Although today our country cherishes values of democracy and tolerance, it took centuries to instill these values in our society. Since the beginning of the United States’ history, many races were discriminated and oppressed. Immigrants from Asia had to suffer from mistreatment even worse due to complicated international affairs. Since the middle of the 19th century, large numbers of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants have been working and living in poor conditions, and both local communities and the American government discriminated them.
First Asians who started coming to the United States were Chinese farmers who heard about the California Gold Rush. Excited by stories about giant piles of gold, they came to America, expecting to earn money and to get back home rich. However, not many of them succeeded because of intense competition and limited amount of gold. In addition, they were mistreated by Caucasian rivals who were disturbed by Chinese traditions and general appearance.
Despite racist approach, American economy demanded cheap labor force, and Asian workers kept coming to America. They agreed to be paid less than Caucasian workers and to risk their lives, working under dangerous conditions. For example, they were in charge for explosives when the Central Pacific Railroad was constructing the Transcontinental Railroad. By 1870, about 63,000 Chinese immigrants were working in the United States (Lee 59).
Another important destination point for Asian immigrants were Hawaii where American sugar companies started to establish plantations. Since then, it became a popular destination point for Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian immigrants. Sugar companies offered contract jobs, and many Chinese families came to Hawaii despite low salary and hard living conditions. They lived in overcrowded houses and worked 6 days a week from early morning to sunset. Nevertheless, contracts provided them with work, payments and accommodation, and Asian laborers were eagerly coming to Hawaii.
On the mainland, Chinese immigrants were settling on the West Coast, San Francisco mostly. There, they established Chinatowns which helped them to cooperate and help each other. A lot of immigrants opened their restaurants, shops and laundries within Chinatowns. They also worked in mines and factories, but there they were discriminated by Caucasians. Anti-Chinese movement was rising within society, and politicians exploited this situation in order to promote themselves.
The government begun to release various acts and other regulations in order to discourage Asian immigration. Immigrants were forced to pay high taxes and could not become American citizens due to the Naturalization Act of 1790. Their civil rights were restricted, for example, in California, Chinese people could not testify in courts. In 1882, Democrats supported Chinese Exclusion Act which excluded most of Chinese laborers from immigration (Ng ix).
Nevertheless, the country still needed cheap labor, and Japanese workers started immigrating to the United States in 1890s. Most of them were employed in farming in California. They also worked in Western cities as service workers and, just like Chinese, established there their own segregated communities called Japantowns.
When Japan started its colonial expansion, concept of the “Yellow Peril” emerged. Since then, Japanese and all Asians in general have been treated even worse. For example, San Francisco Labor Council boycotted Japanese business in 1905. In addition, Japanese Exclusion League was founded, seeking exclusion of all Japanese immigrants. The last straw was the scandal with San Francisco school board which intended to make Japanese children attend special segregated schools. Powerful Japanese government was deeply concerned about it, and President Roosevelt started negotiating. Their discussion resulted in informal Gentlemen’s Agreement which almost banned Japanese immigration to the United States. On the other hand, it supported immigrants who already were working in the country. The Agreement allowed them to bring over their spouses, children and parents (Lee 130).
Another Asians who massively immigrated to America were Filipinos. Due to their status of American nationals they could easily go to Hawaii or the mainland, working in agricultural business mostly. Unlike Chinese and Japanese, they did not tend to create segregated communities, on a contrary, many Filipino male workers started romantic relationships with Caucasian women. American racists were furious because of it and they supported ban of marriages between Whites and people of color. In 1934, Tydings-McDuffie Act promised independence for the Philippines in a subsequent decade, and Filipinos lost their special status of nationals and officially became aliens. Only fifty people per year were allowed to immigrate, and all others were struggling with their undefined position.
Overall, Asian people who immigrated to the United States in the 19th century had to face many difficulties and obstacles on their way to the American Dream. Their culture seemed very strange to European Americans and immigrants from European countries, and Asians had to work harder to earn less. Their business initiatives were not supported by local authorities, and they segregated themselves in dense communities where they could support each other without interacting with locals. Their opportunities to become citizens were very limited, and legislative system kept looking for new ways to discriminate them even more. They were made to pay special taxes, they could not marry people of other races, and numerous initiatives aimed to exclude them from American society. They were exploited by corporations and were not shown any gratitude. Asian Americans came really long way to become officially recognized citizens of the United States, and we must remember the story of their struggle. This story teaches us to respect people who wish to work hard for wellbeing of our country, no matter where they are from.
- Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: a History. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016. Print.
- Ng, Franklin. The History and Immigration of Asian Americans. New York: Garland Pub., 1998. Print.