Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Rest of the World

lost_gen_aas

Anti-Chinese protest in San Francisco. (Photo: California Historical Society, San Francisco)

America’s Lost Generation of Asian Immigrants

• May 09, 2014 • 12:14 PM

Anti-Chinese protest in San Francisco. (Photo: California Historical Society, San Francisco)

How the Chinese contribution to the Transcontinental Railroad, held up as a shining moment in Asian American history, led to a ban on almost all Asian immigration to the U.S.

Growing up in a mostly white Midwest town, I rarely saw other Asian Americans that weren’t my blood relatives—not in real life, on TV, in books, or at school. In a world before America’s Best Dance Crew and Ken Jeong, any Asian spotting was cause for great excitement.

That’s why I remember clearly the first time I noticed a yellow face in an American history textbook—a chapter on the Transcontinental Railroad and Chinese railroad workers. Our only other appearance was in the chapter on Japanese internment during World War II, so I felt vindicated by the positive light in which the railroad workers were painted.

The laborers, we were told, struggled through terribly harsh winters, performed some of the most dangerous tasks, and did so on some of the roughest terrain. This was no bastardized, emasculated Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. These Asians were classically, ruggedly American.

This week, the U.S. Department of Labor is honoring Chinese railroad workers by inducting them into the Labor Hall of Fame, the first Asian Americans to receive the distinction. As the statement reads:

It is fitting that these brave workers who helped bridge and build our country together while advocating for safe working conditions and fairer wages will be the first Asian Americans inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor.  Those are, after all, the values of this department.

Unsurprisingly, neither textbook nor statement mentions what happened next.

ON MAY 10, 1869, the Last Spike was driven to connect east and west portions of the Transcontinental Railroad. Just 13 years later, on May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, which effectively barred the Chinese from entering the country and prevented them from achieving citizenship. Thus began a period of systematic discrimination against Asian immigrants.

Ironically, it was the completion of the railroad that cemented this fate.

The racial landscape of early California was completely different than today, says John S.W. Park, professor of Asian American Studies at University of California-Santa Barbara and author of several books on Asian immigration. The first settlers came as part of the 1840s gold rush. Many were European immigrants—Italians, Irish, other Central Europeans who were not considered “white” on the East Coast. In order to assert their own whiteness in this new land, they defined themselves in opposition to the Chinese, who had also come to mine for gold.

During the pre-railroad era, California’s miners were mostly isolated. Both whites and Asians settled in the foothills of the Sierras, and white sentiment toward the Chinese was pretty ambivalent considering the “every man for himself” attitude of pioneers. When the railroad barons came looking for workers on the Central Pacific Railroad, Irishmen were their first choice. But when the Irish agitated for higher wages, management brought in Chinese laborers, who would work for less. Soon, the Chinese were 80 percent of the workforce.

lost_gen_aas2

From the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, 1877. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Once the railroad was finished, thus opening the American West to an influx of settlers, Park explains, it became much cheaper for people from the East Coast and Midwest to get to California. “Over the next decade,” he says, “the population of California would nearly double.”

As the state’s population grew, many early settlers (lower-class whites) opposed slavery—not on human rights grounds, but because they knew slavery would make it hard for them to compete economically. If new wealthy settlers from the East (“capitalists,” as they called them) could buy slaves, then lower-class whites without slaves would be left behind. So all blacks—slaves and freemen—were banned from California. American Indians were also unwelcome. (Landed Mexicans could claim whiteness and pass into citizenship at this time. It’s only later that poor Mexicans come to California and are considered non-white immigrants.)

Without blacks, though, whites feared that Asians would become the slaves of California, Park says, and indeed, “As Asians come to the U.S., it does seem as though white capitalists are taking advantage of Chinese labor, exploiting the Chinese in ways that they would not exploit white people.”

This mounting anti-Chinese sentiment eventually led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first major law restricting immigration to the U.S. It effectively barred Chinese immigration and prohibited Chinese from becoming citizens. While the law was originally written as a 10-year ban, it was just the first of a series of laws meant to limit immigration and to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” From that point on, Asian immigration was limited to a slow trickle until 1965.

A series of other laws were also enacted throughout the state to oppress the Chinese population. It’s striking how overtly racist they were, Park says:

Meanwhile California has re-written their constitution in 1879. Article 19 of the constitution is simply titled, “Chinese.” It says that California companies should never hire Chinese people, that Chinese people should be discouraged from migrating, that they are definitely non-white. They list a set of rules that is just about Chinese people and how much they don’t like Chinese people. It’s so racist. It’s right there. There was no hiding how you feel.

While Asians once participated in central areas of the American economy (mining, fishing), those who remained were pushed into low-paying jobs and forced to live in Chinatowns—urban ghettos patrolled by anti-Chinese gangs, far from the colorful tourist traps they are now. During this time, it’s not uncommon for white mobs to attack and kill Chinese people on the street, Park adds. “There isn’t a town west of the Mississippi that doesn’t have an anti-Chinese riot.”

“Between 1882 and 1965, Chinese history is very sad,” Park says. “It’s the story of a very marginalized ethnic group. Lots of men die by themselves, separated from families for decades. It’s the history of an immigrant group who was so important to a state’s economy, and was rejected on a national level.”

ASIANS CERTAINLY WEREN’T THE only ethnic group to face violence and discrimination in early-20th-century America—after all, this was Jim Crow era—but few Americans are taught about the rampant anti-Chinese sentiment during that time. After reading about that golden moment of Chinese American triumph at the railroads, I naively assumed Chinese and Asian immigrants had proven their mettle and were slowly accepted into American culture. It wasn’t until I took a college course on Asian immigration that I learned the ugly truth.

Modern history makes it easy to rewrite the Asian immigrant narrative. In 1965, when many immigration restrictions in the U.S. were lifted, the floodgates opened for Asians of all nationalities to enter the country. Many of them were well-educated and became economically successful. Our history of oppression is increasingly removed—temporally and conceptually—from the yellow faces you see in popular media, filling top universities, and winning breakdance competitions.

Now that Asian Americans are, on average, doing economically better than other ethnic groups, the earlier, darker history of Asian immigrants is easily obscured. As Park says, “What happened to the Chinese—you see these patterns over and over again—you see how you push people to the edges of society.” With May being Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, it’s an opportunity to reflect on which parts of our history are lauded and which parts are buried from public view.

Bettina Chang
Associate Digital Editor Bettina Chang previously directed editorial content at HomeStyle and Real Estate Weekly. A Chicago native, she serves on the board of directors for Supplies for Dreams, working to improve education outcomes for Chicago Public Schools students. Follow her on Twitter @bechang8.

More From Bettina Chang

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.