March 25, 1995
During W.W.II the United States placed Japanese Americans into guarded camps. Outside these camps, other Asians suffered from harassment. About 7 p.m. on December 7, 1941, a Korean woman dropped into the grocery store that she had gone to for years.
I was surprised to see the room full of people who stared at me with hateful expressions. One man said, 'There's one of them damned Japs now, What's she doing here?' Mrs. Hanna Nixon came over to me and said to her friends, 'Shame on you, all of you. You have known Mrs. Lee for years. You know she's not Japanese, and even if she were, she is not to blame for what happened at Pearl Harbor! This is the time to remember your religion and practice it.' (Lee 95)
The internment of the Japanese and the discrimination of all Asians in W.W.II are only two of the many moments where Asians have shaped the history of the United States. These events and others like the Chinese Exclusion Act forever mar the history of this great nation. But not all historical events that involve Asians illustrate the shortcomings of the U.S. The Chinese who immigrated to the U.S. before the Chinese Exclusion Act helped create much of California's and the West's infrastructure and agriculture. The establishment of successful Asian businesses developed and diversified California's economy and culture. Asian Americans expanded beyond bare subsistence and have become politicians and professors and have entered a myriad of other professions. The challenges and victories that lie ahead will not go unanswered. Asian Americans have helped California and the United States, and, in the future, will influence them in a manner that will benefit this nation.
Asians provided labor to help California develop her infrastructure. Chinese labor helped build America's first transcontinental railroad, a major landmark in California's history (Chan Asian 31). Thomas Muller, the author of The Fourth Wave, explains that in the South and West, there existed a demand for labor because earlier immigration "waves" did not fill the needs of the area. Asians first filled the demand of labor, and later Mexican workers provided labor for California's industries (12). During the development of California, Chinese Americans started laundry businesses, and farmers employed them as migrant farm workers (Chan Asian 32, 33).
These Chinese pioneers have largely been written out of the histories of those states [Idaho, Montana, Nevada]; if they have appeared at all, it has been as exotic curiosities or victims. Their pioneer role as developers of the West has simply been ignored. (Daniels 71)
Even though the Chinese helped California by providing labor and services, America did not stop to acknowledge the aid that Chinese Americans gave. Instead, the quick dismissal of thousands of Chinese rail workers created a surplus of labor that increased Chinese unemployment. Americans feared job competition from the Chinese, and America entered the anti-Chinese reform movement (Chan Asian 32).
Asian immigration came to a halt in the early 1900s. Congress enacted a bill that limited each country to a set quota. The 1890 census served as the basis for these quotas instead of the more recent 1910 census (Muller 31). This slight change effectively blocked off all Asian immigration. The Chinese, however, found a loophole. They claimed that people were their family members to allow them to pass into the U.S. To stop this illegal practice, the INS, Immigration and Naturalization Service, detained new immigrants and subjected them to grueling interrogation, attempting to confirm their true identities. The INS stopped Asian immigrants from 1910 to 1940 at Angel Island (Daniels 93). Daniels disagrees with the comparison that some draw between Ellis Island and Angel Island.
For most of the millions who came in via Ellis Island, the immigration facility was a mere way station.... For most of the thousands who came to Angel Island, the place seemed a prison in which they were pent up for weeks and months, examined and reexamined, humiliated time and again before being allowed to cross the few hundred yards of water that separated them from the center of Chinese America. (93)
While in the detention camps at Angel Island, Chinese immigrants inscribed poems on the walls. One of them in Building 317 of the Chinese Detention Barracks reads:
There are tens of thousands of poems composed on these walls,
They are all cries of complaint and sadness.
The day I am rid of this prison and attain success,
I must remember that this prison once existed.
By one from Xiangshan (qtd. in Daniels 93)
The prolonged detainment of Chinese immigrants was unjust, but the anti-Chinese Movement probably hurt the United States more than the immigrants. By closing its boarders to all of Asia, the United States lost on the trade that it could have had with Japan (Muller 32). California and its municipalities passed laws that attempted to restrict the growth of Chinese businesses. Laws such as the Foreign Miners' Tax of 1850 and a San Francisco ordinance on laundry delivery wagons in 1870 singled out Chinese. Other law such as the alien land laws of California had little effect because enforcing them would have jeopardized the U.S. food supply during W.W.I (Chan Asian 46, 47).
World War II was a landmark for Asian Americans and the United States. During the war, the United States government interned Japanese Americans without a meaningful cause. Harassment of other Asian Americans increased despite the internment of the Japanese. Although troubled by war-time discrimination, Asians joined the armed forces and fought with Americans to win W.W.II. Shortly after W.W.II, the United States welcomed all Asians.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. The U.S., China, and other allies battled against the three Axis powers, the Japanese, Germans, and Italians. This conflict "produced one of the grossest violations of constitutional rights of American citizens in our history..." (Daniels 187).
The Japanese had come to the United States in peace. Most of the Japanese were loyal to the U.S., but by Executive Order 9066 and the Alien Registration Act of 1940, the government relocated Japanese families without trial (Chan Asian 122-125). This relocation became the infamous interment when:
...state officials agreed to allow the federal government to move the latter [the Japanese] into their territories only if it placed the evacuees into guarded camp and ... would be 'deported' after the war. (Chan Asian 126)
The press coverage of the war portrayed the Japanese as a suicidal population that would win or die losing. A poll taken in 1942 found, "[The] Japanese ... were said to be 'treacherous, sly, cruel, warlike...'" (Chan Asian 121).
Not only did the Japanese suffer discrimination, the rest of Asian America did too. Daniels states, "The impact on Chinese America, although less obvious and less dramatic, was perhaps as decisive" (187). Also Lee recollects:
Even after all the Japanese were taken away to concentration camps, other Orientals were subjected to all kinds of violence. They were afraid to go out at night; many were beaten even during the day. Their cars were wrecked. The tires were slashed, the radios and batteries removed. Some friends diving on the highways were stopped and their cars overturned. It was a bad time for all of us. (95-96)
The U.S. recruited many Asians during W.W.II. While they interned the Japanese, the government quickly naturalized and inducted other Asians, the Chinese and Filipinos. In total, fifteen to twenty thousand Chinese served in the armed forces. The army formed five segregated Asian Infantry Divisions during W.W.II (Chan Asian 122).
After W.W.II, Asians became accepted in America. Slowly, America opened its doors of citizenship for the first time to Asians. The U.S. granted citizenship quotas to, first the Chinese in 1943, then the Filipinos and Indians 1946, and lastly the Japanese and Koreans in 1952 (Chan Asian 122). In peace, the Japanese turned from 'treacherous Jap' to 'model minority' in a matter of 40 years (Daniels 282).
Asian American politicians began to emerge in the political scene around 1960. Previously, Asian organizations handled most political matters. The church played an important part in supporting Asian American interests. It provided religious services and an atmosphere that allowed Asians to organize and fundraise (Chan Asian 74). Among the many Asian American organizations, a primary concern is the ability to integrate into the United States. The Nisei and other second generation Asian organizations supported one of three ideas to cope with their unique condition of being both Asian and American. The first stance is the effort to bridge both cultures (Chan Asian 117). Dr. Lee, a two time diving gold medalist for the US, stated:
I cried when I became the first American-born Asian to win a gold medal for my country, the USA. I wanted to prove it could be done because I was an American-born Korean. When I won it the second time, I was elated to prove to the world it was not an accident. (qtd. in Knoll 136)
Dr. Lee accepts and shows the world that he is a Korean American. He does not abandon either tradition, but accepts them both and "proves" it. The Japanese American Citizens League or JACL adopted the second stance, the idea of total Americanization. The third concept tried to unite fellow minorities against discrimination and to promote fair labor practices (Chan Asian 117).
Current Asian leaders support not only Asian but also American interests. Jay Kim, the Congressman to the 41st district of California, once worked in restaurants and grocery stores. He earned a degree in Engineering at the University of Southern California, and subsequently founded JAYKIM Engineers. He became the first Korean Congressman in 1992 after serving as mayor of Diamond Bar, California. He has received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor Award for his outstanding contributions to the United States (Kim; Barone 187). Robert Matsui, the Congressman to the 5th district of California, supported the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which gave reparations to Japanese W.W.II Internees (Topaz; Barone 101). Congressman Norman Mineta of the 15th District of California was the first Asian Congressman in California. He has supported the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and currently holds the chair of the Public Works Committee (Barone 125). Chang-Lin Tien became the chancellor of UC Berkeley in 1990. He stated, "I am proud of my immigrant background, especially my Asian Heritage" (qtd. in Heger 25). Mr. Tien's minority origin complements Berkeley's diverse student body. Heger remarked, "Berkeley is living proof that diversity can co-exist with academic excellence..." (Heger 25). Diversity can enable a country to benefit from the wide array of cultures, but it can also tear it apart.
Paul Ong theorizes on the trends of Asian Immigrants in California. He predicts that the Californian Asian American population will increase to 4 million by the year 2000. This will intensify the existing problems of:
...the lack of meaningful public education of immigrants students, unfair competition for admissions to colleges and universities, low wage employment, and inadequate care for the elderly. (Ong 65)
Ong extensively analyzes the population trends of five Asian groups: Japanese, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, Chinese, and Koreans. He concludes that there will be a "greater internal ethnic cohesion for most groups." He also questions the future success of newly immigrating Asian Americans. Ong states that in each instance of a wave of immigration, the later arrivals have less education. Statistics in three out of the five population groups evince the decrease in the level of education. Paul Ong points out several challenges that Asian Americans will face, but to an extent, isolating and separating the problems of Asians from the rest of America would create conditions to repeat incidents like the Japanese Internment. Social services, education, and employment are the inevitable problems as Asian population increases. Ong also conjectures that racial hostilities will increase. The L.A. Riots clearly demonstrated the consequences of racial tensions. But in retrospect of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese Internment, the L.A. Riots seem like only a small, isolated point in time. Despite the lessons learned from the Japanese Internment, the Chinese Detention, and even Abraham Lincoln, the United States is still capable of discrimination and unjust treatment of the people within its boundaries.
Life as an immigrant is not easy. An immigrant must deal with discrimination, finances, and a new culture. Asians have felt a particularly hard blow with the anti-Chinese movement and the W.W.II Internment. Nevertheless, these bold "pioneers" have aided California and the United States in innumerable ways. Paul Ong correctly concludes that the problems are not over. The key is no longer if Asian Americans can survive in America, but as Sucheng Chan questions, "...will Asian Americans work alongside their multiethnic neighbors to bring about a more egliternian society in the United States?" She also touches upon the importance of diffusing racial tensions and the effort on the part of Asian Americans to further a greater good (Chan Asian 188). Victor Palmieri, the U.S. coordinator for Refugee Affairs, wrote:
Whenever we have helped others to come here and build a new life ... there have always been those who would close the golden door, but afterwards we have always been able to day 'By helping these people, we have helped ourselves.'
Asians are no longer a helpless minority. They have earned the title to be Americans repeatedly. Someday they will have the chance to "open the door" and watch another culture say to their children, "study hard and learn to show Americans that we are just as good as they are" (Lee 13).
Barone, Michael, Grant Uji Fusa. The Almanac of American Politics 1994. Washington, D.C.: National Journal, 1993.
Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
---, ed. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America. By Mary Paik Lee. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1990.
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1988.
Heger, Kyle. "Leadership's Changing Face." Communication World. Sep. 1994: 24-29.
Knoll, Tricia. Becoming Americans: Asian Sojourners, Immigrants, and Refugees in the Western United States. Portland, Oregon: Coast to Coast Books, 1982.
Kim, Jay. Letter to the author. 27 Feb. 1995.
Lee, Mary Paik. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America. Ed. Sucheng Chan. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1990.
Muller, Thomas, Thomas J. Espenshade. The Fourth Wave: California's Newest Immigrants. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press, 1985.
Ong, Paul M. "California's Population: Projections and Implications for the Year 2000." Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives. Revilla, Linda A., et al., eds. Pullman, Washington: Washington UP, 1993: 65-80.
Palmieri, Victor. Epilogue. Becoming Americans: Asian Sojourners, Immigrants and Refugees in the Western United States. By Tricia Knoll. Portland, Oregon: Coast to Coast Books, 1982: 301.
Topaz, David. Letter to the author. 8 Mar. 1995.