East Asians of the United States - History and Cultural Relations

The nature of East Asian immigration to and settlement in the United States is a function of a variety of factors including politics and economic conditions in the sending nation, the relationship between the sending nation and the United States, the need for cheap labor in the United States, and the racial prejudice encountered by East Asians in the United States. The Chinese were the first East Asian group to settle in America in significant numbers, with 322,000 arriving Between 1850 and 1882. Most were men who worked as laborers in mines, in factories, and on farms to earn money that would enhance their economic status when they returned home. While initial settlement was in the western states, some later were sent east under a contract labor system designed to exploit the Chinese as a source of low-paid labor, and others settled in the south. In response to demands for control of Chinese immigration and settlement that began in California in the 1860s, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which in 1882 effectively ended their immigration until 1943. During this period, the Chinese population in the United States decreased from 107,448 to 61,639. It was also during this period, however, that Chinatowns developed in cities near where the men worked.

Unlike Chinese immigrants, the first influx of Filipino, Japanese, and Korean immigrants went to Hawaii where they were recruited to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations. Later, some moved on to California and the Northwest Coast while others immigrated directly from their Homelands, again to work as laborers on farms and in factories and canneries. The Japanese came first, and by 1890 there were 12,000 in Hawaii and 3,000 in California. By 1920 300,000 had come to these two areas. The gentlemen's agreement Between the United States and Japan in 1907 placed quotas on and slowed Japanese immigration. Between 1903 and 1905, 7,226 Koreans immigrated to Hawaii; however, Korean Immigration virtually disappeared for forty years when the Japanese government (which then ruled Korea) ended emigration from the country in 1905. Filipinos were recruited and began immigrating to Hawaii in 1906 in place of the Koreans and Chinese. Between 1909 and 1931 113,000 Filipinos immigrated to Hawaii, with 55,000 settling there, 39,000 returning home, and 18,600 moving on to the mainland. Some Filipinos also immigrated directly to California and the Northwest Coast, where they were used as farmworkers in place of the declining numbers of Japanese and Chinese. The Immigration Act of 1924 through quotas virtually eliminated Immigration from East Asia. Most immigrants between 1924 and the 1940s were wives of men already in the United States. Many of these were "picture-brides" selected through an Exchange of photographs handled by a matchmaker. Nearly all East Asian men and women lived in distinctively Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino communities in which the native Languages and many traditional beliefs and practices were maintained. The marriages also produced a second generation in the United States who were citizens and who spoke English and were much less interested in maintaining the traditional cultures.

During World War II, the four East Asian communities had different experiences. Filipinos were classified as nationals and therefore could not serve in the U.S. armed forces, though the rules were changed during the war to allow Filipinos to serve. The Chinese-American community benefited in some ways from the war, as job opportunities opened up. In 1943 the Exclusion Act was repealed, migration increased, and anti-Chinese sentiments lessened. Because Korea was ruled by Japan, Korean-Americans were classified as Japanese, although they were strong supporters of the war and vehemently anti-Japanese. Despite their being seen as Japanese, they were not classified as enemy aliens or removed to internment camps.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor served as a catalyst to turn years of anti-Japanese feeling on the West Coast into action designed to destroy the Japanese-American community on the mainland. Japanese-Americans (including those who were citizens) were classified as enemy aliens and rounded up; by the end of 1942 110,000 from California, Oregon, and Washington had been interned in camps in the California desert, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, and Arkansas. All except those who chose and were allowed to serve in the military and those who chose to resettle in the Midwest and East were kept in the camps until 1945. This mass violation of Japanese-Americans' civil rights nearly destroyed the Japanese community in the United States. After release from the camps most returned to California, with many reestablishing farms in the central part of the state. It was not until the late 1980s that the U.S. Congress voted to pay survivors of the camps $20,000 each as compensation for their losses.

As noted above, since the end of World War II, there has been a multifold increase in the number of East Asians immigrating to the United States. The repeal of restrictive Immigration laws, closer ties between the United States and South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan, and the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 which essentially ended the national-origin quota system all encouraged immigration to and settlement in the United States. East Asians who have come to America since World War II are a much different population than those who came earlier. They are younger, include a larger number of women and families, are often highly educated professionals and technicians, and expect to stay in the U.S.

The one constant in the settlement histories of the four groups was the economic exploitation and discrimination they experienced. In addition to major discriminatory actions—the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924, and Japanese-American internment during World War II—East Asians were subject to numerous other discriminatory practices. For example, in California they were barred from certain businesses and professions, antimiscegenation laws prevented marriage to Whites, residential restrictions confined East Asians to their own communities, various laws limited their right to own land, Chinese miners (and Mexican miners) had their profits taxed, and so on. Today, although overtly racist policies and laws have essentially disappeared, racism continues. East Asian-American men, for example, make less than White counterparts with equal experience and education, and few have made it to the top level of American businesses. There is also growing resentment among other Americans about East Asian and especially Japanese investment in the U.S. economy and ownership of properties in the United States. The depiction of East Asian-American groups as "model minorities" troubles some East Asian-Americans, as it suggests that equality has been achieved while contrasting East Asian economic success with other minorities' alleged failures and thus creating conflict between the groups.

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