In general, the economic circumstances of Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos in Hawaii and on the mainland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were much the same. The majority were low-paid, unskilled, male workers on sugar plantations in Hawaii and in the railroad, agriculture, fishing, logging, and mining industries on the mainland. When demand for their work diminished and East Asian Immigration decreased, those who remained in the United States and their children tended to settle in cities and became involved in service industries. Filipinos worked as domestics in hotels and as kitchen workers in restaurants and many men joined the Merchant Marine or the U.S. Navy where they worked as mess stewards or in other low-level service jobs. At the same time, many Filipinos were employed seasonally as farm workers and eventually became active in the unionization movement. The Chinese were also employed in service industries as well as founding their own businesses, with restaurants, laundries, and garment factories being most Common. In Hawaii, many Chinese sugar workers went on to work in the rice industry, and a sizable percentage became business owners or professionals. The Japanese also found work as domestics, gardeners, and farmers, with some finding ways to circumvent laws that prohibited them from owning land. Many of those who owned farms returned to rebuild them after they were released from the World War II internment camps. Both the Japanese and Chinese businesses have been described as "middleman minority" adaptations characterized by self-ownership of family-staffed businesses that provide a unique product or service to the community.
The arrival of the post-World War II immigrants has changed the position of East Asian-Americans in the U.S. economy. Many of those who have arrived since 1965 have been highly educated professionals or skilled technicians, and the children of the earlier settlers have had greater access to advanced education and professional employment. These two developments have improved the economic position of East Asian-Americans. Both men and women are now employed at about the same rates as Americans in general. The percentages of East Asian-American women who work (55 percent of Koreans, 58 percent of Chinese, 59 percent of Japanese, and 68 percent of Filipinos in 1980) are especially noteworthy. As of 1980, the men were employed in significant numbers in managerial and professional positions (22.5 percent for Filipinos to 38 percent for Chinese), with the largest percentages of women being employed in administrative support and service jobs. Unique occupation patterns include 22 percent of Chinese-American men in service jobs, 30.4 percent of Filipino-American men in service and administrative support positions, and 14.4 percent of Korean-American men in sales. For women, 18.2 percent of Chinese-American and 24 percent of Korean-American women work in low-level laborer positions. Gross figures indicate that full-time Chinese-American and Japanese-American men have higher incomes and Filipino-American and Korean-American men have lower incomes than Whites. The Chinese and Japanese figures are somewhat misleading, however, in that they do not reflect the fact that men in these groups often have more education and work longer hours than do Whites. Korean-Americans have drawn considerable attention as owners of small businesses, often grocery stores or vegetable stands, in minority neighborhoods, suggesting a Middleman minority role similar to the Chinese and Japanese earlier.