By Max Millard
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Written for Cameron House Bilingual Youth Program
San Francisco, California, summer 2004

  1. World War II
  2. Postwar years
  3. Immigration reform in the U.S.

1. World War II

a. Japan's war against China

In the late 1800s, Japan built up its army and its weapons until it was a much stronger military power than China, even though China had a much larger population. Japan beat Russia in a war in 1905, the first time in modern history that an Asian nation had defeated a European one.

In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, a northern province of China, and took control of it. This was the real beginning of World War II, even though the war didn't spread to Europe for many years. Chinese in America raised money to give to the Manchurians to fight the Japanese. Chinese Americans published articles in newspapers and led campaigns to ask American support to fight against the Japanese.

In 1937 Japan invaded other parts of China in an undeclared war, and took control of much of the country. The Chinese were too weak to stop them. Millions of Chinese were killed.

In the United States, many Chinese Americans had relatives in China who were being hurt or killed by the Japanese. The Chinese Americans wanted Japan to get out of China, but they couldn't do much about it. They sent money to China, publicized the news so that all Americans would be aware of what was happening, and staged protest demonstrations when American ships were going to deliver scrap iron to Japan. They protested because they thought it was wrong to sell materials to an occupying country that might use them to make weapons against China.

The Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans were not enemies because most of them thought of themselves as Americans. There were more Japanese Americans in the United States than Chinese Americans. In San Francisco, the Japanese Americans mostly lived in a neighborhood that is now called Japantown, around Post and Sutter streets near Webster Street, where it still is today. It wasn't called Japantown then, but was residential, with just a few commercial places.

b. Anti-Asian climate of California before World War II

California has always had the largest Asian population in the country. In the 1920s, the Hearst chain of newspapers filled its editorial pages with warnings about the "yellow peril," which inflamed the lower-class whites. Those editorials were aimed at the Japanese immigrants, who were performing much of the labor in the growing agriculture business, the number one industry in California.

Japanese farmers in California were so successful that they earned the reputation of being the gardeners of the state. Whole families got out in the fields and worked, from the little ones to the mama and papa. They began to buy land -- but according to law, only in the names of their children, who had been born in the United States and were American citizens. People who were born in Japan couldn't become citizens, the same as people born in China.

The Japanese were businesspeople, and they floated to where the Chinese were. There were almost as many Japanese businesses in Chinatown as Chinese businesses. In general, the Japanese had fancier shops than the Chinese, with better goods. So there was a sense of competition between the two groups.

c. California's war industry

World War II broke out in Europe in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Then Germany defeated France and most of the continent of Europe. Italy and Russia were on Germany's side.

The president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, thought that the U.S. might get into the war, so he started building up America's military. The United States opened factories to build ships, tanks, airplanes, bombs, heavy guns and other weapons.

California was the center of America's war industry. One reason was that in 1940, California had fewer than 7 million people -- only one-fifth what it has today -- and there was a lot of space available near rail and water where factories could be built. Land was cheap. The climate was mild year-round, and the working conditions were good.

Seven shipyards sprang up in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's when the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard opened, and Henry Kaiser started his own shipyard. The aircraft industry was centered in California before the war. Most of the airplanes in the U.S. were built in Southern California.

America was still in a depression, and millions of people were out of work. When the jobs began opening up for the war industry, white people were given the best jobs. Black people, Asian Americans and Latinos could get only the worst ones, and sometimes weren't hired at all.

In June 1941, an organization of black people met with President Roosevelt and threatened to bring 100,000 blacks to Washington and march in protest in front of the White House if blacks weren't given a chance to be hired as war workers.

That probably frightened Roosevelt, because there could have been riots in the street. The United States was supposed to be the capital of democracy, and it would have made the country look bad in the eyes of the world.

So Roosevelt agreed to change the laws. He issued an order to create the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which said that companies that did business with the government could not discriminate against hiring people because of their race. Blacks and Asian Americans started getting more jobs then, because any companies that didn't comply with the law might not get any government contracts. Many Chinese Americans were hired for technical, professional and white-collar jobs, such as clerks, that they had not been able to get before the war because of discrimination.

d. Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing more than 2000 American soldiers and sailors. The next day the United States and China both declared war on Japan. So the two countries became allies. Also Germany declared war on the United States, so the U.S. would need to fight in both Europe and Asia.

Many Americans believed that the Japanese would bomb California next. The same night as the Pearl Harbor attack, the government ordered a blackout of San Francisco. They warned that everybody had to have the shades pulled down after dark, with no light showing. This lasted for a couple of weeks.

In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued his Japanese American removal order, which resulted in one of the most inhumane acts ever committed by an American president -- the roundup of all 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Most of them were American-born.

The Tanforan horse racetrack in South San Francisco was the assembly point for the Japanese Americans in Northern California. They lived there in tents until they could be removed on trains staffed by Army troops, headed for internment camps in the middle of deserts, surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed guards. It was like being in prison. Nearly all were forced to sell all of their real estate property for whatever they could get -- far below the market or real value, even when it was in their children's names. They were cheated out of almost everything they owned. The Japanese Americans had to stay there until 1946, the year after the war ended.

Thousands of Japanese Americans volunteered to serve as soldiers for the United States Army and fought for this country, while their own mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were kept as prisoners in the camps.

The government gave the excuse that people of Japanese origin might serve as spies for Japan and might hurt the United States by acts of sabotage, such as blowing up American weapon factories. The government said that Japanese Americans might light fires near the shore at night or use flashlights to contact Japanese submarines so that they could torpedo American ships or attack American cities. But not one single Japanese American in the entire war was found to be guilty of espionage or sabotage. They were loyal Americans.

The real reason why the Japanese American were imprisoned was because of racism. No white people who came from America's enemies in Europe, such as German Americans or Italian Americans, were put into internment camps.

Almost 50 years after World War II, the U.S. government apologized to the Japanese Americans for what had been done to them, and paid $20,000 to each survivor.

Most Chinese American leaders did not complain about the government's treatment of Japanese Americans during the war. Many Chinese businessmen didn't want the Japanese in Chinatown because the competition was fierce. And perhaps the Chinese liked being seen as the "good guys" in the war against the Japanese "bad guys."

When America entered the war, most of the nation's young men went into the military and there was an even greater need for war workers. Asian Americans, blacks and Latinos -- both men and women -- were given more opportunities than ever to work at jobs that had been reserved for white males during peacetime. All the races worked together for the first time, and got to know each other in a way that was not possible when they lived and worked separately. Even Chinese American women were hired for physically demanding jobs such as welders and riveters. They earned a lot more money than they ever had before.

e. Chinese Americans in World War II

At first, the attack on Pearl Harbor was dangerous to Chinese Americans, because most white Americans could not tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese by their appearance. Chinese Americans were warned not to leave Chinatown, and if they did, to wear a button that was printed "American Chinese."

But after the Japanese Americans were put into the camps, the Chinese Americans benefited. They were able to step further into the mainstream of U.S. society. They were considered the "good Asians" by white Americans.

Japan's brutal invasion of China led to greater public sympathy for the Chinese people, and prompted Chinese Americans to register for the draft and to enlist in record numbers. San Francisco Chinatown even built and funded its own pilot-training school to prepare Chinese American pilots to fight the Japanese air force.

A total of 12,000 to 13,000 Chinese American soldiers served during the war, either as volunteers or as draftees -- men who were ordered to serve by the government. Almost half were not U.S. citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denied citizenship to any Chinese person born outside the U.S. Most who were seen wearing a military uniform were treated with a new respect by white Americans.

f. Repeal of Exclusion Act

China's heroic stand on the side of the Allies in World War II changed public opinion. All the laws against Chinese Americans suddenly became politically embarrassing.

The Angel Island detainment center was closed in 1940. In December 1943, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act. The Exclusion Act was brought down by the pressures of wartime labor shortages and the American public's support of China. Chinese were allowed to enter the United States legally once again, including Chinese laborers. Even more important, Chinese immigrants who lived here already were finally allowed to become American citizens. This was a victory for Chinese Americans. For 61 years, Chinese people had been excluded from entering the United States and becoming naturalized citizens.

But it was only a small victory because China was limited to 105 immigrants per year. England, which had just one-tenth of China's population, was allowed to send 66,000 people per year as immigrants.


2. Postwar years

a. Marriage

In 1945, the same year that World War II ended, the War Bride Act and the G.I. Fiancees Act permitted Chinese Americans to bring their wives into the country. Up until this time, the Chinese community had always had a lot more men than women. Now, family life was finally possible.

Most Chinese men in California were single, or had wives back in China whom they could not bring to the U.S. Because of the shortage of Chinese women in the U.S., a few Chinese men married American women of other races. But California had a law against interracial marriages until 1948, three years after World War II ended.

Every state had its own separate laws about marriage. Until 1948, if two people of different races wanted to get married on the West Coast, they had to go up to Washington state, where it was legal. The racial atmosphere was more tolerant there than it was in California., If a couple were married in Washington state, they were allowed to come back to California and live as husband and wife here. But it was hard for mixed-race children to grow up in a climate of so much racial separation. California was not a multicultural society as it is today, but all the races were kept separate. Many restaurants and hotels refused to serve people who were nonwhite.

Finally in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all state laws against interracial marriages were unconstitutional. In other words, interracial marriage became legal in every state in the country.

From 1944 to 1965, 61% of the Chinese immigrants to the United States were women. For the first time, the number of Chinese women in the United States became almost equal to the number of men.

b. Veterans' benefits

Soldiers who serve in the military are called veterans. After World War II, the returning Chinese American soldiers used their veterans' benefits to go to college. With their higher incomes, they could then buy houses outside of Chinatown.

This era saw the emergence of a Chinese American middle class. As Chinese joined the American mainstream and moved from the Chinatowns to the suburbs, many small Chinatowns declined, and some disappeared.

3. Civil rights movement

a. First Chinese protest in America

The first case of Chinese in America organizing to fight for their rights was in 1867, during the building of the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese workers were paid $35 a month, had to buy their own food, and worked from sunrise to sunset, which was more than 12 hours a day. The white workers who did the same work were paid $40 a month, got free food, and had to work just 10 hours a day.

The Chinese workers organized a protest, and 5,000 walked off their jobs on the same day. Charles Crocker, the railroad boss, refused to give in. He ordered their food supplies to be cut off, and threatened to get black workers to replace them. After a week, the Chinese realized they could not survive without food, so they went back to work. They lost that battle, but they proved that they could stand up together and fight for something they believed in. That would be a good lesson to remember 100 years later.

b. Start of the civil rights movement

The civil rights move began in the mid-1950s and continued until about the end of the 1960s. "Civil rights" means the basic rights that all Americans should enjoy, but which were kept for a long time from people of color. Civil rights include the right to vote, to live anywhere, to shop at any store, to eat at any restaurant, and to be hired for any job.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most famous civil rights figure. He was the leader of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, which set the tone for the entire civil rights movement. In the South at that time, black people had to attend separate schools, sit in the back of buses, give up their seats to white people, and use separate waiting rooms, drinking fountains and bathrooms.

c. Tools of the civil rights movement

Martin Luther King used many tools to achieve his goals, including protest marches, nonviolence against the police, refusal to obey unjust laws, and willingness to go to jail. He also filed lawsuits so that judges and courts could decide whether certain laws were fair and legal.

Chinese American community leaders had been using lawsuits for the same purpose, all the way back to the 1870s. They had challenged every law that they thought was unfair, and had won some of the important cases, such as the right for Chinese Americans to attend public school in San Francisco. However, Chinese Americans were then given their own school in Chinatown and forced to learn while separated from whites.

d. Results of the civil rights movement

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought new rights and freedoms to all Americans, especially to African Americans but also to all other people of color in the country, including Chinese Americans. Chinese Americans benefited from the efforts and sacrifices of black people who waged the biggest battles for civil rights. It was understandable why black people did this, because they were far more numerous than Asian Americans. But once the civil rights movement began, Asian Americans joined in and fought as hard as anyone to demand their rights.

e. Ethnic pride

For Chinese Americans, ethnic pride means being proud of one's Chinese heritage. For a long time, Chinese in America were told by the white-controlled media that they were inferior to whites. Some Chinese Americans grew up in families in which their parents purposely didn't teach them Chinese because they wanted them to be "all-American." This also happened to Latinos, Filipinos and other ethnic groups. But with the civil rights movement, more Chinese Americans embraced their Chinese roots, studied Chinese American history and the Chinese language, and learned to appreciate that they were from two cultures instead of one.

f. Asian American movement

The Asian American movement began in the San Francisco in the 1960s. It sought to teach Asian Americans who they were and how they should be valued in American society. One of the major results was the creation of an ethnic studies department -- the first one in the nation -- at San Francisco State University in 1969. Before then, American colleges and universities had not thought this was a serious enough subject to deserve a whole department or a college major.

Students of color at San Francisco State called a strike demanding a Third World college that was not white-controlled. The authorities brought in hundreds of armed men almost every day for more than two months to crush the Third World strike. But the students prevailed, and ethnic studies was born. Similar battles erupted at Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, and other white universities throughout the country.

In the ethnic studies movement, Asian Americans, blacks, Latinos, and American Indians all joined forces for a common goal. Hundreds of people were arrested, and some of the leaders went to jail for months. But they won the battle in the end and were later treated as heroes.

When the ethnic studies departments were created, it became possible to have a career in Asian American studies. Ethnic studies today probably occupies a more prominent place in U.S. academic and intellectual life than at any time in history.


3. Immigration reform in the U.S.

a. 1965 immigration act

A new law, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, changed the way the U.S. counted its immigrant population. It allowed far more skilled workers and family members to enter the country than ever before, and eliminated the old quota system that gave preference to people from Western Europe.

Under the 1965 act, 170,000 people from Asia could come to the U.S. each year, with a maximum of 20,000 from any one country. Preference was given to relatives of American citizens and Asian nationals who already lived here, to professional and skilled persons, and to refugees.

b. Results of 1965 act

After long decades of slow growth under tight constraints, Chinese immigration exploded, and brought a new, and very different, group of immigrants to America's shores. The Chinese American population in the U.S. almost doubled in the 10 years after 1965, and the Chinese American community was dramatically changed. The new wave of Chinese immigrants did not come from the same few rural provinces of China as the immigrants of the 1800s and early 1900s had. Instead, many came from urban Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Chinatowns in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities began to grow again, until they were much larger than ever before.

c. Differences of new immigrants

The newcomers had a different outlook on life than the earlier immigrants, who had created slow-paced, close-knit communities. The Hong Kong and Taiwan immigrants spoke different dialects than the old-timers, had more exposure to urban fashion and music, and had greater expectations of being able to succeed in America. Many were professionals, and they and their families integrated easily in cities throughout the United States.

Others with less education and fewer skills tended to live in Chinatowns, and were subject to the same pattern of low wages and difficult living conditions as the previous generations.

The main difference with the new Chinese population was that the early Chinese immigrants were mostly men who worked as laborers, who came for purely economic reasons and planned to return to China. The immigrants after World War II were not laborers but mostly white-collar workers such as shopkeepers, clerks and businesspeople. They usually came with their wives and children, and planned to stay here permanently. Most of them came so that their children would have more opportunities to have a good career. In China, the educational system was and still is much more competitive than in the U.S., so that it's harder for young people to get into college and become doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, and other professions that require a lot of education.

By 1970, one out of every four Chinese American men had a college degree, which was twice as high as the U.S. average. Chinese American families also earned a little bit more money than the average U.S. family. Instead of being an underclass, they were started to get a reputation as super-achievers.

d. 1980s to today

Since the 1980s, many more people from China, including university students, have joined the migration to the U.S., and many have settled here permanently. Mandarin is well on its way to replacing Cantonese as the most widely spoken Chinese language because a lower percentage of Chinese immigrants are coming from Canton province.

By 1980 the Chinese American population numbered to more than 800,000, of which two-thirds were foreign-born. Between 1980 and 1990 the population doubled again, to about 1.6 million. In the 2000 census, the Chinese population almost 2.5 million.

The influx of new immigrants has created problems of economic survival, overcrowding, family tensions, and youth in turmoil; however, the industry and energy of the new immigrants have also revitalized the Chinatowns across the nation.

As the flow of immigrants from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong continues to remain steady, the Chinese American communities in both large cities and suburbs continue to adapt to the challenges that come with a growing and diverse culture.

Besides the Chinese coming from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong -- which until 1997 was a British colony -- many others have arrived in the United States from Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asian countries that have a large ethnic Chinese population. Despite their very different backgrounds, they are all united by the Chinese language and ancient Chinese traditions, which is helping them to form one large community of Chinese Americans. Only when Chinese Americans see themselves as one community with common interests that they can get political power. Without political power, they will not be able to get the full benefits of American democracy.