For Teachers: A Brief Introduction to Asian American History

In 1587 the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope) landed in California, bringing Filipino crewmembers who acted as scouts for the landing party. Almost two centuries later, in the mid- 1700s—well before the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence—other Filipino sailors are believed to have escaped the brutal conditions of conscripted labor on Spanish ships and arrived on the shores of Louisiana, where they founded coastal fishing villages. They were the first Asians known to have come to North America and stayed.

In the next century, Chinese laborers arrived in California, marking the first large-scale wave of Asian immigration. Although the common belief is that these immigrants came to “Gold Mountain” (in Cantonese Chinese, gum san) to escape the hardships in their home country and take advantage of the potential wealth found in a land where the streets were rumored to be paved with gold, the more accurate explanation of the origins of Chinese immigration is mutual economic need between two countries.

With the end of legal slavery throughout the United States, the growing labor needs of a burgeoning nation—especially the West Coast, where there was no legacy of African American enslavement—turned to other “colored” workers for manpower. Chinese laborers, along with smaller populations of South Asian, Japanese, and later Korean laborers, provided muscle to build the transcontinental railroad, develop the agricultural industry (including revolutionary irrigation systems), and work in newly established factories and canneries. They were paid a fraction of what their white counterparts received, then heavily taxed on what little they earned. Excluded from other forms of employment, they opened businesses such as “Chinese laundries,” often providing services that their white neighbors disdained to do.

The influx of these Asian laborers led to racial tension, for many white Americans saw these immigrants as a threat to their jobs and their security. The “yellow peril” had to be contained, lest white rule be challenged. Such racially motivated prejudice and fears against Asians led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. It was the first—although unfortunately not the last—institutionalized racist law to single out Asians in America.

Even birth on American soil did not guarantee U.S. citizenship, although the Fourteenth Amendment asserted that right. Not until 1898, when Wong Kim Ark challenged the Supreme Court, did American-born Asians irrefutably earn the right to citizenship.

In 1904, Congress amended the 1882 law to exclude immigrants from the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and even Hawaii. In 1907, the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement put an end to Japanese labor immigration. The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Barred Zone Act, established a zone of countries that excluded most of Asia, as well as parts of Russia, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. In 1922, the Cable Act stripped American women of their citizenship if they married “aliens ineligible for naturalization,” meaning Asians. In 1922 as well, the Japanese-born Takao Ozawa was denied naturalization, in accordance with the 1790 Naturalization Act, which allowed only “free White persons” to become U.S. citizens. In 1923, insisting that he was biologically Caucasian, Bhagat Singh Thind applied for naturalization, but the U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind decision officially barred Asian Indians, as well, from citizenship.

By 1924, the National Origins Act effectively ended all Asian immigration, except from the Philippines, which was by then a U.S. territory. But that, too, came to a virtual end with the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which promised independence in 10 years but limited Filipino immigration to a mere 50 individuals a year.

Less than 10 years later, on February 19, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent into concentration camps for the duration of World War II. Ironically, the 442d Regimental Combat Team, made up of second-generation Japanese Americans and led by a Korean American, Colonel Young Oak Kim, became the most decorated military unit for its size and length of service in U.S. history.

For Asian-born American residents, moreover, the 1790 Naturalization Act remained in effect until 1952, in essence relegating Asian Americans to foreigner status for almost two centuries following the American Revolution, a war fought for and by immigrants to the then-new world.

Not until 1965, with the Immigration and Nationality Act, were anti-Asian immigration quotas finally lifted. The result was drastic: from less than 1% of the U.S. population in 1970, Asian Americans made up 4% of the population in 2000. Today, Asian Americans are the nation’s fastest-growing minority population after Latinos. But even with a history older than the nation, Asian Americans are, for the most part, still perceived as foreign, as “other,” and continue to face racism that runs the spectrum from exotification to ostracism.