tung, the Chiang regime was severely undermined and eventually ousted from China in 1949, retreating to Taiwan under U.S. military protection. Mao established the People's Republic of China, free from foreign domination for the first time since the Opium War. His alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, however, led to its isolation throughout the Cold War. His support of the wars in Korea and Vietnam made China the enemy of the United States. The United States-China detente was initiated in the historic meeting between President Richard Nixon and Mao Tsetung and Chou Enlai in 1972. In 1978, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China also undertook a series of bold economic reforms. In 1979 the United States broke ties with Taiwan and normalized its relations with China. Since the end of the Cold War, China has become a major political and economic power in an increasingly economically integrated, yet disorderly world.

During the war in Yugoslavia in 1999, relations between China and the United States became strained. On May 7, 1999, in what Secretary of Defense Harold Brown called a "stupid" mistake, a U.S. war plane bombed the Chinese Embassy, killing two persons and injuring several others. The United States explained that it had used an old map to find its targets, but Chinese Foreign Minister Tan Jiaxuan called the explanation "unconvincing" and questioned whether it was a mistake.


In many respects, the motivations for Chinese to go to the United States are similar to those of most immigrants; some came to "the Gold Mountain" (Jinshan in Mandarin or Gumsaan in Cantonese), the United States, to seek better economic opportunity, while others were compelled to leave China either as contract laborers or refugees. They brought with them their language, culture, social institutions, and customs, and over time, they made lasting contributions to their adopted country and tried to become an integral part of the U.S. population.

However, their collective experience as a racial minority, since they first arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, differs significantly from the European immigrant groups and other racial minorities. Chinese were singled out for discrimination through laws enacted by states in which they had settled; they were the first immigrant group to be targeted for exclusion and denial of citizenship by the U.S. Congress in 1882. Their encounter with Euro-Americans has been shaped not just by their cultural roots and self-perceptions but also by the changing bilateral relations between the United States and China. The steady infusion of immigrants from China and Taiwan and easy access to traditional and popular cultures from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, through telecommunication and trans-Pacific travel, have helped create a new Chinese America that is as diverse as it is fast-changing. Chinese American influence in politics, culture, and science, is felt as much in the United States as it is in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

The movement of the Chinese population within China (called the han, or tang, people in pre-twentieth century China and huaqiao, or huaren, in the twentieth century), has continued throughout the 5,000-year history of China. Huaqiao (literally, sojourning Chinese), or more accurately, huaren (persons of Chinese descent), is a term commonly used for Chinese residing outside of China proper or overseas. Today, about 35 million Chinese live outside of China in over 130 countries. Chinese immigration to the United States is part of this great historic process.

Even though ancient Chinese legends and writings, most notably the fifth-century account by Weishen of a land called Fusang, suggest the presence of Chinese in North America centuries before Christopher Columbus, and a few Chinese were reported to be among the settlers in the colonies in the east coast in the eighteenth century, significant Chinese immigration to the West Coast of the United States (Jinshan ) did not begin until the California Gold Rush.

Chinese immigration can be roughly divided into three periods: 1849-1882, 1882-1965, and 1965 to the present. The first period, also known as the first wave, began shortly after the Gold Rush in California and ended abruptly with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first race-based immigration law. During this period, the Chinese could act like other pioneers of the West and were allowed to immigrate or travel freely between China and San Francisco. Thousands of Chinese, mostly young male peasants, left their villages in the rural counties around the Zhujiang, or Pearl River, delta in Guangdong Province in southern China to become contract laborers in the American West. They were recruited to extract metals and minerals, construct a vast railroad network, reclaim swamp-lands, build irrigation systems, work as migrant agricultural laborers, develop the fishing industry, and operate highly competitive, labor-intensive manufacturing industries in the western states. The term limit of their contracts, together with the strong anti-Chinese sentiment that greeted them upon their arrival, precluded most of them from becoming permanent settlers. Under these circumstances, most of the laborers had only limited objectives: to advance their own and their families' economic well-being during their sojourn and to return to their ancestral villages to enjoy the fruits of their labor during retirement. At the end of the first period, the Chinese population in the United States was about 110,000, or one-fifth of one percent, of the U.S. total.

When Chinese labor was no longer needed and political agitation against the Chinese intensified, the U.S. Congress enacted a series of very harsh anti-Chinese laws, beginning in 1882, designed to exclude Chinese immigrants and deny naturalization and democratic rights to those already in the United States. Throughout most of the second period (the period of exclusion; 1882-1965), only diplomats, merchants, and students and their dependents were allowed to travel between the United States and China. Occasional loopholes in the late 1940s and 1950s, created by special legislation for 105 Chinese immigrants per year in 1943, the presence of Chinese American war brides in 1946, and selected refugees in 1953 and 1961, allowed some Chinese to enter. Otherwise, throughout this period, Chinese Americans were confined largely to segregated ghettos, called Chinatowns, in major cities and isolated pockets in rural areas across the country. Deprived of their democratic rights, they made extensive use of the courts and diplomatic channels to defend themselves, but with limited success.

The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, particularly the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, finally ushered in a new era, the third period in Chinese American immigration history. Chinese Americans were liberated from a structure of racial oppression. The former legislation restored many of the basic rights denied Chinese Americans, while the latter abolished the racist law that severely restricted Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese Americans from being reunited with their loved ones. Under these new laws, thousands of Chinese came to the United States each year to reunite with their families and young Chinese Americans mobilized to demand racial equality and social justice.

Equally significant are two other types of Chinese immigrants who have been entering the United States since the early 1970s. The first type consists of highly select and well-educated Chinese. No less than 250,000 Chinese intellectuals, scientists, and engineers have come to the United States for advanced degrees. Most of them have stayed to contribute to U.S. preeminence in science and technology. The second type is made up of tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants who have entered the United States to escape either political instability or repression throughout East and Southeast Asia, the result of a dramatic reversal of the U.S. Cold War policies toward China in 1972 and toward Vietnam in 1975. Some of these are Chinese from the upper and middle classes of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and throughout Southeast Asia who want long-term security for themselves, their businesses, and their children. Others are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and Cambodia who became impoverished refugees and "boat people," when Vietnam implemented its anti-Chinese or "ethnic cleansing" policies in 1978. It was this steady infusion of Chinese immigrants that accounted for the substantial increase of the Chinese American population, amounting to 1.6 million in the 1990 census, making them the largest Asian American group in the United States.


Economic development and racial exclusion defined the patterns of Chinese American settlement. Before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the patterns of Chinese settlement followed the patterns of economic development of the western states. Since mining and railway construction dominated the western economy, Chinese immigrants settled mostly in California and states west of the Rocky Mountains. As these industries declined and anti-Chinese agitation intensified, the Chinese retreatedand sometimes were forced by mainstream societyinto small import-export businesses and labor-intensive manufacturing (garments, wool, cigars, and shoes) and service industries (laundry, domestic work, and restaurants) in such rising cities as San Francisco, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle; into agriculture in rural communities in California; and into small retail business in black rural communities in the Deep South. Some Chinese found themselves systematically evicted from jobs, land, and businesses and their rights, privileges, and sanctuaries in mainstream society permanently suspended. By the early twentieth century, over 80 percent of the Chinese population were found in Chinatowns in major cities in the United States.

Chinatowns remained isolated and ignored by the American mainstream until after World War II. After the war, as the United States became a racially more open and tolerant society, emigration from the Chinatowns began. With new employment opportunities, a steady stream of Chinese Americans moved into new neighborhoods in cities and into sprawling suburbs, built around the rising military-industrial complex during the Cold War. As the new waves of postwar immigrants arrived, the poor moved into historic Chinatowns and the more affluent settled into new neighborhoods and suburbs, creating the so-called new Chinatowns in

"I myself rarely left Chinatown, only when I had to buy American things downtown. The area around Union Square was a dangerous place for us, you see, especially at nighttime before the quake [1906]. Chinese were often attacked by thugs there and all of us had to have a police whistle with us all the time."

Gim Chang, a Chinese resident of San Francisco, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Houston, and a string of suburbs with strong Chinese American presence, such as the ones along Interstate 10 west of Los Angeles and Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose. The new immigrants brought new cultural and economic vitality into both the new and the old communities even as they actively interacted with their Euro-American counterparts.

From interactions under ghetto confinement, to the rise of a suburban Chinese American middle class, to the revitalization of historic Chinatowns, Chinese American communities across the United States have become more diverse, dynamic, and divided, with the arrival of new waves of immigrants creating new conflicts as well as opportunities that are uniquely Chinese American.

The growth and proliferation of the Chinese American population in the last three decades also aroused resentment and hostility in cities and suburbs and in the spheres of education and employment. For example, some neighborhoods and suburbs, most notably, San Francisco and Monterey Park, California tried to curb Chinese American population growth and business expansion by restrictive zoning. Chinese American achievements in education, seen with increasing apprehension in some cases, has led to the use of discriminatory means to slow down or reverse their enrollment in select schools and colleges. Since the early 1980s, there has been a steady increase in incidents of racial violence reported. These trends have been viewed with increasing alarm by Chinese Americans across the United States.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries, Chinatown was a permanent home for the Chinese who were cut off from China "like orphans" (haiwai guer ) and yet disenfranchised from the Euro-American mainstream. Assimilation was never a viable choice for Chinese Americans, who were excluded and denied citizenship because they were deemed nonassimilable by the white mainstream.

In 1852 Governor John Bigler of California, demanded Chinese exclusion on the grounds that they were nonassimilable. In 1854 the California Supreme Court, in Hall v. People, ruled that Chinese testimony against whites was inadmissible in a court of law because, "the same rule which would admit them to testify, would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship; and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls." By congressional statutes and judicial decisions, Chinese immigrants were made ineligible for naturalization, rendering them politically disenfranchised in a so-called democracy and exposing them to frequent and flagrant violations of their constitutional rights.

Chinese Americans could not understand how the United States could use gunboat diplomacy to open the door of China and at the same time use democracy to close the door to Chinese Americans. The bitter encounter with American democracy and hypocrisy planted a seed of modern Chinese nationalism, which led the Chinese Americans to fight for equal rights at home and to orient their collective will toward freeing China from imperialist domination. They linked the racial oppression of the Chinese in the United States to the impotence of China.

Life within the Chinatown ghetto, therefore, was hard but not stagnant. Legally discriminated against and politically disenfranchised, Chinese Americans established their roots in Chinatowns, fought racism through aggressive litigation and diplomatic channels, and participated actively in various economic development projects and political movements to modernize China. For the immigrant generation, there was only one choice, modernization for themselves and for China. Assimilation was seen as an impossibility. For the American-born generation, many members of which made a concerted effort to assimilate, mainstream society remained inhospitable.

In the nineteenth century, most Chinese immigrants saw no future in the United States and oriented their lives toward eventual return to China, luoye-guigen, translated it means "fallen leaves return to their roots." With this sojourner mentality, they developed a high degree of tolerance for hardship and racial discrimination and maintained a frugal Chinese lifestyle, which included living modestly; observing Chinese customs and festivals through family and district associations; sending regular remittance to parents, wives, and children, and maintaining village ancestral halls and charities. Parents tried to instill Chinese language and culture in their children, send them to Chinese schools in the community or in China, motivate them to excel in American education, and above all, arrange marriages. The parents in Louis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961) tried to find their sons brides in villages in the Zhujiang delta. For the most part, their sole aspiration was to work hard and save enough to retire in comfort back in the villages from which they came.

They also joined social organizations. District associations (huiguan ) and family associations (gongsuo ), respectively, represented the collective interest and well-being of persons from the same villages or counties and persons with the same family names. These ascriptive organizations provided aid and comfort to their members, arbitrated disputes, helped find jobs and housing, established schools and temples, and sponsored social and cultural events. Most of these organizations had branches in different Chinatowns, enabling members to travel from one city to another. Together, these organizations formed the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association in each city, a de facto ghetto government, to settle disputes among individuals and organizations and to represent the community's interests with both U.S. and Chinese governments, at times through civil disobedience, passive resistance, and litigation, and at other times through diplomatic channels and grassroots protests instigated in China. Their activities brought mixed blessings to the community. At times, these organizations became too powerful and oppressive, and they also obstructed social and political progress. Without question, they left an enduring legacy in Chinese America.

Into these uniquely American ghettos also came a string of Protestant and Catholic missionaries, establishing churches and schools and trying to convert and assimilate the Chinese, as well as a steady stream of political factions and reformers from China, advancing their agendas for modernizing China and recruiting Chinese Americans to support and work for their causes. Both were agents of change, but they worked on different constituencies and at cross purposes: one tried to assimilate them, while the other tried to instill in them a cultural and political loyalty to China.

Virtually all major Christian churches established missions and schools in San Francisco's Chinatown, the largest in the United States and the center of cultural, economic, and political life of Chinese in North America. Among the most enduring institutions were the YMCA and YWCA, the St. Mary's Chinese Mission School, and the Cameron House, a Presbyterian home for "rescued" Chinese prostitutes. The churches, in general, were more successful in winning converts among the American-born generation.

Proportionally smaller in number, those Chinese Americans who were exposed to a segregated but American education very quickly became aware of their inferior status. Many became ashamed of their appearance, status, and culture. Self-hatred and the need to be accepted by white society became their primary obsession. In practice this meant the rejection of their cultural and linguistic heritage and the pursuit of thoroughgoing Americanization: adoption of American values, personality traits, and social behaviors and conversion to Christianity.

Denying their racial and cultural identity failed to gain them social acceptance in the period before World War II. Most found themselves still shut out of the mainstream and were prevented from competing for jobs, even if they were well qualified. Some were compelled to choose between staying in the United States as second-class citizens and going to China, a country whose language and culture had, ironically, become alien to them on account of their attempted assimilation.

For the immigrant generation, there was only one choice: staking their future in China. China's modernization occupied their attention and energy because they attributed their inferior status in the United States to the impotence of China as a nation under Western domination. Reformers from opposing camps in China invariably found an eager audience and generous supporters among the Chinese in the United States. Among the political reformers who frequented Chinatowns across the United States to raise funds and recruit supporters were Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Sun Yat-sen before the 1911 Revolution. During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-41), several leaders of the ruling Kuomintang also toured the United States to mobilize Chinese American support; among them were General Cai Tingkai and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The factional dispute between the pro-China and pro-Taiwan forces is very much a part of this political legacy. In essence, China's political factionalism became an integral part of Chinese American life.

Between efforts of the missionaries and political reformers, many churches and political parties were established and sectarian schools and newspapers founded. Schools and newspapers became some of the most influential and enduring institutions in Chinese America. Together they played an important role in perpetuating the Chinese culture among the Chinese and in introducing Chinese to ideas of modernity and nationalism.


Chinese tea was a popular beverage in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Since the 1960s, Chinese cuisine has been an integral part of the American diet as well. Chinese restaurants are found in small towns and large cities across the United States. Key ingredients for preparing authentic Chinese dishes are now found in all chain supermarkets, and lessons in Chinese cooking are regular features on national television. Chinese take-outs, catering, and chain restaurants have become commonplace in major cities, and Chinese dim sum, salads, and pastas can be found in cocktail lounges and exclusive clubs and resorts. Gone are such pre-1960 dishes as chop suey, chow mien, egg fooyung, and barbecue spareribs. In fact, many Americans have mastered the use of chopsticks and acquired the taste for sophisticated Chinese regional cuisines, such as Cantonese, Kejia (Hakka), Sichuan (Szechuan), Shangdong, Hunan, Mandarin (Beijing), Taiwan (Minnan), Chaozhou (Teo-Chiu), and Shanghai. American households now routinely use Chinese ingredients, like soy sauce, ginger, and hoisin sauce in their food; employ Chinese cooking techniques, such as stir frying; and include Chinese cooking utensils, like the wok and the cleaver, in their kitchens.


Very few Chinese Americans now wear traditional Chinese clothing. On special occasions, some traditional costumes are worn. For example, on the wedding day, a bride might wear a Western wedding gown for the wedding ceremony and then change into a traditional Chinese wedding gown, called gua, for the tea ceremony and banquet. In some traditional families, the elders sometimes wear traditional Chinese formal clothes to greet guests on Chinese New Year's Day. Sometimes, young Chinese American women wear the tightly fitted cengsam (chongsam ), or qipao, for formal parties or banquets. Occasionally, Chinese styles find their way into American high fashion and Hollywood movies.


Chinese opera and folk songs are performed and sung in the Chinese American community. Cantonese opera, once very popular in Chinatown, is performed for older audiences, and small opera singing clubs are found in major Chinatowns in North America. Rarer is the performance of Peking opera. Among the well-educated Chinese, concerts featuring Chinese folk and art songs are well attended and amateur groups singing this type of music can be found in most cities with significant Chinese American populations. Similarly, both classical and folk dances continue to find some following among Chinese Americans. The Chinese Folk Dance Association of San Francisco is one of several groups that promotes this activity. Most American-born Chinese and younger new immigrants, however, prefer either American popular music or Cantonese and Mandarin popular music from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.


Most Chinese Americans today observe the major holidays of the Chinese lunar calendar (yin li ). Today, Chinese calendars routinely provide both the solar (yang li ) and lunar calendars, and Chinese daily newspapers provide both kinds of dates. The most important holiday is the Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival (chun jie ), which is also a school holiday in San Francisco.

Family members get together for special feasts and celebrations. The Feast of the Dead (qing ming or sao mu ), the fifteenth day of the third lunar month, is devoted to tidying tombs and worshiping ancestors. The Dragon-boat Festival (duan wu or duan yang ), on the fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month, commemorates the death of renown poet, Qu Yuan, who threw himself into the River Milu Jiang in 277 B.C. Usually a dragon-boat race is held and a special dumpling (zong zi ) is served. For the August Moon Festival (zhong jiu ), the ninth day of the eighth lunar month, family and friends gather to admire the moon and eat "moon cakes" (yue bing ).

The founding of the People's Republic of China (guo qing jie ), October 1, 1949 of the solar calendar, is observed by Chinese Americans with banquets and cultural performances in major cities in the United States. Likewise, the founding of the republic by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, October 10, 1911, is commemorated each year in Chinatowns by groups closely associated with the Nationalist government in Taiwan. Not as widely observed are the Children's Day (er tong jie ) on June 1, Woman's Day (fu nu jie ) on March 8, and May Day (lao dong jie ) on May 1.


Prewar housing and job discrimination forced the Chinese to live within American ghettos. Discrimination also denied Chinese Americans access to health care and other services. Most relied on traditional Chinese herbal medicine, and the community had to found its own Western hospital, Chinese Hospital, in the early twentieth century. By the time the postwar immigrants arrived in large numbers in the 1960s, Chinatown was bursting at the seams, burdened with seemingly intractable health and mental health problems.

Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York are among the most densely populated areas in the United States. Housing has always been substandard and overcrowded. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Chinatown in San Francisco had the dubious distinction of having the highest tuberculosis and suicide rates in the Unites States. High unemployment and underemployment rates exposed thousands of new immigrants to severe exploitation in sweatshops and restaurants. School drop-outs, juvenile delinquency, and gang wars were symptoms of underlying social pathology.

However, it is wrong to assume that health and mental health problems exist only in the Chinatown ghettos. The overwhelming majority of Chinese Americans no longer live in historic Chinatowns, as mentioned above. While many of the health and mental health-related problems in Chinatown are class-based, many others, such as the language barrier, cultural and generational conflict, and attitudes toward illness and soliciting help, are peculiar to Chinese Americans regardless of their class position, education, and place of residence. Mental health service agencies, like the Richmond Maxi Center, in the middle-class Richmond district of San Francisco and the Asians for Community Involvement in the Silicon Valley of California, have been established to meet the needs of Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans. Today, both Chinese and Western medicines are widely used by Chinese Americans, although some use exclusively Chinese medicine while others only Western medicine.


Most prewar Chinese arrived in the United States knowing only the various dialects of Cantonese (Yue ), one of the major branches of Chinese spoken in the Zhujiang delta. The maintenance of Chinese has been carried out by a strong network of community language schools and Chinese-language newspapers. However, with the arrival of new immigrants from other parts of China and the world after World War II, virtually all major Chinese dialects were brought to America. Most prominent among these are Cantonese, Putonghua, Minnan, Chaozhou, Shanghai, and Kejia. Fortunately, one common written Chinese helps communication across dialects.

Today, Chinese is maintained through homes, community language schools, newspapers, radio, and television, and increasingly, through foreign language classes at mainstream schools and universities. The rapid increase of immigrant students since 1965 also gave rise to growing demand for equality of educational opportunity in the form of bilingual education, a demand that resulted in a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lau vs. Nichols, a case brought by Chinese American parents in San Francisco. Hand in hand with this trend is the teaching of Mandarin or Putonghua, China's national spoken language, in public and community schools.


Cantonese greetings and other popular expressions include: Nei hou ma? (How are you?); Hou loi mou gin (Long time no see); Seg zo fan mei? (Have you eaten?); Zoi gin (Good-bye); Zou tao (Good night); Deg han loi co (Let's get together again); Do ze (Thank you); M'sai hag hei (Don't mention it); Gung hei (Congratulations); and Gung hei Fad coi (Have a prosperous New Year). Mandarin greetings and other popular expressions include: Ni hao (How do you do); Xiexie (Thank you); Bu yong xie or Bu yong keqi (Don't mention it); Dui bu qi (Excuse me); Mei guanxi (It's Okay); and Zaijian (Good-bye).

Family and Community Dynamics

Since most Chinese before 1882 came as contract laborers to perform specific tasks, the Chinese population in the United States in the nineteenth century was predominantly young males, either not yet married or married with their wives and children left in the villages in southern China. According to the 1890 census, there were 107,488 Chinese in the United States. Of these 103,620, or 96.4 percent, were males and only 3,868, or 3.6 percent, were females. Among the male population, 26.1 percent were married, 69 percent single, and 4.9 percent were either widowed or divorced. The male-female ratio was not balanced until 1970.

This uneven sex distribution gave rise to an image of Chinatown as a bachelor society, vividly captured in the pictures taken by Arnold Genthe in San Francisco before the 1905 earthquake and in the description by Liang Qichao during his 1903 travel to the United States. Normal family life for most Chinese Americans did not begin until after World War II, when several thousand war brides were brought in by Chinese American GIs.

The exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws forced most Chinese in the United States to maintain their families across the Pacific. Only the privileged merchant class was able to bring over their wives and children. Under such circumstances, the Chinese population in the United States declined steadily, dipping as low as 61,639 in 1920, before it started to rise again. The Chinese American population therefore had to wait until after World War II for the emergence of an American-born political leadership.

The abnormal conditions also contributed to widespread prostitution, gambling, and opium smoking, most of which were overseen by secret societies, known as tongs, often with the consent of both the Chinatown establishment and corrupt local law-enforcement agencies. The struggle for control of these illicit businesses also gave rise to frequent intrigues, violence, and political corruption and to sensational press coverage of the socalled tong wars.

It was not until the second decade of the twentieth century that a significant, but still proportionally small, American-born generation began to emerge. According to the 1920 census, only 30 percent of Chinese in America were born in the United States, and therefore, American citizens. The ratio of American born to foreign born was finally reversed in 1960, only to be reversed again in 1970 with the massive influx of new immigrants. Unlike the prewar immigrants, the new immigrants came to the United States with their families, and they came to stay permanently.

Today, most middle-class Chinese Americans place the highest priority on raising and maintaining the family: providing for the immediate members of the family (grandparents, parents, and children), acquiring an adequate and secure home for the family, and investing comparatively greater amounts of time and annual income in their children's education. Even among the poorer families, which have neither financial security nor decent housing, keeping the family intact and close and doing all they can to support their children are also priorities. This is why Chinese Americans continue to perform well in education across all income levels, even if the success rates among the poor are less impressive than those among the better off. Across the nation, Chinese American educational achievement is well known. In particular, Chinese Americans are disproportionally represented among the top research universities and the elite small liberal colleges. In graduate and professional schools, they are overrepresented in certain areas, but under-represented in others. In addition to Chinese American students, there are thousands of Chinese foreign students from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

However, it is wrong to assume that all Chinese Americans are living in happy, intact, successful families and raising obedient, motivated, and college-bound children. Traditional Chinese concepts of family and child-rearing, for both the rich and poor, have undergone drastic changes in America due to job status, income levels, living arrangements, and neighborhood conditions, as well as the social and cultural environment of the United States. Chinese Americans face their share of family break-ups, domestic violence, school drop-outs, drug addiction, gang activities, etc.


Racism and past policies of racial segregation have kept Chinese Americans largely separated from the mainstream of the society. Nevertheless, there has been contact between Chinese and other racial groups. For example, some Chinese established small general stores in poor black communities in the rural areas along the Mississippi valley after the Civil War. White missionaries and prostitutes found nineteenth-century Chinatowns to be productive places to carry out their business. Some Chinese laborers married American Indian and Mexican women during the period of exclusion, in spite of anti-miscegenation laws in virtually every state.

Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, intermarriage has become more common as U.S. society becomes more open and Chinese Americans more affluent. However, racial prejudice and traditional racist stereotypes persist, contributing to racial distrust and conflict between Chinese Americans and whites, as well as between Chinese Americans and African Americans. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a large number of Chinese American parents in San Francisco mobilized to oppose court-ordered school integration. Chinese American engineer Vincent Chin was brutally murdered in Detroit in 1982 by two unemployed white auto workers because he was assumed to be Japanese and somehow responsible for their loss of jobs. Chinese American Jim Loo of Raleigh, North Carolina, was killed in 1989 by a white person because he was presumed to be a Vietnamese responsible for American deaths in Vietnam.


All kinds of religions are practiced in the Chinese American community today. There are Christians as well as Buddhists, Daoists, and Confucianists. Chinese churches and temples (miao ) are found wherever there are Chinese Americans. Most of the old temples are found in historic Chinatowns. For example, in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1892, no fewer than 15 temples were present. Some of the temples were dedicated to the Goddess of Heaven (Tienhou )also the god of seamen, fishermen, travelers, and wandererswhile others to Emperor Guangong (Guandi ), a warrior god. Modern temples, such as the one in Hacienda Heights, California, were built by more recent Chinese immigrants from Taiwan. Likewise, Christian churches, organized by dialects, are found in old Chinatowns as well as in the suburbs.

The majority of Chinese Americans could be characterized as irreligious by Western standards of religion. This does not mean, however, that most of them are devoid of any religious feeling or that they do not practice any religion at all. The majority, in fact, practice some form of Buddhism or Daoism, folk religions, and ancestral worship.

Generally speaking, Chinese are pragmatic in their approach to life and religion. They are somewhat superstitious: they believe in the doctrines of fengsui, which are intended to help in the organization of a home, and they do not want to do anything they personally think is likely to offend the gods or the ways of nature. Toward this end, they choose who they want to worship and they worship them through certain objects or locations in nature. They also worship through their ancestors, folk heroes, animals, or their representations in idols or images, as if they are gods. To these representations, they offer respect and ritual offerings, burning incense, ritual papers, and paper objects to help maintain order and to bring good luck. This is, perhaps, why Chinese rarely become religious fanatics, evangelical, or driven to convert others. Above all, Chinese respect other people's religions as much as they respect their own.

Like most religions, there are rituals and moral teachings. Rituals are observed, learned, and practiced at home and in community temples or village ancestral halls. In the absence of ancestral halls in the United States, they perform rituals at miniature altars at home and in the place of business and in sanctuaries found in district and family associations in Chinatowns. Festivals and important dates in one's family are observed through rituals and banquets. Beliefs or teachings, to most Chinese, are simply ethical wisdom or precepts for living right or in harmony with nature or gods. They are taught through deeds, moral tales, and ethical principles, at home and in temples. Over the centuries, these teachings have combined major ideas and wisdom from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism with local folk religions and village lores.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Before the 1882 Chinese exclusion law, Chinese could be found in all walks of life. However, with the rise of anti-Chinese movements and the enactment of anti-Chinese laws, Chinese were effectively driven out of most jobs and businesses competitive with whites. Until World War II, Chinese were left with jobs in laundries, Chinese restaurants, sweatshops, gift shops, and grocery stores located in Chinatowns. Even those who were American-born and college educated were unable to find jobs commensurate with their training.

World War II was a turning point for Chinese Americans. Not only were they recruited into all branches of military service, they were also placed in defense-related industries. In spite of racial prejudice, young Chinese Americans excelled in science and technology and made substantial inroads into many new sectors of the labor market during the war. Two significant postwar developments changed the fortune of Chinese Americans. First, the rise of the military industrial complex in suburban areas created opportunities for Chinese Americans in defenserelated industries. Second, there was the arrival of many highly educated Chinese immigrants from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, whose talents were immediately recognized; they were quickly recruited by the military industrial complex and leading research centers and universities.

In general, the intellectual immigrants settled down in middle-class suburbs near new industrial or research centers, such as Silicon Valley in Santa Clara County, California and NASA Johnson Space Center outside of Houston, Texas. Likewise, affluent pockets of Chinese Americans can be found in such metropolitan areas as Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Dallas. Since the 1970s, some even used their talents to start their own businesses in the highly competitive high-tech industries. Among the best known are An Wang of Wang Laboratories, David Lee of Qume Corporation, Tom Yuen of AST, and Charles Wang of Computer Associates International. Many of the intellectual immigrants also became leading scientists and top engineers in the United States, giving rise to the false impression that the prewar oppressed Chinese working class had finally pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. This is the misleading "model minority" stereotype that the media originated and has fiercely maintained since the late 1960s. These highly celebrated intellectuals, in fact, have little, politically, economically, or socially in common with the direct descendants of the prewar Chinese communities in big cities.

Among the post-1965 immigrants were also thousands who came to be reunited with their long-separated loved ones. Most of them settled in well-established, but largely disenfranchised, Chinese American communities in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Los Angeles where they became the new urban working class. Many also became small entrepreneurs in neighborhoods throughout these cities, concentrating mostly in laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores. In fact, their presence in these three areas of small business has made them an integral part of the cityscape of American cities. Usually with little or no English, they pursued their "American dream" by working long hours, often with free labor from family members or cheap labor from relatives.

The Chinese American population is, therefore, bifurcated between the poor (working class) and the middle class (professionals and small business owners). The interests of these two groups coincide with each other over such issues as racism and access to quality education, but most of the time, they are at odds with each other. There is much debate over the China-Taiwan conflict, and, regarding housing and employment, their relations are frequently those of landlord-tenant and management-labor, typified by the chronic struggle over land use (e.g., the International Hotel in San Francisco's Chinatown) and working conditions in Chinatowns (e.g., the Chung Sai Sewing Factory, also in San Francisco's Chinatown) since 1970.

Politics and Government

Unlike European immigrants and African Americans since the Civil War, Chinese immigrants were denied citizenship, systematically discriminated against and disenfranchised until after World War II. Numerically far smaller than Euro-Americans and African Americans, Chinese Americans posed no political threat to the entrenched power, even after they were granted the right of naturalization after the war. They were routinely denied, de jure and de facto, political and civil rights. It was not until the late 1960s, under the militant leadership of younger Chinese Americans, that they began to mobilize for equal participation with the help of African Americans and in coalition with other Asian American groups.

Three key elements shaped the formation and development of the Chinese American community: racism, U.S.-China relations, and the interaction between these two forces. The intersection of American foreign policy and domestic racial politics compelled Chinese Americans to live under a unique structure of dual domination. They were racially segregated and forced to live under an apartheid system, and they were subject to the extraterritorial domination of the Chinese government, condoned, if not encouraged at times, by the U.S. government. Chinese Americans were treated as aliens and confined to urban ghettos and governed by an elite merchant class legitimated by the U.S. government and reinforced by the omnipresent diplomatic representatives from China. Social institutions, lifestyles, and political factionalism were reproduced and institutionalized. Conflict over homeland partisan disputesincluding the dispute between the reform and revolutionary parties at the beginning of the twentieth century and between the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and Communists led by Mao Tse-tung in Chinakept the community deeply divided. Such divisions drained scarce financial resources and political energy from pressing issues within the community and left behind a legacy of preoccupation with motherland politics and deep political cleavage to this date. During the Cold War, the extraterritorial domination intensified, as military dictators in Taiwan, backed by the United States, extended their repression into the Chinese American community in an effort to insure political loyalty and suppress political dissent.

The African American Civil Rights movement inspired and inaugurated a new era of ethnic pride and political consciousness. Joined by other Asian American groups, American-born, college-age Chinese rejected both the racist model of forced assimilation and the political and cultural domination of the Nationalist government in Taiwan. They also rejected second-class citizenship and the option of returning to Asia. Instead, they demanded liberation from the structure of dual domination. These college students and, later, young professionals contributed most significantly to raising the ethnic and political consciousness of Chinese Americans and helped achieve civil rights. Furthermore, they founded many social service agencies and professional, political, and cultural organizations throughout the United States. They also joined forces with other Asian American college students to push for the establishment of Asian American studies programs in major universities and colleges across the nation.

The politicization of Chinese Americans soon led to the founding of new civil rights and partisan political organizations. Most notable was the founding of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) in San Francisco in 1969, a civil rights organization that has been at the forefront of all major issues employment, education, media, politics, health, census, hate crime, etc.affecting Chinese Americans across the nation. By the 1970s, two national organizations, the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) and the National Association of Chinese Americans (NACA), were formed in most major cities to serve, respectively, middle-class Chinese Americans and Chinese American intellectuals. Likewise, local partisan clubs and Chinese American Democrats and Republicans were organized to promote Chinese American participation in politics and government.

By the 1980s, some middle-class Chinese Americans began to take interest in local electoral politics. They have enjoyed modest success in the races for less powerful positions, such as school boards and city councils. Among the notable political leaders to emerge were March Fong Eu, secretary of state of California, S. B. Woo, lieutenant governor of Delaware (1984-88), Michael Woo of Los Angeles City Council (1986-90), and Thomas Hsieh and Mabel Teng of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1988.

With increased interest in electoral politics came the demand for greater participation in other branches of government. In 1959 Delbert Wong became the first Chinese American to be appointed a municipal judge in Los Angeles. In 1966 Lim P. Lee was appointed postmaster of San Francisco, and Harry Low, a municipal judge. Low was later appointed to the Superior Court and the California Appellate Court. Also appointed to the municipal bench were Samuel Yee, Leonard Louie, Lillian Sing, and Julie Tang in San Francisco and Jack Bing Tso, James Sing Yip, and Ronald Lew in Los Angeles. Thomas Tang was appointed to the Ninth Circuit Court in 1977 and Elwood Lui to the federal district court in 1984.

Chinese Americans have been predominantly an urban population since the late nineteenth century. Their community has long been divided between the merchant elites and the working-class, and the influx of both poor and affluent immigrants since the late 1960s has deepened the division in the community by class, nativity, dialect, and residential location, giving rise not to just conflicting classes and public images, but also to conflicting visions in Chinese America. The sources of this open split can be traced to the changes in U.S. immigration laws and Cold War policies and to the arrival of diverse Chinese immigrants from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asian countries throughout the Cold War. The division has had serious political and social consequences as Chinese Americans from opposing camps seek political empowerment in cities with a deeply entrenched, white ethnic power structure and emerging African American forces.

Individual and Group Contributions

Chinese American contributions are significant and far-reaching. In general, it can be said that they contributed in labor to the economic development in the West in the second half of the nineteenth century and to science and technology in the second half of the twentieth century. Even though the nineteenth-century immigrants to the West Coast were mostly peasants working as contract laborers, their collective contribution to the building of the West has long been recognized by historians. Most notable was the completion of the transcontinental railway over the Sierra Nevada and the deserts of Nevada and Utah, and the building of the railroad network throughout the Southwest and into the Deep South. Less known, but no less significant, was the labor they provided for the mining of not just gold but also other minerals from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains; the construction of the canals, irrigation systems, and land claims that lay the foundation for the well-known and prosperous agribusiness of California; the groundbreaking work in fruit and vegetable farming and fishing industry; and the labor-intensive manufacturing industries, such as garments, shoes, woolen mills, and cigars, which provided the necessities of life in the developing West. Chinese labor was so timely, dependable, and efficient that Stanford historian Mary R. Coolidge, writing in 1909, concluded that "without [it] her [California's] material progress must long be postponed." Likewise, the UCLA historian Alexander Saxton, in a more recent book (1971), characterized the Chinese laborers as the "indispensable enemy" in California's economic development and politics in the nineteenth century.


In the world of literature, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan have captured the imagination of the United States with their writings based in part on their personal experiences and stories told in their families. Kingston is best known for her Women Warrior (1976), Chinamen (1977), and Tripmaster Monkey (1989), while Tan is known for her Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God's Wife (1991). Other accomplished writers, to name a few, include Gish Jen (Typical American ), David Wong Louie (Pangs of Love ), and Faye Myenne Ng (Bone ). Equally successful, in the world of Chinese-language readers, are literary works written in Chinese by Chinese American writers like Chen Ruoxi, Bai Xianyong, Yi Lihua, Liu Daren, and Nie Hualing, who are also widely read in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Southeast Asia.


Equally important are the contributions Chinese Americans made to postwar U.S. accomplishments in science and technology. As mentioned above, one of the most outstanding features of the postwar Chinese immigration is the migration of Chinese intellectuals from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Not only did they boost the large pool of scientists and engineers needed in the military-industrial complex throughout the Cold War, they also emerged as leading scientists and engineers in virtually all major disciplines in research laboratories in industries and research universities. For example, Chinese American scientists and engineers constitute a significant work force in the Silicon Valley and in aerospace centers in Seattle, Los Angeles/Long Beach, and San Diego, as well as in the national research laboratories of Lawrence Livermore, California; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Argonne Laboratory in Illinois; Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; and NASA Space Centers in Houston, Texas, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. Chinese Americans are also employed in the laboratories of IBM, RCA, Bell Lab, GE, Boeing, 3M, Westinghouse, and in major research universities, from MIT to the University of California, Berkeley.

Many distinguished Chinese American scientists and engineers have received national and international recognition. For example, Chinese Americans who have received Nobel Prizes include: Chen-ning Yang, Cheng-tao Lee, and Tsao-chung Ting in physics and Yuan-tse Lee in chemistry. In mathematics, Shiing-shen Chern, Sing-tung Yao, and Wu-I Hsiang are ranked among the top in the world. In the biological sciences, Cho-hoe Li, Ming-jue Zhang, and Yuet W. Kan have all received honors and awards. The leading American researcher in superconductivity research is Paul Chu. In engineering, T. Y. Lin, structural engineer, received the Presidential Science Award in 1986. Others include Kuan-han Sun, a radiation researcher with Westinghouse; Tien Chang-lin, a mechanical engineer and chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley; Henry Yang, an aerospace engineer and the chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Steven Chen, the leading researcher on the next generation of supercomputers.

Among the Chinese American women with national and international reputations in science are Ying-zhu Lin in aeronautics and aeronautical engineering, recipient of the Achievement Award for women engineers in 1985, and Chien-Hsiung Wu in physics.

In March 1997, Wen Ho Lee, an atomic scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory nearAlbuquerque, New Mexico, was arrested on suspicion of spying for China. Wen Ho Lee was fired for unspecified security violations, but in early May of 1999, federal officials revealed that Wen Ho had transferred secret nuclear weapons computer programs from the Los Alamos computer system to his own desktop computer. Wen Ho denied the charges that he was a spy and claimed that he let no one see the nuclear weapons computer program. In a prepared statement issued on May 6, 1999, Wen Ho said he would "not be a scapegoat for alleged security problems at our country's nuclear laboratories" and he denied that he ever gave classified information to unauthorized persons.


Frank Chin, Genny Lim, and David Henry Hwang have all made lasting contributions to the theater. Among the best known plays of Hwang are FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, and M. Butterfly. Several films of Wayne Wang, Chan is Missing, Dim Sum, Eat a Bowl of Tea, and Joy Luck Club, have received critical acclaims. Less famous, but no less important, are the unique Chinese American themes and sounds of jazz compositions and recordings of Fred Ho in New York and Jon Jang in San Francisco.


Besides their enormous contributions to science and technology, many Chinese Americans also excel in art and literature. Maya Ying Lin is already a legend in her own time. At 21, while an architecture student at Yale University, she created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., one of the most frequented national monuments. After this enormous success, she went on to design the Civil Rights Memorial in Atlanta, a giant outdoor sculpture commemorating the history of women at her alma mater, and a monumental sculpture at the New York Pennsylvania Railroad Station.

Just as impressive, are the architectural wonders of I. M. Pei. Among his best known works are the East Wing of the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., the John F. Kennedy Library at Harvard University, the Boston Museum and the John Hancock Building in Boston, Dallas Symphony Hall, the modern addition to the Louvre in Paris, the Bank of China in Hong Kong, and the Xiangshan Hotel in Beijing.

Anna Sui (1955 ), a native of Detroit, is a famous Chinese American fashion designer. Known for her stylistic versatility, Sui has dabbled in everything from 1960s fashion to formal evening wear.



Chinese-language newspapers have always played an important role in the Chinese American community. Newspapers may be found in most major Chinatowns, from Honolulu to New York. San Francisco, however, has long been the national center for Chinese American newspapers.

The Gold Hills News, the first weekly to be published in San Francisco, was founded in April of 1854. The following year, Rev. William Speer, a Presbyterian missionary to Chinatown, published the first bilingual weekly, Tung Ngai San-Luk (The Oriental ). A year later, in 1856, the Chinese Daily News, the first Chinese daily in the world, began circulation in Sacramento, California.

Unfortunately, technical and financial difficulties made success in print medium elusive. Most did not survive long. It was not until the early twentieth century, under the influence of Chinese nationalism and opposing political parties seeking support among Chinese in the United States, that newspapers in Chinatown flourished and endured for several decades. The factions with influential papers in San Francisco were Hongmen's Datung Ribao (Chinese Free Press ), Chung Sai Daily, a neutral daily, edited by Ng Poon Chew, Shaonian Zhongguo Zhen Bao (Young China Morning Paper ), founded by Sun Yat-sen, and Shijie Ribao (The Chinese World ), a proreform party paper.

The next round of blossoming Chinese-language papers began modestly in the early 1970s and, aided by computers, satellite telecommunication, and new printing technology, grew into a major battle in the early 1980s among giant national dailies. The national dailies, printed and distributed simultaneously in major cities in the United States, included The World Journal (Shijie Ribao ), China Times (Zhongguo Shiba o), International Daily News (Guoji Ribao ), Sing Tao Daily, and Centre Daily (Zhong Bao ). To be added to this list are two other types of dailies: local dailies and dailies transmitted from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In addition to these nationally distributed dailies are numerous local dailies and weeklies and monthlies distributed both locally and nationally. The most notable weeklies in San Francisco have been Chinese Pacific Weekly (Taipingyang Zhoubao ), East-West Chinese American Weekly (Dongxi Bao), an independent bilingual paper, and Asian Week, an English-only weekly.

Stiff competition for a small pool of Chinese readership and advertising dollars soon eliminated the first of several local dailies and weeklies and some of the national dailies by the late 1980s. Satellite-transmitted dailies from Hong Kong, however, continue to thrive in major cities in the United States.

Chinese American Citizens Alliance.

Newsletter of group with same name featuring news of interest to Chinese Americans.

Contact: Vera Lee Goo, Editor.

Address: 1044 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California 94108.

Telephone: (415) 434-2222.

Chinese Daily News.

Formerly World Journal.

Contact: Shihyaw Chen, Editor.

Address: 1588 Corporate Center Drive, Monterey Park, California 91754.

Telephone: (213) 268-4982.

Fax: (213) 265-3476.

The Chinese Press.

Address: 15 Mercer Street, New York, New York 10013.

Telephone: (212) 274-8282.


The only bilingual newspaper in New England serving the Asian community.

Contact: Catherine Anderson or Carmen Chan.

Address: Asian-American Civic Association, 90 Tyler Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02111.

Telephone: (617) 426-9492.

Fax: (617) 482-2315.

Sing Tao Daily.

Contact: Tim S. Lau, Vice President.

Address: 215 Littlefield Avenue, South San Francisco, California 94080.

Telephone: (650) 872-1177; or (800) SINGTAO.

Fax: (650) 872-0234.


Global Communication Enterprises, New York; Huayu Radio Broadcast, San Francisco.


Chinese World Television, New York; Hong Kong Television Broadcasts, U.S.A., Los Angeles; United Chinese TV, San Francisco; Hua Sheng TV, San Francisco; Pacific TV Broadcasting Co., San Francisco; and Channel 26, San Francisco.

Organizations and Associations

Nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants established most traditional Chinese social organizations in Chinatowns. Most notable were the district associations (huiguan ) and family name associations (gongsuo ). Together, they formed the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association (CCBA) or the Chinese Six Companies. Before World War II, they were recognized as the leaders and spokesmen of the Chinese American community. Most of these organizations remain today. However, with the passage of time and the rise of new needs and interests, several modern organizations have emerged. Most notable among these are Christian churches of different denominations, secret societies (tongs ), Chinese schools for different interest groups, trade organizations, guilds, and unions (laundry, garment, cigar, shoes, restaurant, etc.), recreation and youth clubs (YMCA and YWCA), political parties in China (earlier, Chee Kong Tong, Baohuanghui, Tungmenghui, and later, Kuomintang and Xienzhengdang), social and cultural societies, and newspapers. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1908, and the Chinese Hospital was established in 1925. Since the 1960s, new types of organizations have risen and proliferated.

Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA).

A national organization founded early in the twentieth century to fight for Chinese American rights, with chapters in different Chinatowns.

Contact: Collin Lai, President.

Address: 1044 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California 94108.

Telephone: (415) 982-4618.

Chinese American Forum (CAF).

Cultivates understanding among U.S. citizens of Chinese American cultural heritage. Publishes a quarterly.

Contact: T. C. Peng, President.

Address: 606 Brantford Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland 20904.

Telephone: (301) 622-3053.

Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA).

The oldest national Chinese organization in Chinatown, with affiliates in all Chinatowns.

Contact: Yut Y. Eng, President.

Address: 843 Stockton Street, San Francisco, California 94108.

Telephone: (415) 982-6000.

E-mail: [email protected].

Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA).

The leading civil rights organization of Chinese in the United States.

Contact: Henry Der, Executive Director.

Address: 17 Walter U. Lum Place, San Francisco, California 98108.

Telephone: (415) 274-6750.

Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA).

A national organization committed to promoting the rights of Chinese Americans, with chapters throughout the United States and a lobbyist office in Washington, D.C. Publishes newsletter OCA Image.

Contact: Daphne Quok, Executive Director.

Address: 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 707, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Telephone: (202) 223-5500.

Museums and Research Centers

Center for Chinese Studies (University of Michigan).

Economics, politics, law, literature, and social structure of China; also Chinese history, philosophy, literature, linguistics, and art history. Promotes and supports research in social sciences and humanities relating to China, past and present, by faculty members, graduate students, and associates of the center.

Address: 1080 South University, Suite 3668, Ann Arbor, Michigan 481091106.

Contact: Dr. Ernest P. Young, Director.

Telephone: (734) 764-6308.

Fax: (734) 764-5540.

E-mail: [email protected].


Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

A community-based cultural and educational facility, this organization provides space for exhibits, performing arts, conferences, classrooms, and meetings.

Contact: Manni Liu, Acting Executive Director/Curator.

Address: 750 Kearney Street, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, California 94108.

Telephone: (415) 986-1822.

Fax: (415) 986-2825.

E-mail: [email protected].


Chinese Historical Society of America.

Devoted to the study of the Chinese people in the United States and the collection of their relics. Ethnic and historical interests of the society are published in its bulletin.

Contact: Philip Choy, President.

Address: 650 Commercial Street, San Francisco, California 94133.

Telephone: (415) 391-1188.

Fax: (415) 3911150

Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA).

Founded in 1980 as the New York Chinatown History Project; adopted its present name in 1995. Strives "to reclaim, preserve, and broaden understanding about the diverse history of Chinese people in the Americas." Included is the most extensive collection of Chinese-language newspapers in the United States.

Address: 70 Mulberry Street, 2nd Floor, New York, New York 10013.

Telephone: (212) 619-4785.


Sources for Additional Study

Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities During the Exclusion Era, edited by K. Scott Wong and Sucheng Chan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943, edited by Sucheng Chan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Kwong, Peter. Chinatown, NY: Labor & Politics, 1930-1950. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.

Lowen, James W. The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Lydon, Sandy. Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. Capitola, California: Capitola Book Co., 1985.

Ma, L. Eve Armentrout. Revolutionaries, Monarchists, and Chinatowns: Chinese Politics in the Americas and the 1911 Revolution. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

McClain, Charle. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discramination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Nee, Victor G., and Brett de Barry. Longtime Californ': A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Saxton, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.

Takaki, Ronald (adapted by Rebecca Stefoff). Ethnic Islands: The Emergence of Urban Chinese America. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. China and the Overseas Chinese in the United States, 1868-1911. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1983.

Chinese Americans

views updated May 08 2018

Chinese Americans


Identification and Location. Originating from the southern provinces of Chinaparticularly the Pearl Delta area of Kwangtung ProvinceChinese immigrants arrived in California in the nineteenth century, seeking work as miners, general laborers, and agricultural workers. Faced with stiff competition from non-Chinese workers and discriminatory practices, the immigrants moved to other Western states and eventually to the East, where they settled in major cities. In 1980 three major metropolitan areas accounted for over half the Chinese population in America: the San Francisco Bay area, New York City and the adjacent Nassau and Suffolk counties, and Los Angeles and the adjacent Orange County.

Demography. In 1990 there were over 1.6 million Chinese in the United States, constituting 0.7 percent of the population. In 1980 the areas with the greatest concentrations of Chinese population were New York City, 124,764; Los Angeles, 93,747; San Francisco, 82,480; Honolulu, Hawaii, 52,814; and Almeda (Oakland), California, 32,177.

Linguistic Affiliation. The primary dialect spoken by the Chinese Americans is Cantonese. The younger generation of Chinese Americans tend to be fluent in both Chinese and English.

History and Cultural Relations

After the Taiping Rebellion in China (1848-1864), which destroyed commerce and agriculture and brought about a famine in southeastern China, many Chinese emigrated. Those who moved to the United States were peasants and workers mostly from the Toishan, Hoi Ping, Yan Ping, Sun Wei, Shun Tak, Nan Hoi, Pum Yui, and Chung Shan districts in Kwangtung Province. From 1848 to 1882 the greatest concentration of Chinese immigrants was in California and the Rocky Mountain states, where they sought employment in railroad construction, in mines, on farms, and as fishermen. During this period railroads were undergoing extensive expansion and development in the West, and Chinese labor played a major role in their construction. During the decade of the 1870s Chinese immigrant labor constituted one-fourth of those employed in mining in California and Washington, one-fifth in Montana, and more than one-half in Idaho and Oregon. By the 1880s Chinese labor accounted for one-sixth of the farm workers and nearly one-half of the garden workers in California. The Chinese also constituted more than a third of California's fishermen.

Although Chinese laborers were welcomed at firsteven praisedand were considered almost indispensable by white Americans, it was not long before white workers began to perceive the presence of Chinese workers as a threat to their economic interests. As a result, the immigrants became the object of mob violence, discriminatory practices, and exclusionary legislation. Robbery and violence directed against the Chinese were commonplace, and the government did not protect them. As a direct result of the anti-Chinese movement, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which excluded immigrants in certain occupations and professions (e.g., teaching, mining, and manufacturing) from entering the country and denied the Chinese the right of naturalization. This legislation had permanent adverse effects on the Chinese in the United States. For example, legislation severely restricting the immigration of Chinese women created an essentially "bachelor society," resulting in the birth of few second-generation Chinese Americans. Having been denied U.S. citizenship, the Chinese could not vote or hold office, and their employment opportunities were limited. The result was the isolation of Chinese communities into politically disenfranchised and economically stagnant units, with community leadership in the hands of local leaders (generally wealthy merchants). These conditions created a politically powerless Chinese population with little influence in the political system.

After the passage of the Exclusion Act of 1882 anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment persisted on the part of both the American public and the government. In 1888 Congress passed new restrictive legislation called the Scott Act, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers. In 1892, the Geary Act prohibited Chinese immigration for another ten years; in 1902 that period was extended indefinitely. The Immigration Act of 1924 almost completely excluded all Asian immigration. Although this bill forbade the families of male immigrant workers to join them, it did permit a small number of upper-class families, particularly wealthy merchants and students, to enter the United States.

Anti-Chinese sentiment subsided to some extent during World War II because of the American military alliance with China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, and the wives of male immigrant workers were allowed to join their husbands. Between 1945 and 1959 the number of Chinese immigrants in the United States totaled 36,325, but with the repeal of the immigration quota system in 1965, that number rose to 142,108 for the period 1965-1972. This large influx of new immigrants had important economic, political, and social effects on Chinatowns in the United States, especially in San Francisco and New York.

Before World War II a number of Chinese students were unable to return to their homeland because of the political situation there. These "stranded" students, who were generally from the upper and middle classes in China, were received with far more respect and hospitality than were immigrant Chinese workers. They formed an emergent middle class in the 1960s, along with the American-born Chinese who had been educated in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of the children of the student group played an important part in the Asian American movement.

Settlements. In the nineteenth century Chinese immigrants lived in small, dispersed communities in close proximity to the mines, plantations, and farms where they worked. After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment was so intense that it became necessary for the Chinese to leave their jobs and move back to China or into metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco. In the latter case they settled in low-rent slum areas and established Chinese communities, or "Chinatowns," that provided employment opportunities and services denied by the host society, such as police protection and education. The term Chinatown has been used so commonly over the years that it has become a standard term of reference for the Chinese quarter of an urban area composed generally of Chinese-owned residential, business, and, in some cases, industrial structures. As the Chinese population increased and its economic activities became more diversified, Chinatowns began to expand, often occupying several city blocks and functioning as self-contained towns. In the 1980s and 1990s, as an integral part of many major areas of the United States, Chinatowns still were an important part of Chinese social life, especially for the older generation of immigrants, who wanted to maintain their traditional cultural values. The younger educated generation of Chinese who are rapidly being integrated into American society find the need for dependence on the social and cultural values of Chinatown far less compelling than do their elders.


Commercial Activities. Supplying a cheap source of labor was the primary economic function of the early Chinese immigrants, particularly in railroad construction and agriculture. Racism and discrimination, however, soon placed the Chinese at a disadvantage in the labor market. In the sectors in which they worked they had to settle for lower wages than those of their white American coworkers. As racial hostility and legal barriers made it increasingly difficult to compete in the labor market with white Americans, the Chinese began to retreat into the ethnic business sector, primarily in the service industries (laundries and restaurants), where they avoided competition with white employers and workers. Although the initial investment in a small business was relatively small, many Chinese had to rely on partnerships to finance the operation. The partners worked as a team in running the business, eliminating the cost of hiring other workers. This situation was especially prevalent in the restaurant business. In the post-World War II period, when immigration policies were relaxed, many Chinese brought their families to the United States. These family members provided additional labor in business enterprises, and this often resulted in the breakup of many partnerships as the demographic pattern of the Chinese community changed. In the latter part of the twentieth century the younger generation, with better education and greater access to employment opportunities, was less willing to work in their ancestors' occupations. Many of them sought employment in areas of socioeconomic life that were not accessible to their parents and grandparents.

Land Tenure. Many early Chinese immigrants wanted to save enough money to buy a piece of land in China that they could pass on to the next generation. To attain this goal a large proportion of the immigrants' wages was sent to their families in China, not only to support them but also to be set aside as savings. This resulted in poverty conditions for immigrants who possessed little real property. As anti-Chinese discrimination increased, attempts were made to prevent the immigrants from obtaining property. The Alien Land Law of 1913, for example, prohibited "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from buying or leasing property. In addition, restrictive laws in California prevented Chinese from purchasing homes outside the Chinatown area. In the 1940s the restrictive laws were repealed, as was the Alien Land Law in 1959. As social and economic conditions have improved for the Chinese, movement out of Chinatowns has increased. The purchase of homes and real estate outside the urban area is a reality for many Chinese Americans. Chinese entrepreneurs own a variety of commercial businesses, apartment buildings, and shopping malls, many of which are financed through loans from businessmen in Hong Kong and Taiwan.


Kin Groups and Descent. The two basic units of kinship organization among Chinese Americans are the clan, based on shared surnames, and the lineage. In China lineage organization in which patrilineal descent ties are carefully recorded is very important, but among Chinese Americans this type of organization has far less significance. In the United States, as in other overseas Chinese communities, it is the more extensive clan or surname organization that is important, because it forms the basis of associations that find new arrivals temporary housing, find jobs for their members, and provide a degree of control over businesses in Chinatown.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Because of the view of marriage as a responsibility and obligation of the male to carry on his bloodline, many single immigrants in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries returned to China to find brides. There the traditional wedding arrangement would take place, involving the selection of the bride by a matchmaker, who would investigate the family tree to ensure that it was healthy and sound; the mutual exchange of gifts between the families; and finally the wedding ceremony. After staying several weeks or months with his new bride the husband returned to his job in the United States. Return trips to visit his wife and family took place periodically over intervals of several years, until the husband died or became too incapacitated by age or sickness to travel.

By the mid-twentieth century, under American influence, the traditional marriage patterns and rituals had changed. The younger generation believes in courtship and romantic love as a prerequisite to marriage. They conceive of marriage as a union between two individuals rather than a matter that the family decides and thus reject their parents' efforts to arrange marriages. Parents, however, strongly encourage their children to follow the traditional practice. The younger generation prefers an American-style wedding in one of Chinatown's Christian churches, followed by a Chinese ceremony in a higher-class Chinese restaurant. After the wedding the couple establish a household distinct from that of their parents. The couple's relationships with their parents and in-laws continue to be close, often involving economic cooperation, but in general the newlyweds move into middle-class American life.

Domestic Unit. In China, where kinship ties and relations between family members are extensive, the extended or joint family is the predominant domestic unit. The Chinese family in America differs from that pattern as a result of adaptation to the socioeconomic and political environments in the United States. Chinese American families in the late twentieth century consisted primarily of nuclear families of parents and children, though some young couples lived together without being married. Other variations include the single family (e.g., brothers and sisters living together), the divided family (where children or a spouse live abroad), and female heads of households (widows or divorced women). Wong (1982) classifies Chinese American families into four basic types: old immigrant families, Chinese American families, stranded families, and new immigrant families.

The old immigrant families came to the United States before 1924 and reflect the cultural values and norms of the traditional or extended family in China. Chinese American families are more acculturated second- and third-generation offspring of the original immigrants. Stranded families are those of intellectuals, students, and officials who came to the United States before 1949 and decided not to return to China because of the change in the political regime. The new immigrant families emigrated to the United States largely in the post-1965 period. These families differ from the old immigrant families in their attitudes toward the larger society. They came to the United States of their own volition and intend to make it their permanent home, in contrast to the old immigrant families, which considered the United States a temporary place to live until they accumulated enough wealth to return home. The new immigrant families retain many traditional Chinese values while including many elements from American society in their cultural milieu.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Once Chinese immigrants established themselves in cities, a social structure developed that united all the Chinese in a particular locality, protected them from the outside world, and regulated the internal affairs of the community. This social system involved a number of organizations that not only protected immigrants from white American society but also reinforced ethnic solidarity and mutual dependence among the Chinese and helped maintain their cultural traditions in the face of pressure to assimilate into American society. This social system, often referred to as a "segmentary system," was based on principles of social organization common to the area of southern China from which most Chinese immigrants came. Basically, patrilineal descentlineage or clan membershipand locality of origin (one's home village or county in China) were the factors determining an immigrant's place in a traditional Chinatown.

Each Chinatown was structurally organized into three major types of associations: the clan or surname associations, composed of individuals bearing the same family name; district associations in which individuals from the same county or community in China were united; and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), an umbrella-like community organization controlled by the merchant leaders of the clan and district associations. This organizationalso known as the Chinese Six Companieswas considered the "inner government" of the Chinese community and frequently was imbued with semigovernmental powers (e.g., the president of the CCBA was often referred to as the mayor or Chinatown). The CCBA continues to mediate disputes between the lower levels, regulate internal commerce, and act as an advocate and go-between for the Chinese community in its relations with the local and national authorities. An additional type of organization existed in the Chinese community, variously called "secret societies," "merchant associations," or tongs. These associations provided an alternative for individuals who were not accepted into the other associations. Often tong leaders achieved considerable power in the community through illegal enterprises such as gambling, prostitution, and smuggling. Other secret societies in the community functioned as genuine mutual aid and protection organizations.

Political Organization. Effective leadership in early Chinatowns was traditionally provided by wealthy Chinese merchants who also served as clan or district association heads. The leadership of a clan or district association was a direct route to power and prestige in the community and could lead to the presidency of the CCBA.

Social Control. The Chinese segmentary system provides an effective means of social control within Chinatown and an effective mediating structure between the Chinese and non-Chinese worlds. In theory membership in a clan or district association is ascriptive and thus mandatory, but in reality one's status in these organizations is dependent on monetary donations and time spent on association projects. If one wishes to find employment or open a business in the ethnic community, one has to belong to an influential clan or district association that tends to favor its own membership in business matters. A poor relationship with one's association is tantamount to exclusion from the ethnic economy.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Early Chinese immigrants worshiped in Chinese temples, often called joss houses, following the pattern of religious observance in Buddhist and lineage temples in China. Local "gods" were occasionally grouped together under one roof in a religious pantheon that usually included both Kuan-Yin, the goddess of mercy, and Kuankung, the god of war. Chinese religious festivals and celebrations centered on these temples permitting temple managers to earn income through the sale of fireworks, good luck symbols, and "proper" prayers. Temples often received donations of money from businessmen and association groups. Temple festivals and celebrations were attended by Chinese from near and far. Temples were sometimes connected to association houses that incorporated religion and superstition in their system of controls. Two of the most important functions of the temples were to integrate the Chinese community (especially during festive occasions) and to provide a place of solace, comfort, and entertainment for immigrants who found security in prayers and other religious beliefs and practices.

By the late twentieth century organized religion was no longer a prominent factor in social organization. For those who are involved in religion, there are a number of Chinese Christian churches that provide religious services. Catholic and Protestant denominations serve as mediating, acculturative institutions melding Asian and Western traditions.

Ceremonies. Perhaps the most widely known Chinese festival is the Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar. Other important festivals are the Ching Ming (a semireligious ceremony to pay honor to the ancestors), the Chungyung, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival. In the late twentieth century these festivals were not extensively celebrated in Chinese American homes, and recently arrived immigrants did not observe them seriously. Even the celebration of the Chinese New Year became more of a fashion than an opportunity for family reunions and togetherness.

Ancestor worship associated with the Ching Ming festival, although still carried out by the elderly, also lost importance as an expression of kinship solidarity. Despite the fact that the worship of ancestors is no longer an important element in Chinese family life, many homes have family altars or shrines to commemorate the spirits of past ancestors. In general, the celebration of most Chinese festivals is on the decline.

Arts. Urbanization of the Chinese population in the United States was accompanied by the inevitable process of acculturation. The cultural ramifications of this process ran through novels, poetry, films, music, and theater in the 1960 and 1970s. In art and literature, however, cultural adaptation from characteristically Chinese styles to a distinctively Chinese American mode was slow. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Chinese American literature and art were strongly China-oriented. Poetry, fiction, satire, humor, and writing in history and biography that appeared in Chinese-language newspapers and periodicals were as Chinese in their themes as were their counterparts in China. It took the rise of an acculturated generation to bring about the development of art and literature in a Chinese American context. American-born Chinese writers expressed the alienation and anguish of life in America and attacked discrimination and racism, helping to form an ethnic consciousness. Pardee Lowe's Father and Glorious Descendant (1937) and Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945) served as vehicles to improve the Chinese image, which had been severely damaged in American popular literature and films.

Chinese opera was centuries old when the first performances were given in the United States (San Francisco, 1852). This form of entertainment was highly popular with Chinese immigrants. The operatic drama was performed largely through a series of vivid pantomimes and stylized gestures by actors trained in this dramatic art form. At first all the roles in the opera were performed by men, but in later years women began to appear. Despite this change, the stories, acting method, and costumes remained unchanged. There were seven different types of plots in Chinese opera: Fu-Cheng (historical play or tragedy), Fai-Wood (comedy), Oi-Yue (platonic love play), Tai-Mong (court play), Hong Koi (chivalry play), Yuen-Wang (persecution play), and Po-Yeng (merit-rewarded play). Although Chinese theaters sprang up at different ti mes in Los Angeles, Sacramento, New York, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Boston, the San Francisco theater remained the center for Chinese dramatic activity in the United States. However, by the late twentieth century, Chinese opera in the United States was a thing of the past, with only a couple of old theaters still standing.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, interment of the deceased took place in Chinese cemeteries. After a period of two or more years, the bones were removed and sent to China, where they would rest in the company of ancestors. Much of the responsibility for removing the bones and shipping them abroad was in the hands of the Chinese associations, which also provided free funerals for indigent Chinese and those without kin. In these cases the customary banquet that followed the burial was greatly simplified. Although the worship of ancestors is no longer an important part of family life, many homes still have family altars or shrines. During the annual Ching Ming festival, many elderly Chinese, often accompanied by their children, visit the cemeteries to make offerings to the spirits of their departed relatives.

For other cultures in The United States of America, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


Allen, James Paul (1988). "People of Asian and Pacific Island Origin." In We the People: An Atlas of America's Ethnic Diversity, edited by James Paul Allen and Eugene James Turner. 177-182. New York: Macmillan.

Chen, Hsiang-shui (1992). Chinatown No More: Taiwan Immigrants in Contemporary New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Chinn, Thomas W. (1989). Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and Its People. San Francisco: Chinese Historical Association of America.

Kuo, Chia-ling (1977). Social and Political Change in New York's Chinatown: The Role of Voluntary Associations. New York: Praeger.

Loo, Chalsa M. (1991). Chinatown: Most Time, Hard Time. New York: Praeger.

Nee, Victor G., and Brett de Bary Nee (1986). Longtime Californ': A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tsai, Shih-shan Henry (1986). The Chinese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Weiss, Melford S. (1974). Valley City: A Chinese Community in America. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.

Wong, Bernard P. (1982). Chinatown, Economic Adaptation and Ethnic Identity of the Chinese. Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


Chinese Americans

views updated May 11 2018

Chinese Americans





Chinese Americans can trace their roots to the mid-nineteenth century. Although it is not known when the first Chinese ventured into North America, Harry H. L. Kitano and Roger Daniels (2001) suggest that the first major wave of Chinese immigration to the United States occurred just before the California gold rush of 1849. Although Chinese Americans do not have the long history of African Americans and Latino Americans, they are also not a new immigrant group. Rather, Chinese Americans are a well-established U.S. ethnic group that has faced long-standing social, political, and economic discrimination as well as outright government exclusion (e.g., via immigration laws and policies). Chinese people immigrated to the United States during a variety of periods, and they differed demographically from one another: some were professional elites, while others were cheap labor. Initially most were men.


The United States has a long history of immigration and naturalization laws and policies that excluded Chinese from entering the country. In the mid- to late nineteenth century there were no formal policies to prevent immigrants from coming to the United States. As a result Chinese laborers, fleeing from what Sucheng Chan (1991) refers to as a time of natural disasters and extreme political turmoil in China, sought work in the United States, a place that many Chinese believed offered unlimited wealth, resources, and opportunities for success. Unlike other minority groups, such as Africans, who were forced to come to America against their wills, most Chinese immigrants were sojourners who intended to work in the United States for a short time and eventually return to their homes in China. However, similar to other racial minorities in the United States, Chinese workers were relegated to second-class citizenship and often treated as inferior or subhuman compared to whites. Large numbers of Chinese laborers were coerced and even physically forced to work on plantations, in mines, and on the railroads. When their labor was no longer needed, exclusionary immigration laws based on race and nationality were instituted, preventing new Chinese workers from entering the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States for ten years and prohibited naturalization. In 1888 the Scott Act barred all Chinese laborers legally residing in America reentry into the United States after visiting China. The Geary Act (1892) extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for another ten years. Chinese laborers were barred from entering the United States indefinitely in 1902. In 1917 the U.S. Congress prohibited the entry of natives from China, South and Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, and parts of what is now known as the Middle East.

The anti-immigration movement of the early twentieth century was coupled with violence and racism against all Asian immigrants but in particular the Chinese. The anti-immigrant sentiments prevalent during this time were based on numerous fears, particularly a fear of for-eignness, or the idea of difference, usually based on ethnocentric notions of biological and cultural inferiority. White Americans also feared that immigrants would take their jobs, jobs that in many instances were not sought by whites.

In 1943 the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed, and a quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year was established. The War Brides Act of 1945 allowed veterans of World War II (1939-1945) to bring their foreign-born wives and children to the United States, increasing the number of Chinese women who were allowed to immigrate to the United States. Until then the Page Act of 1875, implemented in an effort to reduce the number of Asian prostitutes in the United States, limited the immigration attempts of most Chinese women. The McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 eliminated racial and ethnic restrictions from the countrys immigration and naturalization policies and opened the door for many Chinese women wanting to immigrate to the United States. Likewise the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 removed quotas for immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, resulting in high levels of immigration from China, Japan, and various Southeast Asian countries. The new immigration guidelines allowed 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere to enter the United States, with no more than 20,000 per country, along with 120,000 immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. The law also prioritized reunification of families and made it easier for Chinese immigrants to become naturalized. Additionally children of immigrants were granted citizenship, a privilege that was typically denied in the past.

As a result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the rate of immigration to the United States increased, and the nature of immigration changed as more people of color were allowed entry to the United States, creating a substantial shift in the racial and ethnic composition of the population. The number of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans in the United States increased from around 125,000 in the early 1900s to well over 1.6 million by 1990.


Some researchers argue that American-born Chinese began to outnumber immigrants from China residing in the United States starting in the 1940s, and that trend has continued into the twenty-first century. Chinese Americans are not a monolithic group but rather a diverse population. Some have enjoyed the economic success that comes with higher education and a professional career, but many Chinese Americans are low-skilled laborers with little education and low socioeconomic status. Stereotypes of Chinese Americans often misrepresent their experiences, and according to Frank Wu (2002), racial prejudice and discrimination directed at Chinese Americans often result from such stereotypes. For example, the model minority myth, which arose in the mid-1960s, holds that the success of Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, is due to their hard work and diligence, ignoring how race, class, and reasons for migration can influence the experiences of different immigrant groups.

The model minority myth also exacerbates conflict between Asian Americans and other U.S. minority groups by setting Asian Americans on a pedestal as a model group that has made it because of dedication and a positive work ethic that other minority groups may lack. Furthermore the model minority myth ignores the fact that many Chinese Americans are not highly educated professionals but are low-skilled laborers who do not experience economic success. Thus the model minority myth obscures the contextual situation of each immigrant group. Chinese immigrants who migrated shortly after the Immigration Act of 1965, for example, were predominantly educated professionals, giving them and their children an economic advantage that many earlier Chinese immigrants lacked.

The model minority myth deflects attention from racist structural factors that have impeded the success of many immigrants and people of color in the United States. It promotes the ideology of individuality as a way to achieve success in America and ignores the barriers (such as racist immigration laws and policies) facing many immigrant groups and their children in achieving success.


Although Chinese Americans have fared better in the United States than some other Asian groups (e.g., Filipinos, Vietnamese, Hmong), they have been far from immune to the effects of racism. Numerous studies have documented incidents of overt racism experienced by Chinese Americans, ranging from verbal insults and differential treatment to hate crimes and violence. The murder of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American man, exemplifies the type of racially motivated violence that Asian Americans may experience. Chin was severely beaten on June 19, 1982, outside a bar in Detroit. He died four days later, five days before his wedding. The perpetrators, two out-of-work autoworkers, claimed they had mistaken Chin for Japanese, a group they blamed for problems within Detroits automobile industry.

Chinese Americans have also had their citizenship questioned. Citizenship was once legally denied to both Chinese immigrants and their American-born descendants because of their race. In the early twenty-first century, although Chinese Americans are legal citizens, they are often not culturally viewed as citizens because they are not white. Scholars argue that racialized ethnics, such as Chinese Americans, are often assumed to be foreign rather than American. Mia Tuans 1998 study of the Asian Americans experience revealed that many Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, are often asked where they are from. When America is the response, most whites, unsatisfied that Asians can be Americans, will continue by asking, no, where are you really from. Thus as Frank Wu (2002) pointed out, Asian Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners in the United States. The perpetual foreigner syndrome was evident in some media coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympics. During the figure skating competition, Michelle Kwan, a Chinese American skater, lost the gold medal to Tara Lipinski, a white American. A subsequent MSNBC headline read, American Beats Out Kwan, suggesting that Kwan was not as American as Lipinski. Four years later, in the Seattle Times, a similar headline appeared when Kwan lost to another white American, Sarah Hughes, in the 2002 winter Olympics: Hughes Good as Gold: American Outshines Kwan, Slutskaya in Skating Surprise. Both headlines are examples of how a sense of belonging, a privilege associated with citizenship, is denied to Chinese Americans because of their race and how racialized ethnics are not able to fully assimilate into the mainstream.

While Chinese cultural centers and Chinatowns reflect one of the many impacts Chinese Americans have had on American culture, Chinese American laborers represent another major contribution to American culture and history. In 1869 the Union Pacific Railroad and the Eastern Pacific Railroad were joined together by the Transcontinental Railroad, connecting the eastern part of the United States to the western. Chinese laborers provided a substantial number of workers to complete the project and were paid less than their white counterparts. The completion of this railroad aided in the economic development of the western part of the United States. Thus while Chinese American laborers have historically been exploited financially and faced racial discrimination, they were integral in the economic development of the United States through their hard work on the railroads.

Chinese Americans have lived in the United States for more than a century, but their history has been plagued with racism. Racist immigration and naturalization laws and policies excluded Chinese from migrating to the United States and denied them rights and privileges associated with citizenship. Although these laws and policies have been dismantled, Chinese Americans still face stereotypes, such as the model minority myth, that minimize the breadth of their experiences. The history of Chinese immigrants provides a contextual framework with which to understand the situation of Chinese Americans.

SEE ALSO Assimilation; Citizenship; Immigrants, Asian; Immigration; Model Minority; Nativism; Naturalization; Racism


Alvarez, Alvin. Asian Americans and Racism: When Bad Things Happen to Model Minorities. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology (12) 3: 477-492.

Chan, Sucheng. 1991. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne.

Fong, Timothy. 1994. The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Fong, Timothy, and Larry H. Shinagawa, eds. 2000. Asian Americans: Experiences and Perspectives. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kitano, Harry H. L., and Roger Daniels. 2001. Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Tuan, Mia. 1998. Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tuan, Mia. 1999. Neither Real Americans nor Real Asians? Multigeneration Asian Ethnics Navigating the Terrain of Authenticity. Qualitative Sociology (22) 2: 105-125.

Wu, Frank H. 2002. Yellow: Race in America beyond Black and White. New York: Basic Books.

Saher Selod

David G. Embrick

Chinese Americans

views updated May 29 2018

Chinese Americans

For more information on Chinese history and culture, seeVol. 3: China and Her National Minorities; Han.


The first Chinese immigrant to the United States arrived in 1820. For the following 30 years, few Chinese immigrated to America. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, however, many Chinese were drawn to what they called Gum San, the "Gold Mountain." The numbers of Chinese gold-seekers increased rapidly from 450 in 1850 to 2,716 in 1851 to 20,000 in 1852. After that, immigration slowed to an average of 4,000 Chinese per year for the next several years.

Most of these first Chinese Americans were men because a respectable Chinese woman could not leave her parents' or in-laws' home. Therefore, the early Chinese American community consisted of bachelor societies governed by a district association. "Chinatowns" developed all along the West Coast, where Chinese American men could find the goods and services they needed in their new American home, such as housing, traditional Chinese groceries and restaurants, laundries, and the like. Most Chinatowns also had gambling rooms, many had temples, and a few had theaters for traveling Chinese opera troupes.

Due to the dramatic lack of women in the early Chinese American community, prostitution was big business. Local societies, known as "tongs," ran the business, importing young Chinese women (or girls) to act as sexual slaves. "Tong wars" between rival societies made the U.S. national news in the late 1800s.

As the number of Chinese Americans who were willing to work for low wages increased (discrimination prevented them from obtaining high-wage labor), other Americans began to feel threatened by what they termed the "Yellow Peril." Racist organizations initiated boycotts of Chinese American goods and services. Anti-Chinese gangs stormed Chinatowns and wreaked havoc, destroying homes and property and physically attacking Chinese American residents. Many Chinese Americans fled to larger Chinatowns for safety. By 1876, San Francisco's Chinatown housed over 30,000 people in an area of nine city blocks.

The California state government joined the anti-Chinese movement by passing discriminatory acts in the 1850s such as the foreign Miners Tax and Alien Poll Tax. In 1854, the state of California ruled that no person of Chinese descent could testify in court, thereby declaring open season on Chinese Americans. European Americans robbed, beat, and even killed Chinese Americans freely, without punishment, because the victims and other Chinese American witnesses could not testify against them.

By 1882, the U.S. government decided the situation had gotten out of hand and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring any more Chinese laborers from entering the United States for the next decade. Other Chinese immigrants were only to be admitted under severe restrictions. Chinese immigrants were also denied U.S. citizenship "hereafter," relegating them to permanent alien status.

The Asiatic Exclusion League was founded in 1886 to lobby the federal government for further restrictions. In 1892, the Geary Act extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for another 10 years, and in 1902, it was extended indefinitely. Not only was the number of new Chinese arrivals stemmed, but also previous Chinese immigrants decided to leave the increasingly oppressive United States and return to China. The Chinese American population fell from 107,488 in 1890 to 71,531 in 1910.

In 1924, the final blow was delivered. The new Immigration Act passed that year barred any foreigners not eligible for U.S. citizenship from entering the country. This prohibited all future Chinese immigration, including Chinese women married to men who were already U.S. citizens. Chinese Americans in the United States were faced with further discriminatory laws forbidding them to own land, have certain jobs, attend certain schools, or marry European American women.

The situation for Chinese Americans improved when China became an ally of the United States during World War II (1939–45). On 17 December 1943, U.S. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Chinese immigration to the United States was still limited to 105 persons per year, but it was a step in a more welcoming direction. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 removed race as a basis for immigration discrimination, and 10 years later President John F. Kennedy signed legislation allowing over 15,000 refugees from Communist China to enter the United States. Finally, the 1965 Immigration Act eliminated the national origins quota system for immigration entirely and enabled up to 20,000 Chinese to immigrate to the United States each year. The United States continues to be a popular destination for Chinese immigrants—over 13,000 Chinese migrated to the United States between 1990 and 2000—and recent events in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and China have prompted more migration. When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule from the British in 1997, fears of the future drove some Hong Kong residents to relocate to the United States. The suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China as well as rising levels of violence in China-occupied Tibet have spurred more Chinese to immigrate to the United States, along with Taiwanese escaping the tenuous political situation of their homeland. Many Chinese Americans are involved in peace and justice activism around political and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Tibet.

Although "Chinese" can include immigrants from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the census (as well as most studies of ethnic groups) lump them all together in one category. Numbers are therefore difficult to pin down with absolute accuracy. The number of people who reported themselves as being of Chinese ancestry on the 2000 U.S. Census totaled 2,865,232 or 2,879,636 depending on who is included. Almost two-thirds are foreign-born. Most Chinese Americans live either in California (1,122,187) or New York (451,859), with sizeable populations also in Hawaii (170,803), Texas (121,588), New Jersey (110,263), Massachusetts (92,380), and Illinois (86,095). Washington, Florida, Maryland, and Pennsylvania each host more than 50,000 Chinese Americans as well. The state with the highest percentage of Chinese Americans is Hawaii with 14%. California is second with 3.3%, followed by New York with 2.4%. The numbers of men and women immigrating from China to the United States have been fairly equal in recent years.

The Chinese language is fundamentally different from English in both its spoken and written forms. Therefore, attaining English language proficiency is quite difficult for older foreign-born Chinese Americans. Almost three-fourths (73%) of all Chinese Americans over the age of five speak Chinese at home. American-born Chinese Americans, and those who came to the United States as very young children, naturally grow up fluent in English. Many American-born Chinese American children attend Chinese language schools to maintain their connection with the language and culture of their heritage.

Early Chinese immigrants to the United States retained much of their traditional culture, which includes customs, folklore, and religion, and passed it on to their descendants. Traditional Chinese religion is a mix of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist elements. Chinese American communities in the 1800s each had a temple, most of them Taoist. Some of those early temples remain in California, and another was rebuilt in San Jose in 1991. Homes and shops in early Chinese American communities also frequently had altars to various deities. Some restaurants, homes, and shops continue the tradition today. Some Chinese Americans have converted to Christianity, and churches of various denominations can be found in Chinatowns.

Along with American holidays, most Chinese Americans also celebrate traditional Chinese holidays such as the fall Moon Festival, Ching Ming (ritual visits to ancestors' graves) in the spring, and Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year celebrations—with parades, firecrackers, and long, elaborate dragon puppets carried by dozens of dancers—have become very popular among the rest of the American population as well. Many visitors to the gold-rush town of Marysville, California enjoy the annual "Bomb Day" festival held there. Early Chinese Americans built a temple there to the water god Bok Kai, and every year since the 1880s they have honored him with a parade, including a huge golden dragon, during the second month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Although most Chinese Americans make use of Western medicine, they still turn to traditional Chinese remedies for minor ailments. Traditional Chinese health practices have also become more widely accepted by Americans in recent years. Chinese medicinal teas and soups are sold in health food stores, and acupuncturists treat Chinese and non-Chinese Americans alike. The Chinese martial art of tai chi chuan, a form of kung fu, is taught across the United States as a way to improve physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Other forms of kung fu are also popular in the United States.

Although living conditions were often quite desperate for early Chinese Americans who were restricted to low-paying jobs and crowded into Chinatowns for safety from racial violence, most Chinese Americans now live in much better circumstances. The number of Chinatowns has dwindled as the need for them diminished. Networks of already established Chinese Americans help newcomers find housing and employment, and extended family groups provide other needed support.

The family is central to traditional Chinese culture, and many Chinese Americans still hold to Confucian values that emphasize respect for elders and a clear hierarchy of authority among extended family members. Family loyalty and unity is more important than individual dreams and achievements. All emotional and financial support is expected to be supplied by the family. This very closed and structured system creates tightly bonded families where divorce is rare and children remain enmeshed with their parents throughout life. Younger, American-born Chinese Americans sometimes find this family closeness stifling. It conflicts with the modern American values of independence and autonomy they have learned in school and from other American friends. But it can also serve as an anchor of stability in the ever-changing, often confusing, world of the industrialized United States.

Food is almost as important as family to traditional Chinese. Many Chinese Americans continue to eat traditional foods prepared in traditional ways. Rituals and etiquette surrounding the preparation, serving, and consumption of food are passed on from one generation to the next. Today, Chinese restaurants are located in almost every city in the United States, as well as in smaller towns and villages. There are even Chinese fast-food chains. Chinese food is now one of the most popular ethnic foods in America, and even non-Chinese Americans know how to use chopsticks. Fortune cookies, canned chop suey, and other "Chinese" foods are sold in mainstream supermarkets, and scores of Chinese cookbooks are available in libraries and bookstores throughout the United States.

Although Chinese Americans were barred from attending public schools up through the mid-1800s, they are now well integrated into the American educational system. Confucianism promotes education as the key to a successful life, and Chinese American parents continue to encourage their children to do well in school. Chinese American families place a high value on education and spend a large amount of their time, energy, and money on their children's schooling. Chinese American children who also attend Chinese language school put in many hours of study each night to keep up with the increased amount of homework.

Chinese Americans have shared much of their traditional culture, as well as their experience as immigrants, with the wider U.S. public through their writings, music, and art. Well-known Chinese American writers include Maxine Hong Kingston, Betty Bao Lord, Amy Tan, Gus Lee, Gish Jen, and David Wong Louie; playwrights C. Y. (Chin-Yang) Lee, Frank Chin, and David Henry Hwang; poets Nellie Wong and AlanChong Lau; and journalists Ben Fong-Torres, Helen Zia, and Lisa Ling.

Until recently, Chinese Americans did not find much success in the American art world. Painter Yung Gee, an immigrant from Canton, was the only Chinese American in the modernist art scene in New York City in the 1920s. He was attacked several times in the streets by racist thugs when walking with his European American wife. Dong Kingman became the first Chinese American artist to have his work shown and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1940. Today, however, there are many successful Chinese American artists. Maya Lin, a sculptor and architect, is perhaps the best known. She designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D. C., and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Another famous Chinese American architect is I. M. Pei, who has designed many buildings including the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Chinese American cellist Yo-Yo Ma is known worldwide. He has made over 75 recordings, won more than 15 Grammy awards, and has been given a number of honorary degrees from various universities, including an honorary doctorate from Yale University. In 1998, Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to multicultural exchanges among Asia, Europe, and North America through music, festivals, and education. Herb Wong, a disc jockey for over 30 years in San Francisco, is also president of the Association of Jazz Educators. He encourages young Chinese Americans to express themselves creatively, especially in music. Two up-and-coming Chinese American musicians are opera singer Hao Jiang Tian and singer-songwriter CoCo Lee.

Chinese American workers have made great contributions to American society. In the 1800s, they worked in factories and sweat shops, coal and quicksilver mines, and on farms in the West. Some 10,000–12,000 Chinese Americans blasted through mountains and laid track for the Transcontinental Railroad from 1865–69. However, they were still faced with discrimination in hiring and were legally forbidden to own land. Eventually, they set up laundries, restaurants, and gambling establishments across the United States, since these were the only businesses open to them.

In the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, however, new areas of employment were opened to Chinese Americans. Many were now able to pursue higher education and enter a variety of professions, while others were allowed to join trade unions and become skilled laborers. Some successful Chinese American professionals are several Nobel Prize-winning physicists, including Chen Ning Yang, Tsung Dao Lee, and Daniel C. Tsui; physicist Chien Shing Wu, who received from Princeton in 1958 the first honorary doctorate in science ever given to a woman; Min Chueh Chang, co-developer of the first birth control pill; and David D. Ho, credited with the breakthrough in HIV/AIDS treatment success using a "cocktail" of multiple drugs. Also in the realm of science, astronaut Leroy Chiao served on several shuttle missions as well as on the international space station.

Other significant Chinese American contributors to American culture are electronics specialist An Wang, founder of Wang Laboratories; computer-industry entrepreneurs David Lam, David Lee, and Albert Yu, along with Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube; U.S. senator Hiram Fong, and former governor of Washington, Gary Locke; Elaine Chao, former peace corps director and president of the United Way of America, appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor in 2001; Lily Lee, who in 1983 became the first Chinese American woman mayor in the United States; news anchor Connie Chung; actors Anna May Wong, Bruce Lee, Rosalind Chao, Lucy Liu, sisters Jennifer and Meg Tilly, and B. D. Wong; and film director Wayne Wang. Fashion designer Vera Wang is Chinese American, as is Ming Tsai, host of "Simply Ming" cooking show.

In their early history, Chinese Americans were almost completely unrepresented in American sports. Today, however, a growing number of young Chinese Americans are rising to the top of the sports world, particularly in tennis, track and field, gymnastics, and figure skating. In 1989, tennis-player Michael Chang became the youngest man ever to win the French Open. In 1984, Tiffany Chin placed fourth in women's figure skating at the Olympics, and Michelle Kwan has won numerous medals in Olympics and world competitions. A young Chinese American figure skater, Caroline Zhang, has won junior level competitions and is expected to do the same at the senior level. Amy Chow helped her team win the Olympic gold medal in gymnastics in 1996 and herself won a silver medal. Perhaps the most famous Chinese American sports figure is golfer Tiger Woods, whose multiracial heritage includes one-fourth Chinese.

Despite their widespread success in today's American society, Chinese Americans still suffer from racial discrimination. One notorious example was the brutal murder in 1982 of Chinese American Vincent Chin by two unemployed European American auto workers in Detroit (who called him a "Jap" and blamed him for their lack of work). The auto workers were convicted only of manslaughter, fined $3,780 each, and sentenced to three years' probation. Chinese Americans also face tensions within their own community as well as with the wider American and Chinese communities due to the continuing conflicts in China, Taiwan, and Tibet.

As is true for most Asian immigrants to the United States, as well as those of other origins, conflicts arise between first generation Chinese American parents and their second and third generation children and grandchildren who become increasingly Americanized and resistant to traditional Chinese cultural values. Women and homosexuals have particular difficulty with this in Chinese American families. Women's problems were especially intense in the late 1940s when Chinese women "war brides" were finally able to join their husbands in the United States. The men, who had either been born in America or had lived there for some time, were frustrated with the traditional, rural behaviors of their newly arrived wives (and children, in some cases). The women, on the other hand, were upset with the lifestyle their husbands had become accustomed to as "bachelors" in the United States, gambling, drinking, staying out late, and doing little to nothing around the house to help care for the home and children.

Traditional Chinese culture has very little concept of homosexuality; most Asian languages do not even have a word for "lesbian." First generation Chinese Americans consider homosexuality to be a "Western" concept with little bearing in the Asian community. Sexual activity and orientation are not discussed, and women are expected to put family above everything else, marrying and bearing children. For homosexual Chinese Americans to publicly express their identity is seen as disloyalty to the family honor and open defiance of traditional values. Therefore, many Chinese American homosexuals choose not to "come out" to their families, placing family identity ahead of individual identity.


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—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

Chinese Americans

views updated May 11 2018


CHINESE AMERICANS. Chinese Americans, the largest Asian population group in the United States since 1990, are Americans whose ancestors or who themselves have come from China. Most of the early Chinese immigrants came directly from China. In recent decades, in addition to those from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, a large number of Chinese-ancestry immigrants also came from Southeast Asian and Latin American countries. The

2000 census counted nearly 2.9 million persons of Chinese ancestry in the United States.

Early Chinese Immigration and Labor

A small group of Chinese reached the Hawaiian Islands as early as 1789, about eleven years after Captain James Cook first landed there. Most of those who migrated to Hawaii in the early years came from the two Chinese southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. Some of them were men skilled at sugar making. Beginning in 1852, Chinese contract laborers were recruited to work on sugar plantations, joined by other laborers who paid their own way. Between 1852 and the end of the nineteenth century, about 50,000 Chinese landed in Hawaii.

Chinese immigrants arrived in California shortly before the gold rush in 1849. The vast majority of them came from Guangdong. By the time the United States enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, about 125,000 Chinese lived in the United States; the majority of them resided on the West Coast. (About 375,000 Chinese entries had been recorded by 1882, but this figure also includes multiple entries by the same individuals.) Unlike the contract laborers who went to Hawaii, the Chinese who came to California during the gold rush were mostly independent laborers or entrepreneurs. Between 1865 and 1867 the Central Pacific Railroad Company hired more than 10,000 Chinese, many of them former miners, to build the western half of the first transcontinental railroad. The Chinese performed both unskilled and skilled tasks, but their wages were considerably lower than those of white workers. In the winter of 1867, avalanches and harsh weather claimed the lives of many Chinese workers.

After the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, thousands of Chinese found work as common laborers and farmhands in California, Washington, and Oregon. A small number of them became tenant farmers or landowners. In San Francisco and other western cities, the Chinese were especially important in the development of light manufacturing industries. They rolled cigars, sewed in garment shops, and made shoes and boots. A significant number of Chinese specialized in laundry businesses, although washing clothes was not a traditional occupation for men in China.

More than 90 percent of the early Chinese immigrants were men who did not bring their wives and children with them. This unbalanced sex ratio gave rise to prostitution. Before 1870, most female Chinese immigrants were young women who were imported to the United States and forced into prostitution. Chinese prostitutes were most visible in western cities and mining towns. In San Francisco, for example, prostitutes constituted 85 percent to 97 percent of the female Chinese population in 1860. In contrast, very few prostitutes were found in Hawaii and in the South. Prostitution declined gradually after 1870.

The transcontinental railroad facilitated the westward migration in the United States. As the western population increased, the presence of Chinese laborers aroused great antagonism among white workers. The anti-Chinese movement, led in part by Denis Kearney, president of the Workingmen's Party, was an important element in the labor union movement in California as well as in the state's politics. Gradually Chinese workers were forced to leave their jobs in manufacturing industries. In cities as well as in rural areas, Chinese were subjected to harassment and mob violence. A San Francisco mob attack in 1877 left twenty-one Chinese dead, while a massacre at Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885 claimed twenty-eight lives.

In spite of strong prevailing sentiment against Chinese immigration, congressional legislation to suspend Chinese immigration was prevented by the Burlingame Treaty (1868) between the United States and China, which granted citizens of both countries the privilege to change their domiciles. In 1880 the two countries renegotiated a new treaty that gave the United States the unilateral right to limit Chinese immigration. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years (the law was extended twice in 1892 and 1902, and it was made permanent in 1904). The only Chinese who could legally enter under the exclusion were members of the five exempted categories: merchants, students, teachers, diplomats, and tourists. An 1888 law canceled all outstanding certificates that allowed reentry of Chinese who had left the country to visit their families in China. Because Chinese women were few and interracial marriage was illegal at the time, it was almost impossible for most of the Chinese immigrants to have families in the United States. Chinese population declined drastically during the period of exclusion. By 1930 the population had been reduced to 74,954. The 1882 act also made Chinese immigrants "ineligible to citizenship." In the early twentieth century, California and some other western states passed laws to prohibit aliens "ineligible to citizenship" to own land.

Community Organizations and Activities

Living and working in largely segregated ethnic neighborhoods in urban areas, Chinese Americans created many mutual aid networks based on kinship, native places, and common interests. Clan and district associations were two of the most important Chinese immigrant organizations. The clan associations served as the bases for immigration networks. With their own occupational specialties, they assisted members in finding jobs. Both the clan and district associations provided new immigrants with temporary lodging and arbitrated disputes among the members; the district associations also maintained cemeteries and shipped the exhumed remains of the deceased to their home villages for final burial.

Hierarchically above the clan and the district associations was the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), known to the American public as the Chinese Six Companies. The CCBA provided leadership for the community. It sponsored many court cases to challenge discriminatory laws. When the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco passed an ordinance to make it impossible for Chinese laundrymen to stay in business, the Chinese took their case to court. In Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), the court decided that the ordinance was discriminatory in its application and therefore violated the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. In another landmark case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the court ruled that anyone born in the United States was a citizen, and that citizenship by birth could not be taken away, regardless of that person's ethnicity.

Also important is the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), organized by second-generation Chinese Americans who were born in the United States. In 1930, after several years of CACA's lobbying activities, Congress passed a law that allowed U.S. citizens to bring in their Chinese wives, if the marriage had taken place before 1924. In 1946 this privilege was extended to all citizens.

World War II and Postwar Development

During World War II, about 16,000 Chinese American men and women served in the U.S. military; 214 lost their lives. In addition, thousands of Chinese Americans worked in the nation's defense industries. For the first time in the twentieth century, a large number of Chinese Americans had the opportunity to work outside Chinatowns. In 1943, as a goodwill gesture to its wartime ally China, the United States repealed the exclusion acts. Although China was given only a token quota of 105 immigrants each year, the repeal changed the status of alien Chinese from "inadmissible" to "admissible" and granted Chinese immigrants the right of naturalization.

The most visible change after the war was the growth of families. After the repeal of the exclusion acts, new immigration regulations became applicable to alien Chinese. The 1945 War Brides Act allowed the admission of alien dependents of World War II veterans without quota limits. A June 1946 act extended this privilege to fiancées and fiancés of war veterans. The Chinese Alien Wives of American Citizens Act of August 1946 further granted admission outside the quota to Chinese wives of American citizens. More than 6,000 Chinese women gained entry between 1945 and 1948. As women constituted the majority of the new immigrants and many families were reunited, the sex ratio of the Chinese American population underwent a significant change. In 1940 there were 2.9 Chinese men for every Chinese woman in the United States (57,389 men versus 20,115 women). By 1960 this ratio was reduced to 1.35 to 1 (135,430 men versus 100,654 women).

The postwar years witnessed a geographical dispersion of the Chinese American population, as more employment opportunities outside Chinatowns became available. But regardless of where they lived, Chinese Americans continued to face the same difficulties as members of an ethnic minority group in the United States.

The Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 significantly altered U.S.-China relations and intensified conflict among Chinese American political groups. As the Korean War turned China into an archenemy of the United States, many Chinese Americans lived in fear of political accusations. In the name of investigating Communist subversive activities, the U.S. government launched an all-out effort to break up Chinese immigration networks. The investigation further divided the Chinese American community. When the Justice Department began the "Chinese confession program" in 1956 (it ended in 1966), even family members were pressured to turn against one another.

Post-1965 Immigration and Community

The 1965 Immigration Act established a new quota system. Each country in the Eastern Hemisphere was given the same quota of 20,000 per year. In addition, spouses, minor children under age twenty-one, and parents of U.S. citizens could enter as nonquota immigrants. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Chinese immigrants came largely from Taiwan, because the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China until 1979. Between 1979 and 1982, China shared with Taiwan the quota of 20,000 per year. Since 1982 China and Taiwan have each received a quota of 20,000 annually (later increased to 25,620). Hong Kong, a British colony

until its return to China in 1997, received a quota of 200 from the 1965 Immigration Act. This number increased several times in subsequent years. From 1993 to 1997, Hong Kong received an annual quota of 25,620. With three separate quotas, more Chinese were able to immigrate to the United States than any other ethnic group. Beginning in the late 1970s, a large number of Chinese-ancestry immigrants also entered the United States as refugees from Vietnam. In addition, some immigrants of Chinese ancestry came from other Southeast Asian countries and various Latin American countries. The 1990 census counted 1,645,472 Chinese Americans. Ten years later, Chinese-ancestry population numbered near 2.9 million.

Because so many new immigrants arrived after 1965, a large number of Chinese Americans were foreign born in the year 2000. California had the largest concentration of Chinese Americans, followed by New York, Hawaii, and Texas. Unlike the early Cantonese-speaking immigrants from the rural areas of Guangdong province, the post-1965 immigrants were a diverse group with regional, linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic differences. Many of them were urban professionals before emigrating. The new immigrants often found that their former education or skills were not marketable in the United States, and many of them had to work for low wages and long hours. A very high percentage of Chinese American women worked outside the home. New immigrant women often found work in garment industries, restaurants, and domestic services.

Scholars noticed that Chinese American families valued education very highly. Because of the educational achievements of Chinese Americans, and because the U.S. census counted a significantly higher proportion of professionals among the Chinese American population than among the white population, Chinese Americans have been stereotyped as a "model minority" group. According to a number of studies, however, even though a higher percentage of Chinese Americans were professionals, they were underrepresented in executive, supervisory, or decision-making positions, and the percentage of Chinese American families that lived below the poverty line was considerably higher than that of white families.

In addition to historical Chinatowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Honolulu, and other large cities, many suburban Chinatowns have flourished in areas with large Chinese American populations. New Chinese American business communities are most visible in the San Francisco Bay area, the Los Angeles area, and the New YorkNew Jersey area.


Chen, Yong. Chinese San Francisco, 18501943: A Trans-Pacific Community. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Fong, Timothy P. The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Glick, Clarence E. Sojourners and Settlers: Chinese Migrants in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1980.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Zhao, Xiaojian. Remaking Chinese America: Immigration, Family, and Community, 19401965. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Xiaojian Zhao

See also China, Relations with ; Transcontinental Railroad, Building of .