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

December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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