Chinese Americans are an important part of the United States heritage and culture. The Chinese American Museum of Chicago, located in Chicago’s “China Town” community, provides many of the stories and history of the Chinese-American community. The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago is a small museum found in Chicago’s Chinatown which serves to celebrate and raise awareness of the history, culture and experiences of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans who came and settled in the Midwest. Many Chinese Americans arrived in Chicago in the 1870’s, having left from the west coast of the United States.
Chinese Americans are a unique cultural group, however the population census in the US only captures statistics based on the umbrella group of “Asians”. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 the Asian population in the United States was approximately 4.8% of the total American population, or approximately 14.7 million people. A good portion of these American residents have Chinese heritage, and this is reflected in the many cities in the United States with a “Chinatown”, or a neighborhood which reflects Chinese cultural heritage including Chinese-Americans, restaurants and shopping. Major Chinese American communities can be found in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

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As you enter the museum there are beautiful exhibits of Chinese American history and culture including festivals, home life, clothing and books for purchase. The historical exhibitions that I was most interested were “From the Great Wall to the Great Lakes” which described a history of Chinese immigration to the Midwest, and “My Chinatown: Stories from Within”. The exhibits are found in the displays of the second floor gallery which also includes a small movie theater.

The exhibits describe the early history and challenges of Chinese laborers who came to the United States beginning in the 1840s. These workers were initially welcomed for their cheap labor. They were able to find jobs in mining, particularly during the gold rush which occurred on the West Coast. The Chinese laborers eventually diversified into other manual labor jobs working in agriculture, railroads, factories, and the garment industry. Eventually many became entrepreneurs, and laundries became a specialized business of this population.

As the population of Chinese immigrants began to increase, Americans began to fear that they would undermine the economy by taking jobs away from Americans because of their willingness to work long hours and for lower wages. This resulted in the passage of the Chinese Exclusionary Act, even though it the time, the Chinese population was only 2% of the nation, and settlement by immigrants from other nations was unlimited.

The Chinese Exclusionary Act had a significant negative impact on the Chinese population in America. The Exclusionary Act was one which prevented further immigration, but it also served to formalize the exclusionary treatment of the Chinese already in America. The Act had a demoralizing effect on the Chinese population which led to social tensions and discrimination both against and within this group. The Act was also damaging to diplomatic relations between China and the United States. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the unfair treatment of Chinese immigrants was ended by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1943.

The Chinese-American Museum provides insight into both the general history of the Chinese community in America as well as the problems and concerns which contributed to the migration of this population to Midwestern cities such as Chicago.

  • Hoeffel, Elizabeth M., Rastogi, Sonya, Kim, Myoung Ouk and Hasan Shahid. The Asian Population: 2010. U.S. Census Bureau, 2012. (accessed 7 December 2016).
  • “Great Wall to Great Lakes: Chinese Immigration to the Midwest” and “My Chinatown: Stories from Within”. Chinese-American Museum of Chicago. 238 West 23rd Street. 30 November 2016.